Sunday, 16 November 2014

Don’t Get It Right, Get It Written! - Tess Berry-Hart

“So how’s the writing going?” my well-meaning friend asks me cheerily over an all-too-rare cup of coffee. “Are you still working on your book? And how’s that play doing?”

I feel my stomach plummet. “Um, yeah!” I grope for words. “The writing’s going well. Yes, really well. And ... uh ... how about you?”

The truth is, I haven’t written a word in days. I can go weeks, months – though admittedly not quite years – without writing a single sentence.

My astute friend sees the panic in my eyes. ““Ah, but you’re probably busy with the little ones, aren’t you?”

She’s throwing me a lifeline here. I could grab it and agree the obvious; with two young children under three, I have no time; what mother does? My day is segmented into bottles, breakfasts and nappies, nursery pick-ups and drop offs, the intricate calculations of naps and lunches.

And yet it’s amazing how I do make time to do non-essential rubbish. I manage to fill up the chinks of precious me-space with the garbage of social media discussions or watching YouTube videos. I make time to send indignant tweets on Twitter, text my friends or run out for yet another coffee.

This morning both my children were at nursery for a couple of hours, and instead of catching up on some much-needed research or throwing a couple of experimental paragraphs onto a blank computer screen, I spent the valuable time pottering. I washed up a bit and portioned up some food in the freezer! I did the stuff I HATE ... but didn’t prioritise what I wanted: write.


Because I didn’t have the “perfect setting.” A setting in which I would be simultaneously invigorated yet calm, in a tidy house with no chores to do, having bathed, dressed, eaten and washedup, with a strong latte and an unbroken length of time stretching before me.


All the while, writing seems like a huge mountain, looming reproachfully over me, a vast task too complicated to be attempted.

And yet –time spent writing makes me feel refreshed in a way that the Internet never can. It makes me feel like me again, not a lumbering food-stained, milk-encrusted mammoth, veering from domestic crisis to domestic crisis.

So why do I avoid it so much?

There’s lots of reasons why we procrastinate and these differ from person to person: lack of confidence, interest or motivation; rebellion or resistance against expectations; fear of failure or equally fear of success. But the kicker for me – and absolutely the most devastating – is that I fear that it won’t be good enough, so often I sabotage myself. In the words of David Burns, cognitive therapist and writer of “Feeling Good”:

The payoff for procrastinating is protecting ourselves from the possibility of perceived "real" failure ... You may often fill your schedule with busy-work so that you have a "legitimate" reason for not getting around to more important tasks.

Well that’s Tess to a T!

I’m not a perfectionist in the way some people might understand the term. I don’t colour-code my wardrobe or alphabetise my DVDs. Yet I am a perfectionist in terms of writing, which is hilarious because no single piece of writing can ever be deemed “perfect.” Quite simply, I fear I will never live up to my own standards.

This lovely article on Why Being A Perfectionist May Not Be So Perfect outlines my particular dilemma;

Our desire to “perfect” everything makes us overcomplicate a project. What’s actually a simple task may get blown out of proportion, to the extent it becomes subconsciously intimidating. This makes us procrastinate on it, waiting for the ever “perfect” moment before we get to it. This “perfect” moment never strikes until it is too late.

OK doctor, diagnosis delivered.

But what do I do about it? The most valuable piece of advice I ever had was from a tutor on my playwriting course at the Royal Court Theatre, who used James Thurber’s quote: “Don’t get it right, get it written” as a constant mantra. We were encouraged just to turn in the first draft. It didn’t MATTER if it was absolute rubbish. It didn’t MATTER if it veered off topic or was inconsistent or had typos or was badly formatted. The point was that we faced our fears and DID it and once it had been done, we could work on it. And very often, it wasn’t too bad at all.

But as fellow sufferers will attest; procrastination is a constant; you might beat it once, but it will always be there at your elbow. So this week I’m using a number of strategies to overcome it.

By far the most effective to get me started is the 5 minute rule. No matter HOW uninspired I am, if I sit down and work on my book or play for five minutes, very often I find that five minutes stretching into ten, and the ten into fifteen. Life coaches use this strategy to inspire people into a habit of exercise. Flexing that muscle builds muscle memory, and the good habit of plunging right in.

The second most effective is NOT CHECKING EMAIL before I’ve done my writing for the morning. Or Twitter, or Faceb

Thirdly, setting a time limit. Parkinson’s Law tells us that work expands to fit the time available. I can do some really good stuff in half an hour, and making it three hours won’t necessarily increase its quality.

Lastly, breaking down the task into small steps – useful if it’s something like planning and doing the publicity for a show or a book launch. All perfectionists enjoy the feeling of ticking something off a list. You just have to make it the right list.

So by employing a mix of the above strategies, this blog post is now finally finished and I’m off to reward myself with a coffee and five minutes on Twitter!

But how about all you other procrastinators and perfectionists out there? What strategies do you use to get things done?


Joan Lennon said...

I'm sharing your post with a few other sufferers!

Anonymous said...

I've just been nodding till my head almost fell off - I recognise so much of this. "procrastination is a constant; you might beat it once, but it will always be there at your elbow". Oh yes! And just because you beat it last time, it doesn't seem to make it any easier to do it again either.

Emma Barnes said...

Tess, I totally identify with this!

Ann Turnbull said...

Yes, all those strategies are good - and necessary! However, I do think, Tess, that with two children under three you should cut yourself some slack! I remember struggling to write when mine were both under three. I'd had two books published and felt I was on the brink of my writing career - but in the end I decided to stop writing for the time being and just enjoy the children. It was several years before I began writing again, but I've never regretted the break.

Linda Strachan said...

'It didn't MATTER if it was absolute rubbish. It didn't MATTER if it veered off topic or was inconsistent or had typos or was badly formatted.'

This is the essence of it, isn't it.

So many times a story can veer off into the wide blue yonder or seem to be getting lost up a blind alley and the temptation is to try and worry it into submission - to direct it where your conscious mind tells you it should be going.
I find The trick is to keep going - to follow the trail of breadcrumbs and ignore the warning bells ringing in your head.

I also try to leave the story halfway through a sentence, in the middle of a fight or argument, at a crucial exciting point so that when I come back to it I am immediately back into the story.

The 5 minute (I prefer 10 min) rule can really work. It is easy to find 10 minutes, rather than saying you will wait until you have a free hour or more. Even if you do only have that 10 minutes, the challenge is to throw yourself into it and write something, anything.

I have found that some of the best ideas spring from these short urgent minutes, squeezed into a busy day. It often leaves me keen to get back to it and dip into the story again.

The time for pushing and pulling it into shape is at the editing stage, the first draft is to get something that you can work with. Both equally exciting parts of writing and equally important!

Saying that, I also agree with Ann that with small children you need to cut yourself some slack, but perhaps this is what keeps you sane!

Ann Turnbull said...

Yes, it might be what keeps you sane, I agree! Also, you might have a commission and a deadline. I should have mentioned that for a year with a new baby I regularly got up at some ungodly hour (I am naturally a night owl) and finished a novel - but in the end my publishers rejected it. So I did have some reason to take a break!

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for the comments, everyone, and apologies for the late reply - had some techhie issues (now sorted)! Yes I agree that with two small children a break is really necessary now and again! But I get very down in the dumps when I don't have a writing project "on the go" because having something to focus on that isn't all about cleaning up some mess or other is essential to me. I also find that my creativity comes in ebbs and flows - I've just come down from a month-long surge of writing frantically every spare minute - it was exhausting but also very exhilarating!