Friday, August 04, 2006

Greater productivity through procrastination

I feel as though I've found the key to the secrets of the universe. Listen up.

Wednesday rolled around. I'd just finished all the research that I needed in order to start drafting the new chapter of my manuscript (formerly, "my dissertation"). Sure, I still had things to pick up from ILL and some articles that I needed to get my hands on, but I'd done my due diligence and knew what was out there. But after finishing that last necessary book, I just couldn't bring myself to start writing. Was I ready? Did I have anything to say on the subject? Maybe I really should wait and read those ILL books, just to be sure.

I knew that I was procrastinating, but I couldn't get motivated. Instead I sat around and read blogs for a while and then I went across the street to see a Humphrey Bogart film. It was still hot, after all.

I awoke to much cooler weather and considered my options. If I didn't start in on the chapter, what else could I do? There was that conference abstract--but I could get that done on the plane next week. There was that essay proposal for a book collection--but I'd definitely need to do more research first. And then I remembered it: that tiny little essay I've been talking about writing for years, the one on Major American Novel, for which I'd already done all the research but that I'd had to set aside last spring in order to get the diss done.

My friends, no sooner had the idea occured to me than I unplugged the DSL cable, took my laptop and my folder full of notes into the living room, and started writing. By dinnertime, I had a draft. Today I revised it and put in the footnotes. I think I'm sending it out on Monday.

Yes, it's a small little thing. No, it won't do anything for my career. But it's the first completely NEW writing that I've done in 10 months, and it was a blast. I might even be ready now to tackle the big bad chapter.

So that's the secret, and it's my gift to you: find a project that's not the project you're currently trying to avoid, and you'll be amazed by how zealous and diligent you become.

6 comments:

dhawhee said...

wow, terrific! And fast!

What Now? said...

I am so impressed!

As further inquiry into the secrets of the universe: Do you think that one reason you were able to write this essay so quickly is that you had done all the research and then let it percolate/gestate/simmer (choose your metaphor) for awhile? I haven't tracked my own research & thinking & writing habits well enough to be sure, but I have a hunch that I do well by taking a bunch of notes and then letting them sit for awhile before I sit down to right.

Whaddya think?

Flavia said...

I'm not sure, WN. Having the research already done was obviously a huge deal, as was the fact that I already knew the gist of my argument--usually, I don't discover my argument until about Draft Four.

But honestly, I think the two reasons that it got done so fast are that:

a) it's really, really short (about the length of a conference paper, and on the shortish side even for that), and as such doesn't have a complex argument--it's more like, "hey! here's this important detail that no one's noticed! But it's really interesting, and let me tell you why!"

b) it's not in my field. Not the period, not the genre, not the country. None of the work's Big Issues are even distantly related to anything I work on. So this was really and truly just a fun project, one that I was pursuing only because I LOVE this novel (which I've also taught) and I have a strong amateur interest in another subject relevant to it. It's amazing how freeing it is to work on something in which one has no professional stake!

dhawhee said...

what now does raise an interesting question, and I will chime in to say that the fastest chapter I've ever written happened the way it did because of the "simmering" time referred to in the comment. It wasn't exactly in line with my field of expertise, so I added a unit to a course I was teaching, and by the end of the semester was dying to write it. I still waited a couple months, and drafted it in a matter of days. So the theory intrigues me if only because I'd like for most of my writing to be so easy, when it's really not.

I also like the idea intimated by your response (a), Flavia, that a spare but novel point can really truncate the whole agonizing process. And come to think of it, that was (I think) kind of the case with my speedy chapter. Hooray for parsimony.

Margo, darling said...

Congratulations on this. My favorite part of your process was where you unplugged the internet connection. I hate to admit it, but I think that's the only way to go.

undine said...

Great ideas, including unplugging the DSL.