Understanding Your Own Special Form of Procrastination

You know that moment when you think about sitting down to write, but you find yourself doing the dishes instead? Or cleaning the bathroom? Or brushing the dog? (That's a big one for me, especially during spring and fall. She has this crazy undercoat that comes out in clumps. It's like she's molting! I can't resist.) A friend of mine compares these stall tactics to the way a dog circles the bed before lying down. I LOVE that analogy. Except for when you never actually get comfy and write. When procrastination becomes a pattern or a habit, it's time for a little self-examination. What are you avoiding? What's getting you off track?

One way to do this is to write about your procrastination. The old fashioned kind of writing---by hand. Pen and paper. Keep the pen moving. Don't edit or judge what you write. Start by describing what you do with real detail. What are your vices? Follow your pen until it leads you to a place of understanding. Once you get into the flow, give yourself a prompt.

"I procrastinate because..."

"I don't write my book because..."

Don't take the first answer. See if you can get some clarity on what lies underneath your procrastination. It's the only way to find true freedom.

5 Stories You Can Write Today. For real.

Ready to write but not sure what you want to write about? There's no need to sit with your pen hovering above the page, waiting for inspiration to strike. 

-4Try this instead: Brainstorm a list of 5 life experiences that changed you. Maybe you took a trip to Costa Rica, where you hiked to the top of a volcano the first time. Maybe you were a first responder at a car accident. Maybe you finally had that heart to heart with your mom.

Don't think too hard. Just jot down five experiences that caused you to see, feel, think or live life differently.

Now pick one to explore. Don't worry about whether it would make a good story or whether it's okay to write about it. Just freewrite in response to the following prompts:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

I never imagined that...  

(Set the scene. Describe the experience that changed you.)

When it first happened I couldn't believe that...

(How did this experience surprise you? Scare you? Push you into new territory?)

I worried that...

(What about this experience scared you, made you nervous, challenged you in a new way?)

At first, I....

(How did you respond to this new experience?)

But then I...

(If your first response didn't work or wasn't enough, what did you do next?)

I learned that...

(What insights did you gain? What knowledge or shift in perspective took place?)

Now I know that...

(What wisdom or knowledge do you now have as a result of that experience?)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

Notice that there's an overall flow to your answers---an arc, if you will---where events happened, you responded, and you were changed as a result.

I teach my students that those are the bones of every story. An event happens. A character feels a certain way about those events and responds accordingly. The transformation of that character (how they were or weren't changed by their actions) provides the meaning. You can also think of them as the layers of a story.

Each of your experiences will have these layers, meaning that each of your experiences is a potential story. You can prove it by using the prompts to explore each topic, or you can use the exploration you just did to write a first draft. Either way, you'll have put that pen to the page and done some writing. Today. And isn't that the point?

Pen to Paper: Uncovering Story Ideas

  In keeping with the idea that we can ignore The Shoulds, I believe that turning off the hyper-critical mind is a great way to uncover story ideas---whether you want to write feature articles or novels.

I've given the following assignment to college seniors in their capstone journalism class, only to have the ideas spark four-part series on hitch hiking, college basketball, and the meaning of happiness. In other words, deeply interesting topics arose that couldn't be limited to a single piece. Pretty impressive results from something that seems deceptively simple:

Take out a sheet of paper and pen or pencil (I suppose you could do this on the computer, I'm just a big proponent of writing by hand as a way to bypass the delete key and any judgment we put on ourselves and our ideas).

Freewrite about your day: where you've gone, what you've done, who you've encountered along the way. Don't erase, and don't worry about good grammar or punctuation. Write with the purpose of getting an idea down in it's most whole and unpolished form.

Include details, and (this is the important part) write down any questions you had while you were going about your day or questions that arise now that you're reflecting on it. Note anything that didn't make sense or that you'd like to know more about.

Write for ten minutes, and no more. Set the paper aside, and go walk your dog or make lunch or go out to happy hour. Return to the paper later, when you're clear headed and fresh. Underline anything that feels like a story idea.

From there, making the magic happen is up to you. But I suspect you'll find at least one nugget of gold---something that has depth and promise for your writing.


Pen to Paper: Steal Some Time to Write

You know that I like to write in airports--it makes me feel clever to take that otherwise lost time and turn it into something useful. Plus, I always feel better when I've spent at least part of my day writing. Well it turns out that some of you are masters at stealing time, too. I was particularly inspired by Tyrean, who keeps a small notebook in her purse in case the line at the grocery store gets too long. It resonated with a video I watched this week from a graduation speech given by David Foster Wallace in 2005, encouraging the graduates to choose how they react to the world around them:


So in honor of that, and inspired by Tyrean, here's this week's writing activity: The next time you find yourself waiting, write. Use pen and paper, and don't worry if you feel like you stick out because you're writing in line at the grocery store, while you're waiting for the dentist, or waiting to pick your kids up from dance class. Just put that pen to paper and write.

If you need a prompt, use this: When she (or he) first stood in that line--two hours of waiting ahead--she had no idea how it would change her life. 

Yep, it's cheesy. But in the honor of shitty first drafts, see what you come up with. If you're so inspired, share it with us here and I'll do the same.

Make Time to Write: Steal Small Moments in Strange Places

  I recently flew to Germany to meet up with my college roommates, one of whom lives in Berlin. I used to love flying because it meant I was going somewhere. It's lost its luster, especially flying through Newark.

On this particular trip, I watched a gate attendant yell at passengers for nearly missing their flight. She furrowed her brow so deep her eyebrows knit themselves together: "How stupid, waiting so long to go to the airport. I would come here first thing in the morning. I'd never miss my flight."

The passengers tried to respond with kindness, but the more this woman yelled the more defensive and angry they became. The negativity built up like a cloud between them, and I tried not to stare (unsuccessfully).

I used to respond to these moments by posting status updates on Facebook. Things like, "Airports don't do much for my faith in humanity." Or I crossed my arms against my chest and sulked because I couldn't hurry the process along.

Lately I've found a new approach to dealing with the airport. I write.

Sometimes, it takes bribery or cajoling. You only have 30 minutes until boarding, you don't have to write any longer than that. Or, You can look through the skymall catalog first, but then it's time to write.

At some point, I return to the sky mall catalog because I can't get over the idea of spanks for men. But by writing for even a short time, I tune out the chaos around me and I feel good about being a writer. I actually wrote.

I've written before that we don't have to write every day, but we do need to show up. One of the ways we stop ourselves from writing is by waiting for the perfect place and time to write. A nice office. A block of time. No distractions.


Know what I do when I have all that lined up? The dishes. Or I clean the bathroom. Or I go for a run. Quite frankly, I can't handle all that time and freedom because I feel like I need to bring my A game and WRITE GREAT THINGS.

When I fit writing into a short time slot, I lower my expectations. It's about productivity, not perfection, and I end up writing more. When I write in a place like the airport, I feel sly and clever because I'm taking something I really don't like and I'm making it work for me. That keeps my ego happy and out of my way. Win win.

As writers we can steal moments in all sorts of strange places. Waiting for a meeting to begin. Waiting for our kids while they visit with the dentist (well, not me, but for you parents out there). In the car, waiting to pick someone up. In 10 or 20 or 30 minutes we can keep our work moving forward.

I don't know about you, but that makes me feel really good. Which in turn makes it easier to deal with flight attendants who make rude, snarky comments to the passenger next to me. Or the guy who is so big (not fat, just big) that he spills over the arm rest and takes up half my seat. Or the two screaming babies on an eight-hour flight. I know. You get the idea... How do you steal time for writing?


Pen to Paper: Use letter-writing to discover your story or character

Remember letters? Not the alphabet, the kind that begin with "Dear Mom." (Well, technically, "Dear mom," with a comma. But I couldn't bring myself to end a sentence with a comma. When I was in first grade, we had a whole lesson on writing letters and addressing envelopes, and there's no way to properly convey how much I loved that lesson. Although, I guess the fact that I'm reminiscing about it now gives you an indication of how deep that love went. Anything that had to do with pen and paper was right up my alley.)

Anyway, these days the closest thing I get to a letter is an email from my mom because she still follows the formatting of letters in all electronic mail. Other than that, letters have little bearing on my daily life. Except...

Letters play an important role in my writing.

I've used them to write whole essays, find my way through a sticky point in a story, and get to know my characters. I got the idea after I read two essays by Barbara Kingsolver—one was a letter to her mother and the other a letter to her daughter.

They didn't start with "Dear..." or end with "Sincerely", but Kingsolver wrote both in the second person. She spoke directly to the people she was writing about, and it was powerful. (They're in the book Small Wonders: Essays, go get it asap if you're into essays or if you're not.)

As an essay form, letters can be tricky to write. Unpracticed, we sometimes forget that the piece still needs to move like a story or essay, with tension and resolution and some kind of meaning that the reader cares about. It can take several rounds of revision to make sure that the reader doesn't feel left out of the conversation.

But used as a tool of discovery, letters can be done as a rough draft. Even a pre-draft. Here's what I mean:

Letter as a rough draft After I read Kingsolver's essays, I wrote an essay in the form of a letter to my mother. It became a way for me to figure out how my mother's marriage and outlook on life influenced my own. It didn't remain a letter, but it became material that I worked into another essay.

Letter as a character sketch Whenever I'm having trouble getting into the mind of character, I write them a letter. It works for fiction or nonfiction. I say "Dear, Mom..." and see what comes up. Usually, I learn something new or remember something I hadn't thought of in a long time.


flyingmailIf you have a piece that's been giving you trouble, write a letter to one of the characters. If you don't have a particular story in mind, write a letter to someone in your life.

Letters have natural flow that can lead you to intersting places, so write by hand and follow your pen. Remember that it's just a letter. It doesn't have to be "good" and that frees you up to be honest (especially since this particular letter never has to get sent).

Let all of that be true as you write your letter, and see what you discover.

Pen to Paper: What is Your Origin Story?

We all come from someplace. I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, but the place that shaped me was the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Portaging in the BWCAW

My family (parents, cousins, friends...anyone and practically everyone) took a canoe trip there every summer. I learned to paddle a canoe in a straight line, to read a map, to cook over a fire, and to carry 85 pound canoes over portages (granted, I was older by then).

I still think about the night a cloud of dragon flies swarmed our campsite, eating mosquitoes so my parents and I could lie outside and watch the stars. Not to mention the night we heard a pack of wolves howling around a lake.

I canoed every summer until my early 20s, even leading trips for girls during college. Canoeing shaped my understanding of the world: my need for quiet places, the value of lands set apart, even politics as I learned about the wilderness debate.



That part of the world also shaped my life as a writer. In high school, my poems centered on canoeing (even that college poem I'll never forget). Years later—when my life was firmly entrenched in the city—my first paid assignment was a profile about a wilderness advocate who ran an outfitting business in Ely, MN. Wilderness News actually paid me to drive north, stay at a hotel and spend an afternoon with a lively old man just weeks before he passed away.

While I was there, I visited the camp I'd gone to in high school (I'd led trips there in college and become a program director, too... it was a hard place to leave). The caretaker introduced me to someone as a writer, and that was a big moment. I'd known from a young age that I wanted to be a writer, but that weekend I felt like a writer.

Looking back, it makes sense that my start as a writer grew out of a place that meant so much to me. I knew it, I believed in it, and I could write about it with confidence.



-4I've come to believe that we have two beginnings as writers. There's the moment we discover writing, usually as a child, and then there's the moment we take writing seriously. That moment usually comes as an adult, after some period of time in which we believed it "wasn't practical" to be a writer. But for some reason, we change our minds. We decide to take a class or start a blog because we're going to write whether we get published or not, and damn it, we're going to try to get published. I think that moment is the important one. It holds the conviction we need to keep pursuing our writing goals, no matter how much they grow or evolve.

There's strength to be found in revisiting your origin as a writer. Set aside 15 minutes and explore your story. When did you discover writing? When did you decide to pursue it? Write by hand. Don't edit or erase as you go. Tap into your story, and see what it has to tell you about pursuing your future dreams.


The Key to Writing: Begin and Let Go

Connecticut, 2009 When I started graduate school, everyone around me seemed to know what they would write for their thesis. One third semester student said, "Know what you want to write right away. If you don't start your thesis your first semester, you're going to fall behind."

I was fresh off my application interview, where I had stammered through an answer to what I would write for my thesis. I spit out scattered words about nature and sense of place and examination and analysis...good old fashioned B.S.

"I just wondered if you wanted to write a memoir or essays," my interviewer said.

"Oh, well in that case, essays." I couldn't imagine writing a book-length anything.




Then came time for my first assignment. I wrote about a trip I had taken to the Yucatan Peninsula with my then husband because I wanted to be a witty travel writer--Barbara Kingsolver meets David Sedaris, if you can imagine such a combination. I did not want to write about marriage or relationships.

But a funny thing happened every time I tried to write: a subplot crept in. I was unhappy in a lie-in-bed-and-wonder-if-I-was-dying kind of way. And because I didn't want to admit it, I wrote 30 pages of slop to arrive at the 15 pages of mess I turned in.

Luckily, my professor was patient. He sifted through my pages and took the time to figure out what my story was about--a woman trying to make sense of her life, not just a trip to Mexico.

By the time I finished grad school, I was divorced. And instead of writing travel stories, I had written a book about marriage and relationships and starting over. My mentor told me it was time to start using the M-word. And you know what? I was okay with that. My writing and my life had both evolved into what they needed to be.



Now. The lesson in my story is not that writing will upend every aspect of your life (insert sigh of relief). Most often, you will sit down with the intent to write about marriage or travel or cooking, and that's what you'll write about. And after you've written about it, you'll still be married or single or live in Minnesota or Colorado and the basic tenets of your life will remain intact.

Connecticut, 2009  Photography and Writing Workshop

But writing that memoir taught me two very important things: if you want to write, simply begin. Then let go of the outcome.

No matter how convinced you are of your topic or your story--be it novel, memoir, essay or something else--it will take on a life of its own. It will morph and grow and change as you write it. Your job is to shepherd the piece through that process. To guide that story, not control it.

And (here's the best part.) If you don't know what that story is yet? Write anyway. You'll find it through the simple act of putting the pen to the page--it will reveal itself.



Letting go is not always easy. Neither is starting--especially if you're a Class Act Procrastinator like I am. So let's practice together.

Below you'll find the first paragraph of a short story I wrote. It's your turn next. Write the next paragraph in the comments section. If someone beats you to it, write the third paragraph. If one paragraph seems to end the story, start another. It doesn't matter if you're a fiction writer, a playwright or an essayist. Don't worry about good or bad writing. Just have fun. Begin and then let go. 

713kwWSjXkL._SY300_Once you participate, I'll enter your name to win a free copy of a book by a dear friend of mine: Tough Love: A Wyoming Childhood by Kate Meadows. Kate saw me through grad school, standing by me during a time of great change, and her book is a testament to bravery and courage and figuring out who you really are. Tomorrow, I'll polish up the story and post it on the blog, and announce the winner. Here goes (it's a bit dramatic. But let's just be dramatic together):


Seta had gone into the closet once, nine months before, to show Bethany the box where it sat on the shelf. They were on their second bottle of wine.

“Don’t you want to put it somewhere nicer?” Bethany asked. 

Seta didn't respond. Just turned off the light, walked to the kitchen and corked the wine.

Now, a thin layer of dust coats the grey plastic box. She pulls her sleeve over her wrist and wipes it clean. For a moment, she feels guilty for keeping it there. Then she picks it up.

(See the results of our story HERE.)


Write better—Trust in the unknown

  This morning I received an email from one of my students. She got a call from her mother while she was driving to work, and the ensuing conversation gave her the perfect ending to one of her essays.

"I just had to share this with you," she said.

I LOVE getting emails like this, just as much as I love hearing from students because they're jazzed about a book they're reading for class and can't put it down.

These emails tell me that my students are growing as writers. Learning that writing is about more than typing on a computer or putting pen to paper. As I wrote last week, part of the writing process happens away from the page. Endings appear to us while we're driving. Whole scenes play out in our minds while we're cooking dinner.

But we have to be open to this kind of inspiration. We have to be willing to believe that when we walk away from our work, an ending will come in its own time. Learning to trust that part of the process (and delight in it) is essential to letting your writing evolve authentically.



A friend and I have been talking about this idea of trust a lot lately, in a slightly different context. She's building her career as a life coach, and I'm finding my way as a writing coach and freelance writer. We get together for wine and brie & crackers, and talk about whether we know what we're doing. It's not the coaching that stumps us, it's figuring out how to let people we know we exist.

A spring bloom.

Both of us have been reacting against the models we see around us. All those experts who lure you in with free things and then deliver trainings without much substance and blog posts that get a million hits even though they're unreadable. They're all starting to feel like "Get Rich Quick" schemes, and that's not what we're after.

We're looking to connect with people. To build genuine and authentic connections that help all of us grow and learn. We both know that when we relax and let things evolve naturally, that happens more often. We just have to let go of the formulas we see around us.


Last week, my friend suggested that it begins with trust. Being able to say, "I trust that..." and follow it up with whatever outcome we're seeking. We don't need to know how things will unfold, we just need to set our intentions and trust in the outcome.

Can I just tell you? I'm a confident person, and that word "trust" came slow as molasses to me. I could say, "I want." I could say, "My intention is..." But to simply say, "I trust..." I felt a little stuck. And then I realized that I know this to be true about writing already.

I trust that my novel will unfold as long as I write a little bit most days. I trust that when I take my time on a pitch and wait until I have the right pieces of information and inspiration, it will get picked up by a magazine. So why not apply that same core belief to life?



-5This is a writing blog, of course, so I'm going to suggest you try it with your writing goals. Pick one that you absolutely believe in but don't quite know how it's going to come to be--writing that memoir, say, or starting that blog. Pick up your pen and write "I trust..."



Maybe you'll write:

I trust that I will establish a popular food blog that women follow for valuable and life changing information.

I trust that I will write a brilliant memoir about my childhood experience with cancer that will give other children and families a sense of hope.

I trust that I will be a sought-after freelance writer who gets to travel for my work.

Whatever you write, be bold. Use words like brilliant. Trust in your trust and see what happens.

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