CreativeMornings/Raleigh was kind enough to have me as speaker for their monthly meeting on April 30, giving a talk on the theme of procrastination. It’s a topic I had some affinity for, because every book I’ve ever written has involved long stretches of me procrastinating to no apparent purpose — except there actually is a purpose to it. For more, read on. Here is the talk that I gave.
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I have published four books over the past 20 years, with a fifth in progress. So while I don’t exactly have a track record, I’ve been around the block enough times to recognize process patterns when they come up. And those process patterns used to alarm me a great deal, especially when it came to procrastination.
With every book, I always wind up at some point contemplating a large mass of background material – papers, notecards, recordings & random gewgaws with a lot of post-it notes, stuffed into folders and piled into mail tubs. And for a long time, just the sight of that will bring on something like narcolepsy. All I have to do is see or even think about it, and I want to pass out and take a nap.
Eventually, however, I do get around to going through everything and arranging it into enough of an order to be useful. Then it’s time to get to work generating even more material, by interviewing a bunch of people – and the same thing happens all over again. The prospect of picking up the phone and calling somebody fills me with exhaustion, even dread. I’d say I have to experience at least a half-dozen instances of this, maybe more, before I can summon the gumption to actually begin conducting interviews.
But that finally happens, too. Then it’s time to take all this old & new material, put it together and actually write the book. And here we go again. Waves upon waves of fatigue come crashing down as I fret and I nap, and it takes a while to actually get underway.
Now I used to be puzzled by this three-step process, because it’s not how I’ve ever operated with the dayjob. I worked in newspaper newsrooms for more than 30 years, and there was never enough time to do anything. So you just put your head down, plowed ahead and got it done. The result might not be the most artful thing in the world, but it was still better than having a blank white space in the next day’s paper where your story was supposed to be.
Books, however, are different, at least for me. And one big reason is they’re a lot longer. Where most newspaper or magazine articles I write come in at a thousand words or less, my most recent book ran to almost 100,000 words. I’m working on another one at the moment that will probably clock in at about 80,000 words.
Not only are books longer, they’re also supposed to have more staying power, at least in theory. So that means you put more into them, working up enough energy to tackle them with a higher degree of focus. Which takes, yes, procrastination, although I don’t think of it as wasting time so much as letting the tank fill up.
And so I have come to recognize these bouts of paralysis, filled by naps or puttering around the house rearranging the silverware drawer, as a necessary phase. I used to try and just power through them, only to discover that I always seemed to write myself into a corner. So I’d have to stop for a while – go cut the grass, rearrange the CD collection or the bookshelf – and come back to it. And then a way out always seemed to present itself.
One problem with this recent book, “Step It Up and Go,” was: How to begin? I tried all sorts of approaches for the opening prologue, from big-picture at-a-distance to up-close and personal. After wadding up and throwing away a half-dozen opening scenes and napping on it, I decided it needed a remembered scene involving a relevant person, place and thing – more on that later.
Two and a half years of writing later, figuring out how to end it was just as difficult. I could not seem to hit the right closing note with the end of Chapter 16, about North Carolina’s “American Idols.” So after some puttering around, what came to me was closing with a postscript epilogue: another scene, this one from the streets of downtown Raleigh during the big fall bluegrass festival. That turned out to be just the thing to tie up a few thematic loose strings.
I’ve always wished I could blast out a first draft from start to finish without going back to edit as I go. But that’s just never worked for me. For me, at least, book-writing is a slow and torturous process that goes chapter by chapter, section by section, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence and even word by word. The only way I can do this is to write and rewrite something over and over, trying to figure out the best way to say something.
Each of the 16 chapters in “Step It Up and Go” is 5-6,000 words, broken up into about a half-dozen sections. My process was to start writing a section and get as far as I could. Initially, it would break down into something that looked like a rough outline after not too many paragraphs. So I’d go back to the beginning of that section and start over, again and again, as many drafts as it took. I’d get a little farther each time, and eventually that section would be solid enough to where I could go on to the next one.
I’d liken it to building a ridge of dirt with a shovel. You have to pat down, firm up and stabilize each section before it’s strong enough to bear your weight and allow you to move on to the next part. So yeah, it’s the literary equivalent of ditch-digging – interspersed with procrastination naps. Two/three years later, there’s your book.
And for the record: I procrastinated LIKE HELL before writing this.