Dani Shapiro
July 23, 2010

On Procrastination

There are as many forms of procrastination as writers who procrastinate.  Cleaning, organizing, exercising, making lists, checking email, online shopping, calling your mother/mother-in-law/best friend, in fact, answering the phone at all.  Procrastination has many other names: one of my favorites is, research.  We tell ourselves that there are certain things we need to know before we begin.   We can’t possibly start a short story set in, say, Mysore, India, without spending many hours reading up on Mysore.  Blogs, maps, essays, books, photos… there’s so much to read, we might even lose sight of the fragile glimmer of an idea that set us on this road in the first place.  Instead of just sitting down. Putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.  Seeing what we come up with.  Just seeing what’s there.  E.L. Doctorow once told me that he never researches his novels before he writes them.  He writes first, and does research–mostly as fact-checking–later, to see whether his imagination got it right.  Often, our imaginations get it right, if we just get out of our own way.  If we spend too much time researching, we suddenly feel the need to justify our time by including the wonderful details we’ve come across–which may, in fact, be wonderful details but don’t belong in our story.

This, I’ve known for years, but lately I’ve discovered whole new forms of procrastination–sort of like discovering a new species of beetle.  Who knew?  I decided about a month ago that I wanted to write something in a new form.  I remembered a piece that had been written a couple of decades ago in that same form, and decided that I had to read this thing before embarking on my own project.  So I went to my local bookstore.  They couldn’t get it for me.  I called a friend who I thought might have it.  He didn’t.  I went on Amazon, where it was out-of-stock.  I have been waiting for a month to read a quite-possibly-irrelevant piece of work that I convinced myself I could not go on without reading.  And here’s another distant relative of that version of procrastination: since I was going to be writing in a new form, I decided that I needed the proper software.  After all, there’s no point writing if it isn’t formatted properly–right? So I spent time online researching software.  I became completely overwhelmed by the possibilities, and ended up not doing anything at all.

After a month of this, I ended up exactly nowhere.  No reading material.  No software.  And–most of all–no writing.  All because I threw up roadblocks, one after the next, keeping me from that single, most essential process.  The only process that matters, really.  I kept myself from sitting down in my chair, with a notebook in my lap, pushing past my own fears and self-censorship and resistance, and following the line of words wherever it takes me.