Things to Do While Avoiding Writing

By titling this piece “things to do while avoiding writing”, I’m presuming an intention to actually write. If you’ve, in fact, completely thrown in the towel on that specific day, and started deep vegeing (watching TV / cleaning out your email inbox / playing video games), then this post isn’t for you, though it might well be for you tomorrow, once the frustration level has gone down, and the prospect of beginning again is a welcome—well, prospect. “Joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm, 30:5), as Bartlet likes to say. What I do know is the morning is especially propitious for writing. The morning is where you can get a jump on the day, “the best part of the day” as my grandparents used to say. By the same token, late nights work well for night owls.

If, like me, you have a long history of avoiding writing (in fact, I’m doing it right now), then perhaps this post might benefit you. In fact, it might benefit me—if I took my own advice.

Things to do:

(1) Clear your desk.

Don’t go as far as finding the perfect place for every object, because then you will have moved into decluttering-as-avoidance. What you can do is move the piles of papers, bills, (sweet wrappers that are mixed up in the bills) onto your bed, or (if you have more space – I don’t) onto another desk or surface. Visualise someone picking up a heap of leaves: that’s my level of paper work clutter. Clear your desk so that you can see it again, and have some elbowroom.

Bed as filing cabinet
Bed as filing cabinet

(2) Make your bed (before you have moved all your clutter onto it).

(3) Do the dishes (again, just wash them. If you get into drying and putting away, then you have enabled yourself into further avoidance. I’m presuming you have a nice little rack beside the sink into which to slot them).

(4) If you like, spend 10 minutes writing a to-do list. Once it’s written (only spend 10 minutes), you’ll know your to-dos, and your Stephen Covey “urgent and important”, “not urgent and important”, etc., and can start writing unperturbed by searching your mind for what you should be doing.

(5) Do not begin doing Writing Business as a substitute for writing.

Writing business includes sending out work to magazines, emailing reading series to see if they’ll include you; as far as I’m concerned, it can also include working on the poems / pieces that are part of a writing sample that you might be sending to a fellowship / a teaching application, etc. Why might writing business include actual writing? It’s all about your attitude. If you are coming to your writing with the eyes of an editor, or a judge, then you’re later on in the process. That falls under editing, or revision. What I’m talking about is first draft or second draft. The urge to write because it will satisfy your soul, and put the missing jigsaw piece back in? Listen to that need. Don’t give business to what Julia Cameron cheesily, but rightly, calls “the inner writer”. Give her or him creative play. Business can come later.

(6) Turn off your Internet connection. (If you don’t, you might get into researching. Mona Simpson said that she researches after writing. I didn’t understand that at the time, but I do now. She meant, I believe, that you don’t have to know everything to write about something. Use your imagination first, and then use research to fill in the gaps.)

(7) Give yourself a deadline. Say, “I will write for 1 hour”. If that is scary to you, bring it down as far as 15 minutes, and once the 15 is over, give yourself another 15 minute deadline. I got this idea from Joan Bolker’s book Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day.

(8) Use Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages idea. Morning pages are ideally written first thing, in the morning. Three pages, or half an hour, of anything. This practice is ideal for psychological decluttering, using the page as a place to dream on, complain on, speak to. It is a great way of preparing yourself to meet the day, and whatever writing task you are engaged in.

(9) If the writing you are about to do is scary, then write your way into it by free writing. Start free writing, and then after a page or two, start to write about your project. I would be surprised if by doing this, you don’t actually start getting into actually writing. (This is one of Joan Bolker’s ideas.)

(10) If you use a laptop, as most of us do, and you’re blocked, then downshift to writing with pen / pencil and paper. If your usual writing space isn’t helpful, then go to a library or a café. I have found over the years that it helps to print out the section you are working on. Then you can bring it to a public place, with your iPod, and a green / purple pen (we don’t like red), and you can edit on paper. You may even find that you start writing new scenes or ideas in the margins.

The main idea behind this is to break it up. Bruce Chatwin, writing in the age just before word processing, as it was called, was getting going, said that he could always spot prose that had been composed on a “word processer”. On the one hand, this smacks of preciousness to me. Though, on the other, it does explain all the internet “content” masquerading as writing that one sees out there, that has been slapped together, with the typical key words inserted into the text.

Don’t be a purist either way. Laptop, Ipad, Iphone / Android, notebook, pen and paper, pencil and pen: whatever works, works. I have a friend who has written whole stories on his phone, in increments. He writes while walking, emails it to himself, and then saves it as a Google doc. The story grows by increments.

(11) Get into process. Wean yourself away from writing-as-product.

This is especially dangerous for writers who have started to achieve some success. By success I mean anything from getting into an MFA program, to getting a story or poem published in any literary magazine that isn’t vanity publishing. If you have started to think of your writing as career, and not vocation, or something that you just do for you, then you may be in danger of “product-itis”. I know that I myself suffer from this. The danger is, the joy leaks away, and has been replaced by obligation. How to move back into process? Write the poem / story / novel / play that brings you joy. Stephen King has a great phrase for this. He calls it the “Toy Truck”. (Mentioned in Wendy A Hoke’s Blog, Creative Ink.) He starts with the novel that is under contract; writes that in the morning. In the afternoon, he works on his Toy Truck idea. In other words, he works first, then he plays. I find I am needing to play first: essentially because the Business has recently been dangerously close to leaching the soul out of it for me.

You may not have the amount of time an established writer does, but, you probably can make time for a half an hour once a day or an hour every two days to work on something because it’s fun, because you want to, because it’s important that it be said or spoken forth into the human family, and not the marketplace. Or, at least: nourish yourself first.