I don’t want you to worry so much about procrastination, and I will explain why.
It’s not possible to expect the brain to produce at the same rate, the same quality, every single day. We need downtime, and we need rest and distraction. Inspiration is not encouraged when we’re feeling pressured; studies indicate that in fact, creativity requires an incubation period.
There are studies that make it clear that focusing on a highly complicated cognitive/emotional task like writing (which is not, after all, merely mechanical; it requires sorting, valuing, putting into hierarchies, ordering, memory-retrieval; plus all the emotions that come up and have to be worked through) puts tremendous strain on the brain.
And that’s on a good day when everything is working like clockwork and we experience ‘flow.’ On a bad day, there are deep wounds to recover from, as perhaps we stumble into yet another of what I call “subduction zones,” the memories that must be cleansed, but first must be accepted and worked with, if we are to write them out of our system.
Where is the simple need for calm, in all of that? I don’t think we can be writing machines. Thinking it’s possible to do this with no pause for rest and reflection denies our complicated humanity, psychology, and ignores how the brain actually works while we write.
Although we’ve been told to think of the brain as a kind of ‘computer,’ I prefer to use a non-mechanistic, and therefore, organic, metaphor. I start from the Shinto principle I learned when I was a kid, living in Japan, of waiting (with as much peace as I can muster); in this case, it’s waiting for a thought to build.
In Japan you see rainwater collect at one end of a hollowed-out piece of bamboo until it’s heavy enough to spill down into a larger bowl. This is an organic process, and it’s not one that anyone labors over or agonizes about; it’s a simple and elegant approach to controlling and containing rainwater, which otherwise would spill out onto the ground and be wasted, or worse, flood the ground of their tiny little gardens.
The fundamental principle that forms my metaphor is that my brain is like that garden; I spend a lot of time pruning and working in the garden of my mind. When the “rainwater” collects, I am ready to write, but I won’t be able to write until the rainwater has had a chance to collect. This could take awhile.
So, here’s the thing: the metaphors we usually use to define procrastination in relationship to writing stem from a masculinist rhetoric of agonism, which is anti-woman, anti-feminist, and anti-human being, if you ask me. It’s also Western, and “yang,” instead of being Eastern and “yin,” and therein lies what’s wrong with it. Rushing like a freight train toward its goal, it is mostly concerned with achievement and “getting there,” rather than slowing down to appreciate the ride.
Focusing on being finished means you don’t get to focus on craft. Focusing on achievement means you don’t get to appreciate the work as you perfect it. Focusing on product means you ignore the human demands of process, which are organic and complex. Where is procrastination in this equation? To procrastinate means we’re over-focused on the finish line. It’s the end-point of any task we haven’t yet begun that appears so daunting, so much of a challenge, we lack the courage to commit ourselves to any wrong word that might lead us astray.
Procrastination too often stems from a fear of what we can’t see: the endpoint. But ask yourself how you can possibly see the finish line before you’ve even begun the race?
Procrastination implies (or perhaps it demands) that we think about “finishing.” It doesn’t take recursivity into account; it absolutely ignores process, and it denies the reality of being in the body, needing time to sleep, needing time to experience the totality of one’s emotions. I think the biggest problem with the concept of procrastination, as we frame it in the West, is that it relies on a metaphor of linearity, and it foments agonism (which is the foundation of everything we think of when we write, including the idea of creating a protagonist versus his antagonist—you wouldn’t have that terminology if it weren’t for agonism).
Agonism makes procrastination a given, because by definition, it means we are constantly “struggling” with our writing. Agonism underlies competitiveness; it mocks the possibility of collaboration; it idolizes the isolated genius as the sole author of his creation.
Without agonism, we wouldn’t buy into the Western ideal of “progress,” which is always portrayed as linear, constantly in motion, and, needless to say, masculinist (if you don’t like this word, I understand, but throughout history, the Author was male, and this kind of rhetoric continues to underlie our beliefs about writing).
Agonism limits not only the way we think, but how we think about ourselves, especially if we have a hard time being that which the mainstream culture wants us to be. For too long, the accepted image of the writer was always masculine, which is not going to happen for me in this lifetime. Does that mean I don’t get to be thought of as a writer? I think you know the answer.
You see how little you should worry about procrastination? It’s not the highest concern on my list of concerns for writers. If you hold back from writing forever, and never give yourself permission to write, then, yes, I’d agree there’s a problem, but if you’re resting while you tend your mental garden, then you’re not alone.