October 24, 2012
A writer friend recently lamented about the impossibility of moving on with her manuscript until she had made her previous pages perfect. And they were never perfect so she couldn’t get any momentum going.
I rolled my eyes and started my spiel about self-sabotage and shitty first drafts and made her promise to write a whole chapter and leave it alone. Then write another chapter and leave that alone. I told her she’d call me and say that the satisfaction of a forward leap of five thousand words far outweighed the urge to fiddle and that the problem was solved. I hoped for her sake that it would be that simple.
So now I’m guilty of doing something I said I’d never do, and that’s regurgitating other people’s writing advice. It’s advice that’s focused and sensible and logical—but since these are words I don’t associate with my own writing process, it’s time to ‘fess up. I’m a hypocrite. Well, maybe it’s not so much hypocrisy as a belief that there’s supposedly an easier and more productive way to write, but I haven’t been able to make it work for me.
My name is Vikki Wakefield and I’m a chronic procrastinator and perfectionist. This is how I really write books:
I can’t write about characters I don’t know, so I daydream about them for months; I draw weird-looking people and doodle incessantly. I call this character study.
I take occasional notes, lose them, shrug and figure the idea wasn’t that great if I couldn’t remember it. Then I panic and convince myself I can’t write a word until I find those notes. I call this prodding the muse.
I start to feel an urge to write but I can’t because my deadline seems too far away, so I check my emails and play ‘Where’s My Head?’ and buy stationery. I call this admin.
I start to feel an urge to clean but I hate cleaning, so I ignore it and it goes away. I have some brilliant ideas in the middle of the night and they go away too. I call this plotting.
I write a few chapters that have no connection with my character studies, my missing notes or my midnight plots, but that’s okay because I still have six months.
I can no longer ignore the urge to clean. When the house sparkles and the bills are paid and my receipts are filed and the dog is vaccinated and the kids are bribed—my brain sighs. It’s like the sentry to my creative vault has finally granted access. He opens the secret door and says, ‘Next time just get on with it and clean the bloody house so I don’t have to keep remembering this stuff for you. Puh-lease’. (I know some people work well in furious bursts using stolen chunks of time; some have plenty of time but scrabble for inspiration. I’m the kind who needs days, if not weeks, to find my beat and roll with it. And when a block of time opens up, first I have to clean the house.) I call this making time to write. You might call it OCD.
I get an email from my editor. I ignore her and she goes away. She calls this avoidance.
Eventually, a few months before deadline, I start behaving erratically (as if what came before wasn’t erratic enough) and I neglect to fulfil my family’s basic human needs. I clean some more and file everything (including the dog) and at last I sit down. And I write. I go back and rewrite. I polish what I’ve written, delete most of it and write it again. On a good day I can write nearly 500 words! I do this over and over. I do not write a shitty first draft because I just. Can’t. Do it.
So don’t ask me for writing advice. Clearly, I am insane. I’ve learned that the trick is not to procrastinate about the cleaning, otherwise I’m screwed.