procrastination


For the first time in a year, I am currently not writing a novel.

It’s not that there’s not a novel waiting to be written. It’s still there. It’s living in the computer, and a whole lot of it is stacked up on the floor near the dining room table. Also, it’s buzzing in my head, waking me up in the night, tapping on the windows, whispering in my ear.

I suddenly know more about this novel than I know about my own life! Now is that the damnedest thing, or what?

Two weeks ago I could easily spend a whole day sitting in Starbucks staring at the unrelenting screen, begging my subconscious mind please give me some morsel of detail about what comes next! Tell me, damn you, what Annabelle is thinking! I would say that and then I would get up and order another cup of tea. Then I would realize that it was too hot in Starbucks to drink nuclear-temperature hot tea and so I would go and order iced tea instead. I would peruse the CDs for sale, gaze at the interesting cups and gadgets for sale, then talk to the chess players and the Scrabble players who are always there. I would scan the headlines of the newspapers. Then I would sit back down and push some commas around and glance at my watch and realize that it was time to go home and start supper.

But now I am not writing a novel. I am publicizing a novel. A week out from the release of Kissing Games of the World, I am doing interviews and arranging events, and writing little notes, sending chili peppers through the email system (see previous post), and then trying to figure out how to withdraw them. I am also praying for the improvement of the economy so that people will buy books again. 

And so now–NOW!–what does my novel-in-progress do? It dances and sings! It plays like a movie in my head. I now understand everything about Annabelle and her husband, their kids, their past history, her parents, her parents’ marriage, her mother’s illness, what Annabelle carries in her purse and how she walks and talks and even what songs she plays on her iPod.

I know the end of the book. But I don’t have time to write it yet. I have to wait.

So here’s what I’m wondering: Is this just my routine tendency to make progress on something ONLY if I am supposed to be doing something else? Do I have to create an elaborate ruse for myself in order to accomplish anything? 

Or is it true that novels bloom in darkness, not when the light of effort is beamed down upon them? Maybe they prefer to sneak around and come out when you’re busy doing something else.

Just tell me this: Has anybody else noticed this?   

I do not know why it’s so tough to do the things I need to do. (I think we all know what we’re talking about here: settling down to work, performing the yoga stretching exercises, paying bills, cleaning the dehumidifier, weeding the garden, flossing the dog’s teeth, washing the bath towels…that sort of thing.)

I have a sign up over my desk that says: “Hard work may pay off in the long run, but procrastination pays off RIGHT NOW.”

This is a bad attitude, I know. I should take it down and replace it with something like: “What? Do you think time is going to wait for you to get around to the things you need to do?” or better yet, something succinct like: “GET TO WORK!”

There are times when the only way I can get anything done is when I do something by accident while I am procrastinating from doing something else. In other words, I can only wash the bath towels if I’m, for instance, hiding from settling down to work. And the garden is only going to get weeded if I’m avoiding flossing the dog’s teeth. (No, I don’t really floss the dog’s teeth–but you know what I mean.) And as for yoga stretching–that just ain’t gonna happen.

But I hate being this way. I am too damned old to be avoiding things this way. I should have developed some true self-control by now. Shouldn’t I? My yoga teacher once told me that I should see this resistance, as he called it (that’s a fancy yoga word for procrastination) as the same as a paper sheet. All I have to do is press against it a little bit, he said, and I would break through–and find myself doing the downward dog without even a second thought.

Then yesterday I ran across this post by Allison Winn Scotch, about how she has beat procrastination! Her advice seems so simple, and yet so profound at the same time:

Something flashes in my brainscan and rather than waste the energy of thinking of when I could do it another time, I just did it! I wrote three blog posts, I started going through my proof pages, and best of all, I actually sat down – right when the impulse struck – and drafted the first scene for my new book.

It was so energizing! I can’t recommend this more. Normally, I’m a list-maker – I jot everything down and axe it as I go. But right now, it seems like the only way for me to accomplish stuff is to seize the moment. Try it! It might work for you!

Okay, I am so on board with this. I am seizing the moment! That means…writing this sex scene that has been eluding me for days and days. I know. Poor me, having to think up a sex scene. It’s not like I have to go weed the garden or even do the downward dog.

But I’m about 25 pages behind schedule in this novel…and by God, I’m going to catch up this weekend! I am not only going to seize a moment. I’m am seizing the whole entire weekend.

Allison, THANK YOU!

You’ve heard of the summer of love. I am having the summer of strandedness. And after two days of it, I am already learning a lot about myself.

First, may I say that I haven’t been this carless since I was sixteen and waiting for California to abolish the parallel parking requirement in the driver’s test so I could get my license.

This time, my strandedness happened because I am writing a novel that is due in two months, and meanwhile, The Third Kid came home from college, having signed up for all kinds of exciting opportunities, all taking place Elsewhere:

  • Babysitting for several families, one of whom took her to London with them for three weeks 
  • Running a summer camp, which involves putting on TWO musicals in a four-week period, using actors and actresses who are between the ages of 6 and 9 and are anxious to begin their stage careers
  • Doing an internship each evening, an hour away from home, helping to stage “Fiddler on the Roof” with middle and high school students.

A person could get tired dashing off in so many directions. A person could get tired WATCHING someone dash off in so many directions. She tears out of the house at about 8 a.m., trailing papers, changes of clothes, English muffins for breakfast, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, turkey sandwiches for supper…and then we don’t see her (or my car) again until she comes home about 10:30 p.m. in a state of collapse. 

I used to be fond of my mobility, but here’s what I have learned about stationary life, things I would like to share with you in case you have a real life and don’t know what strandedness is like:

1/ Just because you are sitting at your desk does not mean that you are working. You can make yourself sit there, but you can’t make yourself stop reading wikipedia or OMG. 

2/ People call your house all day long. The phone rings and rings and rings. Telemarketers try to sneak through, even though you’ve signed up for the Do Not Call list over and over again. The firemen in your town are probably giving a parade and they want to discuss how much money you will give. Others simply want to put aluminum siding on your house. Friends call, probably hoping to just leave a quick message on your voice mail, but then they get you instead and don’t know how to get off the phone, and so you find yourself in hour-long conversations about nothing at all.

3/ Daytime television is probably one of the best arguments for outside-the-house employment that there is. Do NOT even think of turning it on, or it will demoralize you and make you wish that you lived in another century where television was not heard of. 

4/ Rabbits–yes, rabbits–visit your garden at the same time every day and munch on your basil and petunias and then hop away, to return in 24 hours, even though they don’t have clocks, as far as I can tell.

5/ Twenty minute naps are FABULOUS.

6/ Birds don’t stay on their nests as much as you need to stay at your computer. I am currently having a contest with a lady cardinal whose nest is right at my eye level, nestled in the lilac bush, to see which of us can stay at our post the longest. I am proud to report that she loses every time, flitting off somewhere to do something more interesting than sit on her eggs, and I win. Of course, if she had access to the internet on her nest like I do in mine, she could probably remain on the nest for much longer intervals, just as I can.

(To my editor, in case she is reading this: No, really! I AM writing the novel!  Honest! It’s zipping right along! Don’t even worry about it. September is still a long time away from now. I checked the calendar just this morning.)

“One of the best things about being a novelist,” said my friend Beth the other day, “must be that you get to use up all those names you couldn’t give to your kids. Or your dogs and cats.”

She’s right. Picking a name for a character is even more exciting than picking our child’s name, mainly because when you’re naming somebody in a book, you already know the person. You are the only one who knows at the outset of whether he’s an Alessandro or a Jake, whether she’s a Gwendolyn or a Bertha. And even more wonderful is the fact that people just accept whatever name you pick. Nobody says, “What kind of a crazy name is that? Why did you give him THAT name?” like they do when you’re naming a baby.

When it’s a baby, people feel entitled to having their opinions heard about whatever name you picked. My friend Diane, who named her daughter Maisie (surely one of the best names in the English language) spent the first two weeks of the child’s life politely explaining her decision to people on the phone, and then spelling it for them.

But I digress.

This is all to say that I have reached page 125 of the novel I am writing, and suddenly I realized my characters have the wrong names! Does this ever happen to you? You think you know a person well, and then it turns out they had a different name and personality altogether?

The main character was Cate until Friday when she suddenly became Annabelle, not the same kind of person at all. I don’t know why, but when she was Cate-with-a-C, she was a little bit timid, more likely to be walked over than she is now that she’s Annabelle. Before, when she acted out emotionally, the characters around her just reacted with, “Oh, stop it, Cate! You’re always so exasperating.” And now that she’s Annabelle, the people around her seem to know that she’s a little bit flamboyant and surprising.

Some of the minor characters asked for name changes, too, once Annabelle got her true name. Annabelle’s daughter, Tansy, requested something a little more…ordinary. She’s not as airy and drifty as you’d have to be to wear the name Tansy…so she’s now Sophie, and she’s much happier, thank you. Annabelle’s former lover, Dmitri–he turned into Jeremiah…and the contractor’s baby mama blossomed into a Chantelle.

Even more fun, I looked all these up on The Baby Name Wizard: Name Voyager, which you should go to right this minute and type in your own name, all of your friends’ names, and any name you’ve thought of giving your characters and all your children and dogs. It gives you in marvelous graphic detail all you need to know about the popularity of any given name from the 1890’s to the present.

You’ll learn, for instance, that the name John was in the top 10 of names through every decade until the 1990’s, when it started to slip. It’s now reached a new low of being the 20th popular name for boys in 2006. It’s one of the most fun, time-wastingly addictive web sites you’re ever going to come across…and if, like me, you happen to be writing a novel, you can totally justify being on there for hours because you’re researching your characters.  

Tell me: is naming characters (and children) fun for you, or has it been a major source of stress? And do your characters (or children!) ever insist on new names after you’ve gotten to know them better?

At last there’s a game on the internet that actually helps somebody.

It’s a vocabulary game called FreeRice, and if you click here, you will find yourself in a flurry of doing good.

You get a vocabulary word and four choices for its definition–and if you get it right, voila! Not only have you just donated 20 grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Program, but, you smart thing you, you get a harder word next time.

A little tally keeps track of all the rice you’ve donated–and meanwhile, if you’re like me, you get quickly hooked on moving up (and yes, sometimes down) the vocabulary ladder. There are 50 levels, but most people don’t get beyond 48, so the site says.

It’s amazing how quickly the rice piles up.

I used to have to play Spider Solitaire before I could truly settle down to a day of writing–but now I’m all about the rice.

I don’t think I’m the only one. My friend Karen says her friend had to delete FreeRice from her computer because she was unable to get her novel written. And Karen herself, a true person of self-control,  has to limit herself to donating 800 grains of rice so that she can get on with her life.

The game started on Oct. 7, 2007…and just yesterday alone 383,730,260 grains of rice were donated.

The number of grains that have been donated since it started?

FOUR BILLION, NINE HUNDRED THIRTY-THREE MILLION, SEVEN HUNDRED SIXTY-THREE THOUSAND, FOUR HUNDRED NINETY.

Whoever thought procrastination could really help out?

So many of us have transplanted ourselves across the country so many times that we don’t know anymore whether we’re Southerners or Northerners.

I was born in Jacksonville, Florida, to parents who were both from old-time Southern families. When I was growing up we had to say “yes ma’am” and “yes sir” and eat grits for breakfast. When I was 12, I moved to Southern California, where I discovered that saying “yes ma’am” was considered a sarcastic act that could get you in trouble with teachers. And grits? Nobody out there had heard of them. (I was just as glad.)

Just about the time I’d adjusted to California culture, it was time to move to the Northeast, where I learned to talk about tag sales and bubblers and eat grinders. The cheese that people put on pizza? That’s called moots here (rhymes with foots.) Oh, yeah–and the other weird thing: you have to ASK for it on your pizza. Pizza doesn’t automatically come with moots. Just don’t call it mozz-a-rella when you say it. People laugh and point.

Anyhow, when I came here, people laughed when I talked, saying I talked Southern. And my Southern relatives were horrified whenever I would talk to them: “You sound just like a Yankee, honey. You need to come back HOME.”

So which was I? Dixie or Yankee?

If you’ve got the same problem, you don’t have to sit up nights trying to figure out which one you are. Go click on this link and take The Yankee or Dixie quiz and you can find out once and for all just who you are, based on nothing more than the words you use. (Don’t worry–there’s no quiz about the Civil War or red states vs. blue states.)

It’s all about if you say aunt or ant. Do you call athletic shoes sneakers or tennis shoes? Is a drive-thru liquor store a party barn or a brew-through? (They have DRIVE-THRU LIQUOR STORES?!?)

I’ve lost a lot of my Southern dialect these days, but I still scored 55% Dixie, just from my leftovers.

I’m not sure my Southern relatives would be all that pleased.

This comes, thanks to Dorothy Thompson, who posted it on the Yahoo writers page. She’s a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner, too–the times I’ve talked to her on the telephone, I LOVE hearing her accent. That’s the thing I miss, living up here in the cold north: those soft Southern sounds. And, of course, the utilitarianism of the word “y’all.” It really is a word that can’t be replaced with “youse guys.” I’m sorry. It just can’t.

Just when it seemed we didn’t have enough procrastination possibilities, now scientists have come up with a whole new area of tests we need to take time out to administer. We need to study our dogs’ tail wags.

I know. It’s too much.But today the New York Times reported that there is a new study that says how your dog wags his tail shows how he feels about you.

Apparently, if he loves you and appreciates that you’ve been feeding him all these years and letting him sleep in your bed while you’re at work (oh, you didn’t know he did that?)–his tail will primarily wag to the right when he sees you.

If he’s not all that into you, he’s going to give you the left-direction tail wag.

Who knew that tails are like Ouija boards? But that’s what the scientists have discovered, and they ought to know.

Golden retrievers, of course, have no choice but to love us. It’s built into their molecular structure, and they are powerless not to try to do everything they can to express that great love by slobbering on us, lying down where we are trying to walk, and putting as much of their fur on our clothing as they can.

Even so, I needed to test this out. It’s important when you’re home writing a book to take time out for the Important Things in Life.

Jordie is nearly 12–which is about 5,198 in dog years–so he probably would have been just as happy to forego this kind of testing, but it had to be done. He got up and came over when I called him, wagging a straight-down-the-middle wag. Very non-committal, I thought.

“Come on!” I said to him. “You and I are better friends than that!”

He collapsed so he could think it over better, which is when I took his picture. This it not the picture of Dog Love, in my opinion. It is a dog saying, “Why did you wake me up to get me to wag my tail?”

So I sat down next to him and reminded him of all the lovely, yummy tissues he’s taken out of my trash can, and of the times I’ve let all 75 pounds of him sit in my lap when he’s needed to watch television, and of the times the two of us have hung out in the hallway in the middle of the night, during scary, nerve-rattling thunderstorms.

I got two wags, one sort of right-leaning, the other middle-of-the-road.

So then I had to bring up the big guns, his favorite food: carrots. I explained again how I’m the provider of carrots right out of the refrigerator, and how the Other Adult in the Household doesn’t think a dog should be rewarded with a carrot for, say, every little thing he does, like breathing and allowing himself to be petted behind the ears. And how I disagree with that and think that dogs should get carrots whenever they want them.

“Carrots!” I said. “CARROTS!”

His ears perked up and he gave me about 200 big wags to the right. BINGO! It was love.

The phone rang just then. It was Stephanie, calling between classes from New York to say hi. “What are you doing?” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “Actually, I’m running some tests on whether the dog loves me, based on his tail-wagging direction.”

There was a rather long silence. “Oh,” she said. “Well, as long as you’re keeping busy.”

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Marmaduke is asleep on the floor, having binged until he passed out. His owner-man explains to a suit-wearing houseguest and his jowls that this is Marmaduke’s version of photosynthesis.

 

I may be slowly losing my mind, but this site, called “Joe Mathlete Explains Today’s Marmaduke” always, always makes me laugh. Often we’re talking tea-out-of-the-nose laughing.

A guy named Joe Mathlete includes the day’s Marmaduke cartoon which he painstakingly dissects and analyzes in 500 words or less. While the cartoon itself has never once been funny, the explanation of it can make you lose muscle control for a time. 

That’s all. Back to work now.