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Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "It isn't faith in my writing that I've lost. But it's getting ever harder to believe that I'll get a second book published."

Getting through the door in the wall

I've blogged before about procrastination, whether it's happening because your Inner Critic has found a dozen reasons for you Not Getting On With It, or he's declaring that it's all been done already, or he's dressed up as someone else to persuade you. Or sometimes you've dealt with all of those and still can't write, because you've simply run out of fuel

But, assuming your Inner Critic has been gagged and bound, you're brimming over with ideas and energy for the next piece of writing work, you've cleared the house and the diary of humans... so many of us still find that we still can't get going. Suddenly we need another cup of coffee and some desk-tidying and email-answering; or we can only manage ten minutes or so, before we're reaching for the forums for writers or mums or steam train enthusiasts, for Facebook and its kin, for Scrabble, for a bit of very trivial research, for the blogs, and if all else fails, there's always Solitaire. And then you've finished your coffee, so you'd better go and make another, to drink while you start writing. And then when you get back you'd better just check FB and a couple of other places before you start...

We've all been tempted and most of us succumb, and there's no denying that the Internet has made it a hundred times worse, because the tools we need to write are also the tools we can use to avoid writing. A well known agent, joining Twitter, was startled to see just how many of her authors were tweeting away, in the hours when she'd foolishly assumed they were beavering away on their overdue manuscript. The trouble is, it's just too easy to kid yourself that you're only diverting for a moment: you're not really Not Writing. Not really. Oh dear me, no.

I've been known to go downstairs and unplug the router. You can get programmes to shut down your internet access for a set amount of time. I find even just disconnecting the internet does mean that when I'm tempted re-connect I'm more conscious that I'm Not Writing. But that doesn't always stop me re-connecting, and sometimes I genuinely do need to be online, for some stages of revisions, in particular.

So what's going on? I think the answer actually simple, but something that many of us don't, at bottom, believe: writing is hard work. It takes full concentration, full thinking, full creative/editorial effort, cutting off mentally from what's going on around us. It's not too fanciful, I think, to see it as a necessary immersion. Using your brain is hard work in biological, not just metaphorical, terms: you can measure the blood-sugar used up when you're sitting perfectly still with your brain running at full tilt, and it's a lot more than running it for normal life. It's hard work. And avoiding hard work (like desiring fat and sugar) is a clever bit of evolution, because energy - blood sugar - is a precious commodity, whether it comes from pounding yams or running down deer. It's hardly surprising that our reptile brains are programmed to avoid work and foods that have no obvious, immediate reward. It's only our more developed brains that know that sometimes we need to write, and eat salad, for the sake of the rewards they'll bring later. 

If you've ever tried free-writing (Dorothea Brande-style, or Julia Cameron's morning pages) you'll know that it takes a bit of self-persuading to keep going with this apparent rubbish or blank-minded repetition. And then - in my experience at about the ten-minute mark - you seem to get through the wall. I've even found that around that point my pen often writes a door, or a window... and it's beyond that, that things really get mad and properly interesting. 

But to get to that point, whether with free-writing or your actual project, takes a bit of courage: courage to stick with the dull rubbish, courage to fend off all the reasons for Not Writing that you thought you'd got rid of half an hour ago, courage to immerse completely in the imaginative world of the writing. It can feel like drowning, and as a water-phobic I don't say that lightly. So we approach the work (because we genuinely want to do it), do a little, shy away as we approach the jump into total immersion but do enough to call it work, poddle off to Facebook for a bit, curse ourselves, go back to the work, push hard to reach the approach again, work a little, shy away, poddle off... 

Only of course what that means is that you never do get through that door in the wall. Instead, you're trapped in the cycle of pushing yourself to approach and shying away. It feels like you're working but you never actually jump into total immersion, and so the writing really is hard work: the imagination never flowers, the words never flow, the characters never just start saying things... Some words get on the page, but they're horribly hard work and often they're not as good as they could be. Every tiny click of the brain-cogs has to be made to happen by sheer force of will, like using a starting handle on an old car, and not just to get the enging goine, but to get the car all the way to its destination. You look as if you're writing, and it uses huge amounts of energy, but to no very good result because you're not really writing, any more than someone sitting shivering on the side of the pool with their legs in the water is swimming.

The only way I've found to conquer this problem - and, yes, it's harder when I'm below-par for some other mental or physical reason - is first, to tell myself that the water is cold and that I will flinch from the total immersion, and the first ten minutes of swimming will be hard work: it's not lazy and stupid and unprofessional, it's human. But that first ten minutes is only ten minutes, and I can't reach the warmer, fluent freedom of real swimming without it. And, besides there are few duller and chillier things for a human to do for hours than stand on the edge of the pool, Not Swimming. Writing is much more fun that Not Writing, after all. You just have to put up with the cold for a few minutes.

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