There is an unwritten rule of writing that the number of trips to the refrigerator a writer makes is in inverse proportion to how well a manuscript is going.
That’s a line from The Accidental Bestseller, the novel I wrote about four writers—friends for a decade— and the lengths they go to to save one of their own when her career and personal life begin to unravel.
The chapter is about the most commercially successful and most prolific of the four author characters and continues.
When the fingers are flying over the keyboard and the brain is fully immersed in the scene being created, food is completely unimportant. But when the fingers slow and the focus blurs, or worse, when the writer sees nothing but the blank screen and the hypnotic blink of the cursor, food beckons. As does, oddly enough, a load of laundry, the flossing of one’s teeth, and the complete rearrangement of a kitchen pantry or walk-in closet.
I wrote this based on personal experience and that of other writers I know. Actually, the whole book is my attempt to share what it is to be a writer in today’s publishing world. And one of the things I and other writers battle daily is the penchant for procrastination.
When I first started writing fulltime and the pounds started piling on, I thought it was because of all the sitting. And the fact that my office was far too close to the kitchen.
But as the paragraph points out, it’s not just food that can be more attractive than writing.
It’s anything and everything.
This is because writing is hard! For most of us, creating characters and the worlds they inhabit doesn’t happen at the first click of a mouse. Writing anything, and especially a novel on a deadline, requires a writer to write regularly whether he or she feels like it or not. Facing down a blank computer screen, especially at the beginning of a book or project, requires nerves of steel and the ability to take a giant leap of faith that you can actually do this and do it well. Again.
Therefore the food is not about hunger and doing the laundry is not about dirty clothes. They are legitimate excuses, at least for a short period of time, to get up from the computer and do something else; the writer’s equivalent of a reprieve from the governor.
A writer friend, who is incredibly prolific and disciplined, and whom I used to assume didn’t have this problem, gave a talk at a writers’ conference I attended in which she pointed out that ‘accountants don’t have a problem finding time to account’ and lawyers never tell you they can’t find time to….lawyer. (This is my word, not hers. It was a long time ago and I’m not quoting accurately.) But any time you’re around a group of writers, she said, they complain that they just can’t find enough time to write.
I laughed along with everyone else (well, OK she might have put it slightly better than I just did) and thought it was really neat when she handed out egg timers to everyone and suggested using them to keep ourselves seated and writing every day for a certain number of minutes. The idea was that we would at least write for that long and if we were lucky, we might be so into what we were writing that when the timer went off we’d just keep at it.
It makes a lot of sense, because really who can’t commit to doing almost anything for ten or fifteen minutes? Unfortunately, it made me realize that even an ultra-organized and highly disciplined person like our speaker sometimes had to trick herself into writing. That she, too, had probably bailed out to eat, or do the laundry, or organize her sock drawer. And then wasted gobs more time coming up with the egg timer strategy.
I wish I had solutions to this need to procrastinate while writing. But coming up with solutions would take even more time away from my work in progress (see egg timer), which seems like a bad idea. I guess I’ll just have to learn to accept the small diversions; the trip to the refrigerator; the need to immediately read an incoming email; the unexpected urge to call friends I haven’t spoken to in years, as part of my process. I guess as long as they don’t derail us permanently, there’s no real harm.
And there is some satisfaction in knowing I’m not alone. Each chapter in The Accidental Bestseller begins with a quote about writing. One of them is from Fran Lebowitz who said, “Contrary to what many of you may imagine, a career in letters is not without its drawbacks—chief among them the unpleasant fact that one is frequently called upon to sit down and write.”
Now stop procrastinating and get back to work!
Author note: No egg timer was used in the writing of this blog although three trips to the refrigerator, five email checks, and one long distance phone call were made.
Wendy is giving away a copy of The Accidental Bestseller to a random commenter this weekend. To enter the contest, you first must leave a comment. The second step is to either leave your email address in your comment or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject Wendy Wax (and include your mailing address). The contest will end on Sunday, June 28 around 5 pm Pacific.