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Life gets in the way

Life gets in the way of writing. Actually life gets in the way of a lot of things, but it is a particular culprit in the pantheon of things that prevent writers writing.

Displacement activity moves in mysterious ways and takes many forms. It can manifest itself in things that we just ‘have’ to do before starting a new chapter, novel, (or even sentence), or in emotional issues that stop us from feeling in the ‘right’ creative mood.

Some of these excuses are real of course. Some of them really do have to be addressed before starting work, but some do not. Sorting out the difference between these categories is a nice little piece of displacement activity in its own right. In this scenario the inhibiting effect often manifests itself in the activity of creating lists.

Now clearly lists are useful things, (or ‘organisational tools’, as a time-management guru might say) and there is something very satisfying about crossing items off a list. The only problem is that the one thing we really need to do – our writing – often doesn’t actually appear on the list. Instead of  ‘take goldfish to vet’, ‘find fresh sardines’, ‘apologise to Cynthia’, ‘check recipe’, ‘ring estate agent’, ‘update telephone list’, ‘pay off rent boy’, ‘get eyes tested’, we should have ‘work on character motivation’, ‘finalise story structure’, ‘research Iris Origo 1942’, ‘ask Paul how long it would take a submarine to get from Algiers to Sicily’, ‘rewrite sex scene’, or even, ‘finish first draft.’

Some wannabe writers take it to extremes, their lists include things like ‘buy and read 150 How-To books on Creative Writing’, ‘enrol on Creative Writing MA’ or ‘ask Arts Council about Creative Writing PhD funding,’ when what they could be doing is writing a novel.

So why do we constantly put off the very thing we want (need) to do, the thing that bring us so much pleasure, so much reward, both emotional and, if we are lucky, financial?

I don’t know the answer, but it could be something to do with the fact that in our mind the envisaged novel or short story seems like a perfect jewel, the brilliance of which just might stun the world. But we suspect that when we write it down it’s not going to be quite the same, it won’t sparkle in quite the way we intended (or, sometimes, at all!) Maybe we are frightened of getting it ‘wrong’, of letting ourselves down, of our hopes being dashed?

Perhaps. But we also know we are writers, interested in things, and thus easily distracted.

Last week I spent a lazy afternoon reading a book about time management which recommends that I set a stop watch for three quarter of an hour sessions in which I do nothing but write. I subsequently spent a couple of pleasant hours finding and buying a stop watch. As soon as I finish this I am going to see if the technique works. I just have to get some crucial Tweeting done before I start, oh, and I’ve just remembered that the compost heap needs digging over …

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17 thoughts on “Life gets in the way

  1. A wonderful article. I relate. Why is it so hard to settle down and write when it’s the number one thing I want to do? It’s nice to hear someone else talk about it, and so well.

  2. Terry Tyler on said:

    Excellent, love this, and it follows on from what I said about always having to have a game of spider solitaire before I start writing – why????!!!! I love writing, much more than playing ss – but I always do it….!

    • It’s that getting going thing, I think, so hard to start, whether it’s a new page or a new novel! You’ve got to have fun as a writer though, can’t just see it as a chore, so a few games of ss here and there won’t do any harm!!???

  3. Mary on said:

    The worst thing is when you have a whole, undisturbed day to write and it’s like trawling through treacle, the characters refuse to play, the plot grinds to a shuddering halt and you wonder what it was that fired your imagination in the first place.
    Then on the day you have a limited time it suddenly comes to life again. The characters interact together and drive on the plot and you don’t want to stop.

  4. Is it just me or is it some kind of early summer madness. Hurray, today – TUT – Universe emails have absolved me of some of my guilt for the last few weeks of less than productive time spent in the office. Have to say too that, sometimes, if you work fulltime, have a family and attempt to have a life! it all becomes very tiring, most of us writers are surviving on less than six hours sleep a night, that’s 10 to fourteen less than our partners! sometimes you have to give yourself a break, the drive comes back again and ploughing into it becomes a great challenge once more. Can already feel it begining to tick – can’t you hear it???

    • Yes, a very good point – the other side of the problem is burnout. Taking breaks was actually part of the guru’s advice – and not just a quick cup of tea. Interesting, exciting outings were recommended, designed to ‘fill the creative well’. It’s a good idea if it’s possible, but in my experience just going a bit easy on yourself also helps.

  5. Oh, this blog is so true. And twitter is such a great distraction!

    I procrastinated for literally years before finally starting to write again. Finally I decided to force myself, and created my blog with the intention of writing a new post every day.

    I’m at 120-something posts now, and am so happy that I’ve made it a habit to make the time to write–and that I’ve trained my family to accept that this is something that I really like to do. That took a little doing, but they respect it now and no longer question it or try to interrupt.


  6. I put off getting back to writing in order to make tea, check Twitter and read this blog post – enough said?!!!!!

  7. And the awful thing is, most mobile phones (even mine, which is ancient) have timers on them so you don’t even need to buy a stopwatch!
    Totally relate to this post, the temptation to procrastinate is ever-present.. it’s easier to deal with when writing articles because that’s more of a sprint and can actually complete something and send it off… a fiction-writing day can often be spent drafting a scene only to decide at the end that it doesn’t work and you need to approach it from a completely different angle. Most disheartening!
    I suppose it’s a question of working out what strategies (both carrots and sticks) work for you and using them!

  8. This post is right on the button! Particularly perceptive on our (partly unconscious?) fears of letting ourselves down.

  9. I have stopped by your blog many times, hovering about, reading your words. Today, I just had to say hello, I’m here reading, and tell you how much I appreciated your post today. How did you know all this about me?

    Thank you.

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