Are you procrastinating? Or composting?
Kelly Shepherd suggests a new way to understand a problem that often bedevils writers. Kelly is a student and teacher, landscaper and writer. He currently lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada—and dreams about islands.
I wanted to explore the topic of procrastination and began writing this essay—two years ago. My name is Kelly, and I am a procrastinator.
Seriously, on the topic of procrastination, I have been looking for answers. I work part-time as a writer and always have several side-projects on the go as well: ESL textbooks, poetry, essays, personal journaling. Ignoring the varying degrees of enjoyment, not to mention financial gain, I derive from these projects, they have one thing in common. When I work on them, I procrastinate.
Which is a bad thing, right? Well, not always. Procrastination on one project often means productivity on another. In other words, procrastination can be a tool for writers as well as a detriment.
And where does writer’s block fit into this? Or does it?
Numerous definitions and explanations exist for both terms, but they never seem to overlap. Should they? When I put off a piece of writing until tomorrow, is it procrastination? What if I leave the writing until next week? Or next month? Am I still procrastinating or is it worse in that I am blocked? When does one become the other?
This is splitting hairs, you might say. Probably true. You might suggest the above scenario can be best described by another term: laziness. Probably true! Nonetheless, I’d like to propose that the two terms do indeed overlap. Procrastination and writer’s block seem to feed off of and encourage one another. Or perhaps one morphs into the other over time. Regardless, this is scary stuff, right? The two worst nightmares of every serious writer joined in unholy matrimony? Maybe.
I propose that neither is as negative as we are led to believe. In fact—whether separate from one another or not—both are integral to the writer’s creative process. They can be valuable; they can be used.
Natalie Goldberg, in her excellent book Writing Down the Bones, compares this creative process to composting:
Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. But this does not come all at once. It takes time (p. 14).
The compost model clarifies the old adage that creativity is allowing oneself to be emptied and then filled up again. A gardener’s compost bin is always being filled (new organic materials are regularly added), and yet it is always emptying as well (the materials break down, then are removed and transferred to the garden soil). This paradox may be a perfect description of the writer’s life. Experience is being added to the compost bin, as Goldberg suggests, and fertile soil will eventually result. Like the gardener’s compost, it is a natural process. We can’t force it.
I am not suggesting that as writers, we should simply sit by idly and wait. A gardener does not expect the compost bin to do his or her job. In fact, according to Goldberg, we “must continue to work the compost pile, enriching it and making it fertile so that something beautiful may bloom and so that our writing muscles are in good shape” (p. 15). This could very well be describing writer’s block or even procrastination, but not laziness.
Anne Lamott’s writing manual, Bird by Bird, also addresses the topic(s):
The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you’ve been given—that you are not in a productive creative period—you free yourself to begin filling up again (p. 178).
The gardener has no choice. She does not attempt to speed up the composting process. Soil cannot be rushed; seedlings will grow on their own. Unfortunately, Lamott says, as writers we are taught to resist this way of thinking. Procrastination? Help! Fix it! Writer’s block? Help! What’s wrong with me?
We are working far too hard if we expect to do the work of both the gardener and the garden. Perhaps with a more organic approach to our writing, and to our creativity in general, we might be a little more forgiving. This isn’t something our society encourages us to do, but perhaps we need to slow down and give ourselves a break. In Wild Mind, Goldberg sums it up nicely:
You’ve worked on something for a while. You are excited by it, even happy, but you are wise and step back. You take a walk, but this walk isn’t to avoid the writing on your desk. It is a walk full of your writing. It is also full of the trees you pass, the river, the sky. You are letting writing work on you (p. 211).
Is she describing procrastination, or the active-passive relationship between gardener and compost? Like the gardener who does not sit by and expect the compost to do his job, we also cannot be lazy. We need to work on our writing. But we don’t often think that our writing also has work to do on us. The gardener knows that the compost has work of its own. Do we give our writing—as well as ourselves—this much credit?
Goldberg, Natalie. Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.
__________. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1986.
Lamott, Ann. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
Friedman, Bonnie. Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.