Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why Not Put Off Till Tomorrow the Story You Could Submit Today?

“My life is a series of ranked priorities. At the top of the list is the thing I do not wish to do the very most, and beneath that is everything else. There is a vague order to everything else, but it scarcely matters. . . the rest of my life is little more than a series of stalling techniques to help me achieve my goal.” - Ann Patchett

I have finished a story. I mean it. It’s done. I’ve spent three years returning to it, revising it, pronouncing it finished once again. It is as good a story as I am capable of (though not as good as I wish it were). I am tempted to hang on to it for another three years, because then, the logic goes, I will be capable of better. But the truth is, I’m a little sick of this story, and my preoccupation with it is beginning to take on the dimensions of obsession.

It is beginning to dawn on me that the only way to be relieved of a piece of writing is to let it out into the world. Give it away to readers not related to me by blood or affection, even if that leaves only the underpaid interns excavating the slush pile.

Which is why I’ve never yet ever submitted a story for publication.

If sending it out means calling it done, that suggests it is time to move on to something new, and let it remain as it is. Which means that it will forever remain this imperfect thing, now out in the world, all its imperfection reflecting back on me. . .

I know now where this sort of thinking leads, and I know how arrogant it sounds. “Perfectionism” conjures up the control freak, the micromanager, Martha Stewart. A quality annoying in others, but satisfying in ourselves. But perfectionism has a darker side, and the pretty word overshadows the perverse mental processes behind it, and the intense fear of failure that motivates it.

The problem with avoiding failure is that inevitably you avoid success too.

I have decided to send my story to a contest, sponsored by a general interest woman’s magazine, and judged by a commercially successful author whom I respect. There is the promise of monetary reward in addition to publication, and, unlike a lot of underfunded lit mags, it won’t take a year to hear back from them.

The contest has a 3500 word limit, which means I have to cut about 750 words, about 20% of the story. I resisted at first: I didn’t want to cut a single, precious word. Perhaps I would just submit it as-is. That way, when I lose, I can tell myself that they disqualified me.

That’s the coward in me. So I ruthlessly managed to cut about 680 words, five beautiful paragraphs. I’m now within 70 words.

The thing I do not wish to do the very most is cut those last 70 words, because then I will have no more reasons not to submit the story. I have managed to avoid doing so for a week, despite telling myself every morning that I would tackle it after work.

This morning I sat down at my desk to begin. Always, I let myself surf and email for a little while (sometimes a long while) before easing into writing. It usually works - after some time I get bored, and it’s easier just to begin writing.

The book exchange site I’m a member of had sent notification that someone wanted my copy of Writers on Writing, Vol II: Collected Essays from the New York Times. When we moved into this place I went on a book purging frenzy, putting aside for trade all the books I had read and didn’t find to be worth keeping, or books I’d never read and didn’t imagine I’d ever want to. Writers on Writing fell into the latter category. It was given to me by a well-meaning loved one when I first started the MFA program; I never read it, because at the time I recognized hardly any of the writers listed. I only looked at it again this morning. I recognize a lot more of the names now. In flipping through it, I came across an essay by Ann Patchett called Why Not Put Off Until Tomorrow the Novel You Could Begin Today? She writes that “starting a novel isn’t so different from starting a marriage. The dreams you pin on these people are enormous.”

I have a great big dream pinned on every story I write. I long to be good at it. I read once that procrastination can serve an important psychological function of protecting the Self from what it fears the most. If I’m honest with myself, I’m putting off submitting this story not because I’m afraid of failure. I’m afraid of watching a dream die.

On the other hand, sometimes letting the dream go is the only path to happiness. That was certainly my experience with marriage. By the time that dream died, it was a mercy killing.

Patchett ends her essay with: “Despite the hand-wringing, housekeeping and the overdrive of unnecessary productivity, there will come a point very soon when I will begin, if for no other reason than the stress of not beginning will finally overwhelm me. That, and I’ll want to see how the whole thing ends.”

The stress of not finishing is beginning to overwhelm me. And I really do want to know what happens next.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Improving, Perhaps. Or, How to Feel Really Pretty Good About Failing, Part I

I had an idea. It was a good idea, I thought. At any rate I was excited about it: What if I went 30 days without buying anything packaged in plastic, or anything made with it? The Boyfriend, who naturally would be pressured into participating in this experiment, was just as naturally reluctant, seeing way before I did the hassle involved. I resisted "hassle" - "challenge" was my preference (a much more virtuous word). We discussed the rules - we could only buy the product based on a strict calculus which weighed our need of the product against the absence of an alternative, balanced by how recyclable or reusable the plastic in question might be. As far as things already in the house, we could use them - they'd already been purchased after all - but we'd make every effort to reuse and recycle.

I started noticing plastic everywhere - everything from canned vegetables (often the inside is coated with plastic) to bottles of beer has some kind of plastic in the packaging. (Have you ever noticed the plastic seal on the inside of bottle caps?) But there were solutions. For instance, you could buy produce and eschew the individual plastic produce bags. (I started doing this anyway after a friend pointed out that I wash the produce when I get home anyway.) Most staples would be ok - canned goods, jars, glass bottles (again, watching out for plastic in the cap). Herbs and spices would be tricky: they either come in plastic jars or glass jars with plastic tops. Even the health food store sells them in little miniature plastic ziplock bags. And what about cat litter? Or bread? Even in bakeries bread comes in paper bags with a little plastic window. (Just in case you forgot what was in the bread-shaped bag.) I began to anticipate which of our favorite take out spots we could continue to patronize during the month: Hawthorne Pizza was ok, since the pizza comes in the traditional cardboard, and the pasta comes in aluminum dishes crimped over paper lids, but Taipei Express was not, which made me nostalgic for the geometrical white paper cartons Chinese food used to come in.

And that's just foodstuffs.

My thought experiment continued. I began to plan the research - I would not be content with aping the current orthodoxy about recycling and plastic as an environmental villain, oh no. How bad are plastics for the environment, really? From production to disposal, what's the 'energy footprint' of plastic and is it really worse than paper, or metal, or glass? I'm all for a healthy ecosystem, but I admit to being something of a skeptic about environmentalism, which seems to me exactly like nutrition: a subject hugely important, but also hugely complex and poorly understood, and therefore prone to narrowly focusing on small knowable elements instead of the big picture. (Eggs, for example used to contain a dangerous amount of cholesterol; now the are touted as perfect food.)

I was thrilled by this new idea, but also a little cautious at first - I have been known to have grand ambitious plans, which lead to starting grand and ambitious projects, only to see them abandoned. My closets house the evidence of such projects - a very nice sewing machine, several bolts of fabric and an envelope full of patterns and books from when I decided it would be cheaper to make my own clothes, drapes and cushion covers; a shelf full of text books from when I was determined to buckle down and finally get my head around advanced (for me) math, textbooks I found by googling "best calculus textbook," "best probability text book," and "best statistics textbook". I made a pillowcase and a few decorative tea towels before I decided there were more enjoyable uses for my time; I got just a few chapters into each of the textbooks before satisfying myself that yes, some of my issues with math were due to poor teaching and even poorer textbooks, but some of was, well, honestly I just didn't find math all that interesting. The best thing about calculus is that it makes a great metaphor for "complicated equation" (see paragraph 1, above); I don't like card games enough to really get good at probability; and statistics, famously, are so easy to spin as to be almost useless to anyone but the statistician and the politician. For me, my home ec training could have ended when I learned to sew a button; my math education could just as easily have ended after learning how to use an Excel spreadsheet.

I digress. (This is a procrastination blog after all.) The point is, I was wary of myself. So when faculty would ask how my writing was going, or what I was working on, I gently floated my great idea. And there it was: the flicker of interest, some discussion on where such an article might best be placed. Validation! I started imagining the outcome, always a dangerous game with ideas. Visions of my own Super-Size Me fame dancing in my head. My prose would be so witty and sharp, I'd be compared to Mary Roach, who makes being geeky seem totally cool.

Emboldened by delusion, I decided I would begin the second week of the term, after a weekend doing absolutely fuck-all after two full weeks without a day off. The timing would be such that the last week of the experiment would be spent traveling - imagine the challenge! Navigating airports and unfamiliar places without plastic. It would be the ultimate test. (Don't think of the hassle.) Even The Boyfriend was on board: he'd cheerfully, helpfully go along, if I promised to actually write something.

Next time: I'm sure you can see where this is heading.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Novel Idea

Someone should invent a keyboard that doesn't connect to the internet.

It could revolutionize the writing process by keeping the writer focused on the task at hand, rather than allowing her to go falling down the spider hole of the web. . . email, facebook, skimming the surface of oceans of content, like, say, a surfer, but unlike a surfer not finding the shore. Drowning instead.

And think of all the inefficiency involved in printing, once you finally manage to get a document written on the computer. It take so many steps, and so much time! You must hit CTRL-P, select your options, hit ENTER, wait for the data to stream wirelessly through the ether to the printing device, wait for its slow printing of an entire page. . . consider instead a conceptual device that would print as you type. . . A keyboard, that, instead of translating keystrokes to ones and zeros and re-translating them into recognizable letters on screen, might instead be more direct - a keystroke might generate an actual printed letter on an actual sheet of paper. . .

We could call it a "typeprinter" or something similar. Market it as a new productivity tool.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Problem with Seconds

Dear Friends and Family (and Maybe a Relative Stranger or Two),

I’m sorry. I meant to post last week. I really did. I wanted to. I even laid down about 600 self-pitying and un-funny words, but they were self-pitying and un-funny.

It should be a Steven Wright joke: “I want to write a blog about procrastination, but I keep putting it off.”

(Maybe it is. Someone Google it. I would, but. . . well, YOU know.)

I thought a lot about it. And isn’t it the thought that counts?

Ask anyone who’s gotten a well-intentioned but unusable gift: The thought only counts for so much. (What’s the most disappointing or hilariously kitchy gift you ever got? Post to comments, or email me - best one will be used as the example here, with credit, of course.)

Thinking about the blog was going nowhere interesting. (See “self-pitying and un-funny”, above.) So I started thinking instead about why I didn’t want to write the blog that I keep insisting to myself I want to write.

It works like this: I do something on a whim, for fun, and it turns out pretty well. People like it. They want more. I feel a pressure (utterly self-imposed, I blame no one but myself) to perform, to meet - no, exceed - the quality of the first attempt.

And under those conditions, invariably the second attempt falls short. People (read: “me, myself and I”) are disappointed. The success of the first attempt was clearly a fluke. I am no where near as good as I think I am, or even could be, so why bother?

(Hey Mom, want to chime in here on all the potentially-good, too-soon-to-tell ideas I never executed on? “Why don’t you write more poetry?” you asked, bewildered by why I wouldn’t keep doing something I liked. “What’s the point?” I answered, the petulant teenager. “I’ll never be as good as Keats.” Groan.)

Practice, apparently, is for the untalented.

But that was the old, misguided, perfectionist, want-to-be-a-genius me.

This is the new, misguided, embracing-my-flaws, but-having-a-hard-time-with-that-because-I-still-want-to-be-a-genius me.

I have followed the instructions of Virginia Woolf and [SOME REALLY WELL-KNOWN-BUT-ONLY-TO-OTHER-WRITERS WRITER WHO GIVES ADVICE TO WANNA-BE WRITERS]: I have a room of my own and [THE DUTIFULLY FOLLOWED ADVICE OF FAMOUS WRITER CITED ABOVE TO FURTHER ESTABLISH MY WRITER-WANNA-BE CRED]. I can and will write a follow-up, a second blog post on intractable procrastination!

In order to get in the groove, or maybe ‘rut’ is a better term, I opened Klondike. The last time I played was the day I wrote the first procrastination post. It felt a little dangerous: an addict convinced she’s got some control. . . I made three plays and then ALT-TAB’ed to this blog. Klondike is open right now, it’s green screen visible in the window under this one, so tempting. So far, I’m resisting.

If I haven’t been playing Solitaire, what have I been up to in the last 11 days, while the rest of you contribute meaningfully to the economy?

Next up: The Wii as a form of self-help therapy.

- Melissa

PS: According to the amazing Google Analytics, 24 of you have visited the site 58 times and stay an average of 2 minutes. Thank you for reading and posting comments and sending emails, with support and advice and the tip on Adderall. . . To quote a non-writer friend, “Man, those comments are so earnest.” That’s cause other writers know I’m not really joking. . . Cause if I were, we’d all have to ask ourselves why the hell we want to do something that promises no pecuniary reward (“I’m not a [DAY JOB HERE]. I’m a writer who teaches/line cooks/sells other people’s books at the local Borders.”) and on top of that is so damn hard. And I got no answer to that one.

While trying to pick a name for this blog I did a little (a very little) research: Most blogs and websites with “procrastination” in the title refer to a particular method of procrastination - say, TV - rather than the subject of procrastination itself. Clearly I have hit a nerve, filled a niche, tapped into the contemporary zeitgeist in a new and original way, and am on my way to a million hits and book contract by year’s end.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Dirty Little Secret

Dear Friends and Family,

I have something to tell you: I’ve been less than honest.

You know how when we’re with Strangers Who Ask Me What I Do and I say with an ironic smile that “I’m blissfully unemployed”? And you laugh nervously and quickly step in to say, with obvious pride, “Actually, Melissa is a Writer," lest the Stranger get the wrong impression?

You know how when it’s just us, when the Stranger is not around, and you ask me what I’m working on? And you are so careful not to show your concern and so I’m real careful to sound all excited and confident as I tell you about my collection of short stories? And how I might turn one of the stories into a novel? And about my ideas for a science-related nonfiction book?

Bear with me. This is hard.

I’m not really doing any of that.

Don’t get me wrong. I want to be doing all those things. I think about them all the time. Then I spend all day at my desk not doing any of it.

Here’s how it works:

  • I shuffle to the kitchen and make my coffee, shuffle over to my desk and sit down to write.
  • Decide I should ease into it - check email, pay bills, surf a little. (Oo, is it Thursday? New posts up at Savage Love at and Dear Prudence at, my two favorite advice columnists.) Read other snarky social and political commentary on Slate. Check the headlines on and
  • Realize I’ve been surfing for an hour, tell myself I should write.
  • Play solitaire. Twenty minutes pass. Tell myself I should be writing. Give myself ten more minutes or a winning hand, whichever comes first.
  • Win the next hand.
  • Deal a new hand immediately. (I said ten more minutes didn’t I?) An hour later, I CRTL-Q, disgusted with myself.
  • Go make a sandwich and think about all the writing I’m going to do after lunch.
  • Ease into writing by throwing in a load of laundry, answering emails.
  • Play solitaire, pretending that I am letting all my ideas "percolate".
  • Meet friends for happy hour and tell everyone how well the writing is going.
  • Hate myself.
This goes on all day every day until a couple of days (ok, hours) before a deadline. Then I will work like mad in as much time as I’ve left myself, producing some work that will pass, but which I am never happy with. It’s never my best effort. Still, like I said, it’ll do. It’s like my mind knows exactly how much time I need to make something that won’t embarrass me.

Procrastination as a productivity tool - who knew?

But now I have no more deadlines. I have graduated and the freelance contract I had has ended. As you’ve heard, it’s not like I don’t have projects to work on. I don’t lack ideas. I don’t lack time, I don’t lack money (for now).

What I lack is discipline.

The stakes are high. I love my life. I have a sunny little apartment in an old building that’s been refurbished beautifully. The french doors by my desk look out on the lush green of well-established trees in this little hamlet of a neighborhood. My living room and dining room are lined with bookcases. My kitchen windows overlook the pool, and it’s like having a window on Melrose Place (but with more skin). My commute consists of walking down the hall (but only if I want to). I can work in my pajamas (and often do). I can schedule lunch dates every day (two or three times a week is more common); take the afternoon off and go to the park (I have never done this, but I like knowing I could.)

You get the idea. . . You can imagine why the longer I am out of corporate 9-to-5 office job, the less I can imagine ever going back.

I’m doing what I really want to be doing.

Correction: I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see if I can make a living out of doing what I want to be doing. Every day I sit down at my desk, and I don’t do it.
I don’t even know if I could sell or publish any of these projects; What I do know is there’s not even a chance of publishing if I don’t write something. (It turns out that putting words on paper is a critical part of the job description of a writer.)

How can I want something so badly, and not be able to do it?

My new project is to find out.

Welcome to the Procrastination Chronicles.