The red spot in the monograph
Post(card) from Devon

The Inner Calvinist and the Petrol Pump

I've blogged about procrastination before in terms of the immediate moment, but what's causing it? Why do we fail to get on with the thing we love doing: writing? We've got a lot of our lives arranged around it, and our hopes and self esteem built on it, and if you earn your living as a writer that book you're trying to write underpins everything that pays the rest of the rent. So why is Write so often, actually, Not Write?

At least commissioned work has disaster looming if you don't do it, and short work is visibly finite. But when it's book-length and not under contract... You've made space and time, you've convinced the world it's a Proper Job, you've been thinking about the new novel all weekend and now it's Monday morning. Time for work. And like riding a horse at a jump, you push yourself on towards it... and somehow the horse always manages to run out, avoid the jump, start-in-a-minute... over and over again. It's possible to spend the whole day Not-Really-Working. You end up feeling thoroughly jaded and fretful: no writing done, but nothing else worth doing done either. Then when you could take the evening/the next day/the weekend off, you don't let yourself: it's "your fault" that you've got so little done, says your Inner Calvinist, so you punish yourself by going on "working". Which most of the time is still Not-Really-Working.

So what's going on? It's obvious what one gets out of writing the next novel: I/you/we are writers heart and soul. The interesting and difficult question is what each of us gets out of Not-Writing. And the answer isn't laziness, or needing to try harder, or just pull your socks up, whatever your Inner Calvinist says. I've quoted Boxer before, and the poor fellow's relevant here, too. You are trying very hard to write. It's just that there's a strong drive to not-write, and it must be equally strong to be holding you in the not-really-writing limbo. So what's that made of, that equal drive to not-write? What is it trying to achieve?

Is it to do with the writing? Is there something in the book, or something about the total immersion of working creatively, which is difficult for you to face? Has your Inner Critic put on his disguises, using not-writing to protect you from failure and humiliation? Even if you're published, Imposter Syndrome can be lethal, and the bigger your first success, the higher the fences you're supposed to jump for. It may be nothing to do with the writing, if the rest of life is being very difficult and using vast amounts of emotional fuel: the not-writing is trying to tell you not go to on struggling to concentrate on writing, but to stop, and give the difficult stuff attention so it can start to resolve and heal.

But if it's none of those, and there isn't a genuine problem with the book, I'd suggest that it's still about lack of fuel. Writing uses fuel, relationships use fuel, children use fuel, teaching uses lots of fuel, living on a shoestring uses fuel, anxieties and admin (even if you're not self-employed) use fuel. And above all procrastinating with work itself uses huge amounts of fuel, because it's a war of attrition between equal forces. What's more, because you work at home, with nothing more than pencil and paper, the only person who switches the engine off is you. I'd suggest that the Not-write half of you is trying to get you to stop: it knows that you're running on all but empty. You're good at writing; what you're bad at is re-fuelling, but you can't write without fuel. It's like those student days when you only filled up when the car was about to start kangarooing, and even then you could only afford £5 of petrol at a time; the fuel gauge is always in the red.

Wars of attrition aren't won, they just go on till everyone runs out of fuel, and that really is the way to ruin your writing. So turn your back on the fight and start refuelling: friends, films, pleasurable exercise, food, meditation, drink, paint a picture (if you're a writer), do some writing (if you're a singer), sleep, yoga, stroll along the South Bank, storm up Helvellyn, hire that narrowboat.... whatever you do that's essentially Play.

Your Inner Calvinist will try to tell you that this is the thin end of the wedge, that the Evil Empire will Win, that you're a lazy cow/prick who needs forcing to work, that you don't deserve to be a writer, that if you start Giving In then it's a one-way street to destitution or prostitution or an institution. Don't listen to him, because he knows nothing about human nature. You don't need to take months off (though it would do no harm) but you do need to turn the engine off really, properly sometimes, and not just when you've "done enough"... because your Inner Calvinist never thinks you have. So you need to put some firm barriers round the amount of time you let yourself even try to write: say, "I never write on Sundays, even if I'm not doing anything else"; or, "Monday's my day for exhibitions"; or even simply, "I'm doing four hours, and then I will stop, however little I've written."

This idea is actually adapted from this book. I'm not a great one for How To books, but this one made enormous sense. It's based on the idea that procrastination isn't about laziness or moral turpitude, it's about fierce resistance. Fiore explores the powerful fears and anxieties bound up (often by your Inner Critic) with work, which we defend against by resisting work. It's at once a profound approach, and an eminently practical one: he explores ways to make sure the work (i.e. the fears) can't seem overwhelming.

What I'm really saying is that even if those deep and unconscious drives rarely come to your consciousness, in the long term the best way to cope with your Inner Calvinist isn't to block your ears to him, it's to get him to serve you. You want to write, so you don't need him telling you that. You do need his dour, Presbyterian determination... to drag you from the desk to the playground. Put him charge of your time off, and your time on will look after itself.