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Carpe diem. But not right now. Maybe later.

Businessman standing with arms crossed outside his office, desktop with laptop on foreground, selective focusI always want to be writing anything other than the thing I’m supposed to be writing.  This is the impulse that drives my productivity. It’s why I have so many irons in the fire, because there’s nothing like a fresh iron to take your mind off the ones already in the forge.

The problem with working on the thing I’m supposed to be working on is it’s hard.  It’s hard because people are usually waiting for it to be finished within a certain timeframe. It’s much easier to be working on something no one is waiting for, because no one but you know it’s being worked on. These projects are always my favorites.  It’s only between me and my anonymous compulsions.  Since I always feel compelled to write, this is a happy state.  I get to do what I want with no danger of outside pressure or reproach.

I think most writers are the same way. Procrastination yields tremendous output.  There’s nothing like a short story deadline to get a person out there in the garden transplanting shrubbery, or calling up neglected relatives to find out how they’re doing, even if they only wonder where you’ve been the past twenty years.

The urge to procrastinate is behind all my re-writing. I tell myself that I can’t possibly write anything fresh, but I can spend my writing time going over existing material.  The result is often very useful rejiggering, which almost always leads to fresh composition, despite myself.

I don’t fear the blank page. In fact, I like it.  What I fear is hard work, which original writing always is.  I know I can do it, since so far I always have, though that doesn’t mean I don’t resist launching the effort. I feel the same way about preparing my taxes or hauling the garbage cans out to the curb. All past evidence suggests I can do these tasks, and when I’m done, I’ll feel great satisfaction. But it’s the start that holds me back.  And since I’m an inherently energetic person, I look for something else to do instead, like study the Ming dynasty on Wikipedia or repaint the living room.

I marvel at people like Isaac Asimov, the all-time productivity champ, who would wake up in the morning and just write all day long, rolling his chair from typewriter to typewriter, writing several books, or scientific papers, simultaneously.  Did his fingers ever get tired?  I’ve destroyed my left elbow from constant typing over the stretch (lengthening) of my adult life.  Much of that time, admittedly, was in the service of copy writing and thousands of memos, letters and emails a year, but still. I’ve also published 15 books and written about 20.  Big deal.  The late, great Donald Bain published 125 books.  How many more did he actually write?  How did he keep his elbows going?

Did Asimov, Bain, and to add another freak of productivity, Stephen King, all feel drawn to write because they were avoiding something else they thought they should be doing?  Origami?  Cleaning out the garage?  Learning French?

All the best writing advice says you should sit down in front of the keyboard every day for a subscribed amount of time and write something.  I never do this.  My subscribed amount of time appears when I’m done writing things I don’t have to write and turning my attention to those I do. This could happen at any time during the day or night.  In any place I happen to find myself, which is why I haul my laptop around with me no matter the occasion.

Procrastination has had a bad rap since the British aristocracy was forced out of willful indolence sometime in the early 20th century, though recently it’s been enjoying a bit of a resurgence, with multiple scholarly works published in its support. The claim, bolstered by studies on creativity researchers have finally gotten around to completing,  is that we only think we’re procrastinating, when in fact, our sub-conscious is busily working on the creative problem, and cooking up solutions that will only reveal themselves when the deadline is down to a few hours away.  I love this idea.  It thoroughly justifies all those nights in college playing pool, drinking beer and running out to buy hoagies (I’m from Philadelphia) at 2:00 am instead of writing the term paper due somewhere near sunrise.

On the other hand, 40 years in advertising taught me that a frequent outcome of procrastination was getting fired.  We were gently encouraged to hit the deadline, often less than a day, or suffer a gruesome death.

Luckily for mystery writers, the deadlines are a bit more gracious, and we can convince our spouses that rotting on the front porch and staring at the squirrels running around is a highly productive component of the creative process.


Chris Knopf is an author of mysteries and thrillers, and a co-publisher at The Permanent Press.

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