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Courtesy of The New York Times, an article on one writer’s struggles with procrastination by novelist Ann Patchett. (NYT registration is required, but it’s free — for now, of course, and with the shady clause that “Our privacy policy is subject to change at any time”.)

Something shared by the vast majority of writers, I suspect, is a gift for procrastination. I am no different from any other; despite the fact that I love writing and nearly always have at least a pleasant time writing and, many times, a wonderful time doing so, I often find other ways to spend my time. One general term, used as a generic noun for any activity whose stated purpose is one thing but whose actual purpose is to delay the time when one must sit down and string words together, is “cat-vacuuming” — probably because many writers own cats, and anyone with cats can attest that there is pretty much always a need to run the vacuum cleaner when cats are about. Personally, I hate vacuuming, so I find other ways to postpone writing: I’ll wash the dishes, perhaps; or I will catch on e-mails; I might play a “quick game of Hearts” (Minesweeper has long since lost its hold on my attention); and sometimes I will even post to Byzantium’s Shores. (Yes, that’s what I’m doing right now. As of this writing I have a folder on my desk, containing a rough draft of Chapter 14 of the novel-in-progress covered with underlines, margin notes and directions all in red, sitting next to the computer. And the folder is closed. Fancy that.)

This is probably why every writing book I have ever read includes the advice, “Write every day and do not fail to write every day”. The Latin expression of this idea is particularly elegant: Nulla dies sine linea, or “Never a day without lines”. This is excellent practical advice, as writing — for many writers — is a matter of momentum, and if the momentum is lost the work can seriously suffer. But as Isaac Asimov once wrote, “That moment you just lost by not writing isn’t only gone, but it’s the best moment that you’ll ever have, because all future moments will come when you’re that much closer to dying.” (That’s not an exact quote, but it’s pretty close — it comes from an essay that I can’t just now locate but have read several dozen times.) Of course, this comes from a man whose personal solution to this problem was to write so much that he is one of the most prolific writers in memory.

This advice is also given, quite strongly, by Stephen King in his wonderful On Writing, where he prescribes a steady diet of daily writing for anyone who wishes to be a writer. He speaks of people like Thomas Harris, who writes a book every seven years or so, wondering what these people do when they’re not writing their books. For King, it’s almost a moral imperative: “If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?” I have to agree, although I certainly can’t match King’s schedule — not even close, to be honest. Then why am I so blasted good at finding reasons to not write? There is certainly no reason why the dishes can’t wait until the chapter is done and not before. I suspect that it’s actually a habit that became ingrained when I was just starting writing, a holdover of the American-Puritan ideal that holds that things like writing are nice things to do, but only when the milking and the wood-chopping and the water-pumping are done. (If even then; those Puritans weren’t much on fun — and a lot of times, we Americans aren’t much on fun either. So much of our “funtime” is observed in a grudging, obligatory fashion.)

There is a particularly dangerous form of cat-vacuuming, though, that is rarely cited by writers (at least in my experience), but can lead to more consumed time away from the desk than any other. It is reading. I have found that it is perilously easy to read rather than write, since many times I can call it “research” or “preparation” or “keeping up with the genre” or any number of other justifications. Writers are a reading lot; I’ve only encountered one writer who claimed to dislike reading, and that is because that particular writer is dyslexic (Nicholas Negroponte, in his book Being Digital). Writers have to be well-read, not merely to keep up with the genre and to know what territory has been mapped out before and to research the pesky details that are to come into play in the next project, but also because writers are by definition persons whose lives depend on the written word. As King so excellently puts it, “If you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” And, in the very next paragraph: “Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.” We read because we have to, but it’s all to easy to walk away from the desk and pick up a book because it’s part-and-parcel of the whole “writer” gig. I’ve heard of Master’s or Doctoral candidates falling prey to this kind of thing: “I can start the dissertation after I read just one more book on my subject, or track down just two or three more articles….”

Well, I’ve probably said enough on that for now….after all, I have Chapter 14 crying for help, and it’s time to throw it a rope. After all, I’m the writer. As Patchett says in her essay, “Sometimes if there’s a book you really want to read, you have to write it yourself.”

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