Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Productive Procrastination: A Tale of Dreams Deferred (At Least Until They Are Picked Up Again)

I might just be the most productive procrastinator in all the land.  I feel like everyone, at one point or another, puts things off to some degree or for some length of time.  It could be an academic or professional task, a chore, a medical checkup of some sort...but no matter what, everybody puts off something.  I'm no different--haven't been since I started elementary school.  If I had homework or a project/report due Monday, it got done Sunday.  I was never as bad as some of my friends though, who would start their work Sunday night and stay up until five in the morning on Monday doing it...but I still waited until "the last minute."  I always argued that I worked better under the pressure of a time constraint (which was true, to some degree), that I knew how much time I would need to complete a given task, and that I would rather enjoy my time up front instead of getting the work out of the way. 

Somewhere along the way, though, either towards the end of high school or the beginning of college, something changed.  I suspect it was the latter because I believe that this changed was motivated by a fear of being overwhelmed with work and being unable to perform to the high standards I have always held myself to.  I believe, also, that it was a result of getting all of my work up front via the course syllabus.  I found myself completing work on Friday instead of Sunday...and then a week or two ahead...and then, in some cases, a month or more in advance.  I suppose that, by that point, I had hit my groove and knew that I would be able to complete the work early and then make adjustments as needed, thus freeing myself up during those tense final days before said work (or studying) needed to be done; I became much calmer and found myself enjoying the semesters that much more.

...but what does this have to do with procrastinating?

Despite beginning my work early, I could never sit and complete a given amount of work uninterrupted.  Invariably, I would get antsy and would need some sort of diversion.  Often times, before I found my panacea for the ailment, Writer's Block would force me to halt my progress and to take up another activity in order to clear my mental cache and obtain a fresh start.  Usually, the more intimidating the paper, the more frequent my stops would be.  My breaks might include a simple stretch and a snack or something more complex like a full workout or video game session.  Of course, the projects that loomed most ominously caused me the most stress and, consequently, made me the most productive.  The papers I was most afraid of starting led me to complete the most amazing tasks in my procrastination: I would clean my room (or the whole house, if it was after July 2007); I would finally tackle any number of computer projects that I had been meaning to work on; I would practice guitar for hours on end; or, as noted earlier, I might do the exercising I had been putting off.

I bring this all up because I realized yesterday that I have been procrastinating terribly lately, putting off two things that you would think I would enjoy (and which I am sure that I will).  The first is the reading of a Stephen King novel; the second is continuing to write my third novel.  The two issues interrelated as I will explain now.

For a while, Stephen King was my all-time favorite author.  He still might be...but there's a problem that's arisen over the past few years with regards to his books, or, rather, my reading of his books.  My Mom has every book King has ever written and, consequently, I have read most of those books.  I've always been into horror novels, enjoying the Goosebumps series immensely as a kid.  Naturally, when I outgrew those tales, Stephen King's novels were ripe for the picking.  I remember staying up for hours after I should have been asleep, reading his stories, simply unable to put them down.  I've re-read The Stand more times than I've re-read any other book (and I've seen the film version more times than I've seen any other movie...which is saying a lot since the television mini-series is eight hours in length and yet, still, I've rewatched it almost ten times) and I had my mind blown by The Dark Tower series.  I've enjoyed IT, The Eyes of the Dragon, Insomnia, and 'Salem's Lot among literally dozens of other tales...

...but a few years ago, it all changed.  I don't remember exactly what the last Stephen King story was that I read.  It might've been From a Buick 8 but I'm not entirely sure.  The problem is that, in a way, I ruined the books for myself by starting to write.  Stephen King inspired me by stoking the fires of my imagination with his tale of the macabre and the supernatural; he even helped me to improve my writing with On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.  But, somewhere along the way, I had a thought--a thought that continued to grow, eating at my mind like a virus (much like Arthur and Cobb discuss in the movie "Inception.")  The thought was destructive; it was pervasive and unshakable; it was, "I can do better than this."

Ever since I first had that thought, I haven't been able to read a Stephen King story from a non-critical stance.  Where I used to enjoy the story simply for its plot and characters, I suddenly began finding fault in the writing itself, thinking of how I would have written it.  It seems ludicrous: Stephen King has sold more than 350 million books worldwide; me...not so much.  And yet here I am, criticizing his work.  It must also seem incredibly arrogant...but there's no boastful pride on my part.  In fact, I think it is quite the opposite; I think the thought came from the reverence that I held for King.

Think of it this way: you grow up idolizing a particular athlete, let's say a basketball player.  You watch him with awe and dream that, someday, you'll be as good as he is.  He inspires you to start playing and, as you develop, you dream of mimicking his every move.  You picture yourself as him every time you drive to the hoop--every time you pull up for a jump shot.  You dream of playing on a team with him, or perhaps even being him, every night...until the moment that it happens: you realize that you want to be better than him.  Maybe you've gotten good enough that you feel that you can compete at his level, and, maybe, contemporaneously, his skills are diminishing; suddenly, you think you can take him.  Instead of being motivated to be just like him, you desire nothing more than to dismantle him on the court--to embarrass him in front of the entire world.

In a sense, it's just like that.  Suddenly, I felt that my writing was good enough to be enjoyed by a wide audience and I began to criticize his work.  The reason that I began finding fault in his writing, though, was motivated more by my own frustrated ambition: I wanted my work to be better than his and to be enjoyed by more people...but I was afraid that it wouldn't be.

Which leads me to the second thing I've been putting off: getting back to writing my third novel.  Boy have I been productive in putting this off: I've done a complete back-up of my computer, have worked at figuring out an entire album by ear, I've finished reading War & Peace and am almost done with Ulysses, and I've completed any other number of miniature projects that I've been working on (like my Beer and Whiskey lists, respectively).  The problem, though, is that I'm running out of things to work on, much like I'm running out of things to read instead of another Stephen King book.  Sure, I could read any of the scores of classics that I have...but I need something less intellectually taxing to balance out whatever literary legend I am trying to tackle.  Ironically enough, I'm reading the last of the Dark Tower graphic novels.  The next thing I'll read will probably be the newest of the graphic novels in The Stand story arch.  Ironic that, in avoiding King, I am still under his sphere of influence.

As for my own writing, though, I've been finding every excuse not to work on it.  Granted, taking care of Timmy has impacted my writing process to a great deal...but if I only got up earlier I would have at least a few hours every day of uninterrupted writing time.  The problem is that I know that and won't do it because of the very fact that I would be making progress.

See, in part, the issue is that this novel would complete the Kosmogonia arch and thus put an end to my first collection of serious fiction writing; in a sense, I don't want it to end.  However, I am aware of the fact that this one book will likely be longer than both of my first two novels combined if not twice as long as their combined length.  Basically, I have PLENTY of time before it will be done.

So why put it off?

Because of the nine hundred pound gorilla in the room: what comes after I finish.  After I finished writing The Lion in the Desert, I felt a great sense of accomplishment because I had achieved two major goals: I finished writing a novel and I had a printed copy of it.  Then I started to write The Walking Ghosts and I looked back at the first book...and was horrified.  I couldn't believe how terrible the prose was and I realized that, if I was ever going to attempt to get a literary agent, I would need to revamp the entire first book.  I decided to finish writing the second novel, make it through the third in its entirety, and then go back and re-write the first novel (this way any inconsistencies, of which there will hopefully be few, if any, would be taken care). 

So basically, once I finish writing the third book (the hard part) I would then have to go back and revamp the first book (the easy part) and then draft a query letter (the hardest part). 

I've wrestled with the notion of being a writer since the first novel came out.  My friends and family called me a writer but I bucked the moniker because I felt it was unwarranted.  Though I had written a novel, I did so more as a hobbyist than a writer.  Then I wrote the second book and I started to feel more like a writer despite the fact that my status had not changed: I wasn't getting paid for it and I still wasn't officially published.  I've embraced the title, though, because I have come to realize that writing has always been something I have loved to do, going back to the third grade when I wrote my first series of stories called "My Alien Friends."  The interest has always been there, I've officially written two novels, I have ideas for numerous stories and future novels, and I'm working on completing the longest single piece of literature I've ever crafted.  I suppose, in a sense, that makes me a writer.

But I still can't flaunt the title with the pride I would if I were published.  It's the same thing as me recording a CD and uploading it to iTunes or CD Baby for sale and then telling everyone I'm a professional musician.  I'd still just be a guitar player with an album's worth of original material...without a recording contract, much like I am a writer with two plus novels' worth of original writing...without a publishing contract.  I am deathly afraid of attempting to get an agent (and, then, hopefully, a deal with a publishing house) because of the sheer statistical improbability of it all; it's like trying to make it as an actor, comedian, or professional athlete; there's a certain element of fate or good fortune that will ultimately separate you from the pack.

But, I suppose, even if I try and fail, at least I can say that I did try and I can show my son, by example, what it means to follow one's dreams.

I guess I'll be picking up Under the Dome after all then...because, once I do that, I know I'll be itching to pick up the pen once again.