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Notes on Not Writing

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Procrastination

By Lizzie Skurnick - April 16, 2003

It was Thursday; the book was due Monday. There were 8,000 words down, 32,000 to go. The book would not pay much, but the book was due. There was only one thing to be done.

Something else.

Why do writers procrastinate? If I were interested in the answer, I would pony up my own opus on the subject to a publisher. Fortunately, I have garnered far too many goodies to ever consider giving it up—including a stick-on tile bathroom floor, a window herb garden, even a writing career. How did I develop a writing career through avoiding writing, you ask? I will answer, but for the purposes of our discussion, we must first touch on…

The Common Types of Avoidant Writers:

The Non-Avoidant (NAV)
Some people take their writing duties seriously, even maniacally, banging away at the keyboard for hours a day, like the proverbial monkey. Let's pretend these people are bad and unpublished. Those who write widely and well—Roth, Oates, Mencken, et al.—must be reviled, lest we collapse in a jelly-heap of despair. They are the supermodels of the writing universe, and they can teach us nothing, crippled with block and blankness as we are. For the purposes of this discussion, NAVs are irrelevant.

The Classic Avoidant (CA)
Everyone is a Classic Avoidant to some degree. Standard CA maneuvers (or, SCAMs) include checking one's email, reflection, stocks, hosiery, or breath more times than is strictly necessary in the course of an hour. CAs show up most often in the public workplace, where their pro-social behaviors are tolerated. Freelancers whose CA behaviors have gotten out of control may consider getting a boss.

The Naked Avoidant (NA)
The Naked Avoidant is a scary fellow. He's all guts and no glory, his avoidance is so blatant that he can easier give birth to a page than fill one with type. Eventually, he is found in a Barnes & Noble, naked and on all fours, baying at his row of "influences." He is never found in print.

The Homestyle Avoidant (HA)
If all goes well for the Homestyle Avoidant, she will find herself at 36 with no bylines but a really beautiful window treatment in her living room. The HA's acronym is appropriate, because the only thing funnier than a person trying to make a career out of writing thinly veiled autobiographical sketches is a writer foregoing those sketches in an attempt to lay Italian tile in the bathroom of her crappy walkup—which, by the way, she rents.

The L&O Avoidant (LOA)
These are people who watch Law & Order instead of writing. There is no known cure for this.

Reader, you've got a problem. You show traits of CA and HA—even the little-known CSI: A. One day you may go completely NA, and you will thus prove correct all those people in your writing workshop who thought "Sepsis" was a poor title. You gnash your teeth. You can do nothing. You think that's the problem.

There's a simple solution: You must become a WA (Writing Avoidant).

There are only three rules to being Writing Avoidant. (1) Accept that you are no NAV, my friend; (2) accept all offers; and (3) accept that you can't write that play you were offered and review one instead.

Let's consider those books on how to stop procrastinating. Both those who write them and those who buy them are fools, but the former laugh all the way to the bank. They have understood a fundamental, tripartite truth: (a) it is impossible to stop procrastinating; (b) you can write about almost anything and get paid for it; and (c) writing about almost anything is preferable to not writing and giving away your hard-earned dollars to someone who writes how-to's.

Being WA is not about quality or lack thereof. WAs—like redheads—write as well or as poorly as anyone. It is also not about fame—many the successful writer has been lured by fabric swatches and Columbo reruns. But the WA stays afloat while the CAs, HAs, and NAs wither into irrelevancy.

Exhibit A is John Updike. Updike has written only four good books—you know which ones. But over the two score and some-odd years of his career, he has committed assault after assault on the disciplines of criticism and poetry—to say nothing of his forays into science fiction, mystery, and so-called "women's fiction." His short fiction is neither, but he writes it anyway. And instead of dragging down critical reception to each installment of his Rabbit series, these diversions don't simply help pay those Connecticut bills, they also—like Madonna's ever-changing hairstyle— serve to keep him forever in our minds, the better to shell out dollars for Rabbit Exhumed, whenever that appears.

Exhibit B is Jonathan Franzen, who won the National Book Award—don't ask me how. Terrified by his experience with Oprah, it became necessary to rethink the idea of reading in toto. He then published his series of essays on the topic, "How to Be Alone." We dislike this man a great deal, and would like to publicly declaim all he touches. However, on this point we must allow that he is a shining example of the WA way: He's built a secondary career—writing about not writing—that's arguably just as successful day job, which is writing about dysfunctional families.

Exhibit C is a girl we know who followed a typical WA arc. Too afraid to write for her campus paper, she instead scribbled poetry onto the backs of her notebooks and showed it to her professor. (Why it was easier to show her work to the famous poet than to the editors of a rag often found under chewed-up Buffalo wings, we'll never know.) Too afraid to write for magazines, she settled for a career in book publishing. These two WA feints led to careers as a poet, academic, and writer of books for young adults. Soon she'll spend two weeks at Yaddo, and her latest book (a tie-in to the TV show Alias) will be available in July. Is this tea at the Algonquin? Not exactly. Is it better than mapping out her apartment using the principles of Ba-Gua? The answer is almost certainly yes.

Becoming WA acknowledges that while the dreams you have are important, they should not keep you from harsh realities. The WA is as haunted by dreams of paperback reprints as anyone else, but she sees the writing on the wall. The WA wants to write novels, but has 60 half-finished short stories. The WA thinks of the new sheet sets at Target, then she remembers that poetry is shorter and easier to write than fiction. The WA reaches for a pen.

The WA way is not for the strong, the confident, the highly disciplined (see NAV, above). It is also not for He Who Should Return to Law School. It is for those in between—those who think of a great story for The Boston Globe's "Ideas" section, then resume arranging ingredients in glass bowls like they are about to appear on a cooking show.

The book is almost finished—the book that will pay. The piece in the local paper looms—the check will be slight, but it will not bounce. And the WA rolls on. She writes this piece instead, and she stops for nothing. Grasshopper, this piece will not pay. But, Grasshopper, this is the WA way.

Lizzie Skurnick is a writer living in Baltimore.

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