Procrastination: a cautionary tale
Disclaimer: All persons in this story are the product of my imagination.
Today’s my writing day, I say to myself: Wednesday, my only day with no work and almost no commitments. By the late afternoon I should have a thousand words, at least, to show for myself. As advised in my latest self-help for writers book, I start with a brisk walk. An early start means I can be back before nine. Setting off at eight, I plan to think about my writing on the way. Several successful writers I‘ve read about start their day like this. Like them, I should be at my desk at nine o’clock, the perfect time to begin the working day.
It’s a brilliant day, the ocean spread out blue and wrinkled, sparkling where the sun hits it. Several times I have to stop to admire its vastness. There’s a cold wind, bringing tears to my eyes. When I get to the cliff I call mine, I stop. I know it’s mine because there’s a hollow in this cliff that exactly fits my bottom. I sit in the hollow, in the lotus pose, and do my morning meditation. Essential for a writer, I tell myself as I watch my thoughts drift past. This will surely save me time by making me centered and one-pointed, able to be fully in the moment. Several good writing ideas float off into the universe from where they may, with the right karma, return. I arrive back just before 9am, calm and refreshed, to the insistent ring of the phone.
“Hi, Dina! It’s Helen. Don’t forget our date today. It’s the third Wednesday of the month, remember?” I had forgotten. Weeks ago my friend and I had agreed to meet once a month to exchange writing news. I don’t dare break our date, as Helen is far too sensitive to cope with a last-minute change of plan. Mostly the coffee mornings are for moral support particularly towards our common goal: to become “real” writers.
“Of course I haven’t forgotten,” I lie. “Let’s meet at that little outdoor place you liked so much last time. Oh, by the way, I’ve heaps to tell you, but this news can’t wait. Guess what? I got into that writing course I told you about! They must’ve liked the pieces I sent in.”
“Oh my God! You didn’t! I heard on the grapevine that even Eva, who’s actually been published, didn’t get in. How amazing!” I held the phone away from my ear as she shrieked into the receiver, hurt by her obvious lack of faith in my talent.
“Helen, I must go. Have to get the first thousand words for the story competition finished today. Can we make it a quick coffee today, say about midday?”
The bed’s not made and last night’s dishes are still in the sink. A prolific writer once told me he couldn’t put pen to paper until the bed is made and every dish is washed. Even a dirty coffee cup can block his creativity. On the other hand the author of “The Writer’s Way” urges struggling writers to ignore housework, so I decide to go with this mentor’s sound advice. She also advises us to look after our bodies. A quick swim in the local pool should set me up for the day’s writing.
In the pool at last, swimming releases me. As I strike out smoothly down the lane I start to count the laps, breathing rhythmically. On the last lap I silently affirm: “I am a writer. I write every day.” I swim only twenty-four laps instead of the usual thirty. I don’t feel quite right if I haven’t done thirty laps. Perfectionism is the curse of the frustrated writer, one I have not escaped.
Pale and windblown, Helen arrives half an hour late at the coffee shop, with a breathless apology about broken down buses and other improbable excuses. She has different phobias to me; about being bumped into by people and inhaling smoke from a distant table. We change tables three times. By one-thirty we have ordered. I’ve read somewhere that the secret to sanity is eating breakfast out, and believing sanity is important for a writer I try to do this every day. As we talk about our respective neuroses and I keep thinking “this is all material.” The woman at the next table looks at us as if we were mad, which confirms my belief that we writers, quite simply, are not ordinary people. While Helen is still describing some claustrophobic experience in an airplane that happened to her six years ago, I extricate myself by inventing a dentist’s appointment.
It’s almost two by now. My backpack is heavy with books, including my half-written stories, my journal, and a spare memory stick in case I actually write anything.
We writers should clear the way of any practical worries as much as possible, so I go to claim a much-needed refund from Medicare. I have to stand in a queue for at least thirty minutes, which I pass by making notes for a new story in the tiny notebook I now carry with me, should inspiration strike. Opposite Medicare there’s a bookshop, and remember I owe it to myself as a budding writer to check out the latest best sellers for their literary merit. A new book from a woman writer stops me in my tracks. It’s all about her experiences in childbirth, written in the first person and giving intimate details. I find myself quite drawn in. This is the sort of thing I could write, I realise, and I making a mental note to add it to my list of ideas I whip out my notebook and jot down the title.
With a shock I realise it’s after four as I finally walk the half-mile to the library. The euphoria of my swim has long since worn off, and now I need another coffee. I look longingly for a coffee shop. Even a takeaway would take away this sinking feeling. I resist.
‘Procrastination is the thief of time’ I remember an aunt telling me years ago. I’d never fully understood the one about procrastination until now, as my morning’s goal fades into the afternoon’s dying sun. Nevertheless I will not give up. I stagger into the library. The clock’s hands point accusingly to five. I phone my partner, knowing how he worries about me when he doesn’t know where I am. The librarian glares at me and points to the sign: “please switch off your mobile.” It appears he wasn’t at all worried, and suggests we go to a movie. No, I say in a panic. I’ve got work to do. Give me an hour.
In the library I look up some references from my last writing course; research is always easier than writing. I sit at the computer catalogue, exhausted. How I wish this day was over. I’m so tired I can’t move, which is ridiculous considering I’ve done practically nothing all day. I look for a place to sit with a panicky feeling fluttering in my stomach. Now I know it’s not just the act of writing I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of failure, of letting everyone down, of never being able to produce anything of worth…
At six I open my notebook and start to write. The sinking feeling lifts. The first line appears and I start to feel better. My energy returns, and I forget about the coffee and the bills and the clock. There’s a compulsion to get the words out. I write some more and then before I know it, I’ve written five pages. Over a thousand words!
A shadow looms over me. I look up to see the man himself gazing fondly over my shoulder, just as I pen the last words of the first draft of a chapter. “Been writing all day? That’s the way! I’m starving! What are we having for dinner?” I look up at the clock. Its hands show seven-thirty.
“I’ve actually finished a first draft!” I reply virtuously, stretching with relief. I smile at him and gather up my books. “I’ve been far too busy writing to cook today. Let’s go out for dinner?”