I’ve gotten better in recent years at listening to myself, and one thing I’ve noticed is that whenever I find myself frittering away my time on pointless, mind-numbing activities (computer games, iPhone games, idle Internet browsing, binge eating, etc), it’s not, as I used to think, because I’m feeling lazy, and I need to pull myself together. It’s because I’m avoiding something.
Today I spent a significant portion of the day playing Shadowrun, and after a few hours I realized why: I’m afraid of the revisions I know I need to do on my book.
Over the past few weeks I’ve slowly put together a sense of the changes I want to make in the YA novel I wrote earlier in the spring, but they haven’t yet cohered into a full and concrete plan of action. And now it’s time to stop thinking about it; I know I need to get in there and play around and see what happens. But it’s frightening. When you work on something, you’re brought very close to the idea of failure: both aesthetic failure–maybe this will never look the way it ought to–and business failure–maybe it’ll never sell.
And when you procrastinate, you’re able in some way to avoid thinking of failure. It’s such a simple thing. Procrastination makes failure more likely, but because you’re not confronted with it in the same way, it feels safer than actually trying to do what needs to be done.
Maybe that’s all laziness is: the effort to avoid unpleasant thoughts. And willpower is the ability to force ourselves to do things that are unpleasant. But perhaps there’s some other quality we can use in these situations: some way of either confronting those bad thoughts or of making them lose their sting. Honestly, I think naming them is a large part of the fight. It makes me feel better to know that I’m wasting time for a reason. That it’s not something inherent to my character, but rather it’s because I’m facing a particularly difficult challenge. It elevates the moment somehow, whereas the idea of laziness does the opposite: it makes the moment seem hollow and worthless.
When they’re starting out, many writers are trapped in procrastination for years. And when that phase passes, those writers look back and say, “I’m so glad I finally learned some discipline.”
But I wonder if that’s what actually happened. Was it discipline? Or was it that the fear lessened and became not quite so overwhelming? We pretend as if writing your first story is the same thing as writing your hundredth story, but how can it be? Perhaps writing your first story is a challenge that needs to take years. Perhaps the procrastination went away because the subsequent challenges were not as great.