how to get out of your own way and quit procrastinating on your novel

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A few weeks ago, a woman named Marie Forleo surprised about eighteen other women and me with a boudoir photo session. We were all solo entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs gathered for a three day retreat in Santa Monica. You wouldn’t think that posing in lingerie (or nothing at all) has anything to do with learning about online marketing, but Marie’s larger point was this: just because things aren’t perfect isn’t a reason not to just do it, as Nike likes to say. If your hair needs washing, your feet need a pedicure, and you would like to lose five pounds: well, so what. Still no time like the present.

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Not long after that, I listened to the writer/activist Eve Ensler talk about her work in the Congo, where she and her organization, V-Day, built the City of Joy. City of Joy is a community that shelters and trains female survivors of sexual violence (I was in Congo to witness the opening of the City, and it was one of the most profound moments of my life). Eve mentioned the people who tried to discourage her, who said that the Congo is the Congo and will never change, the country’s wounds are too deep and vast. But she went, and she built this place, and now there’s a burgeoning movement not just of women, but men (V-Men) who support them.

“Just do something,” Eve told us. “No matter how overwhelming the situation might seem, just do something. There’s power in that, because one action can lead to another action, and once you do something, someone else will do something, and then someone else will do something, and so on and so on. You don’t know what will happen, or what you could start.”

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I was having trouble starting a new section of my novel-in-progress. I told myself it was because it needed some incubation, but the truth was: I wanted the draft to be perfect, and I was overwhelming myself with everything I wanted the novel to accomplish.

Never mind the fact that it was a first draft, which is supposed to be imperfect.

Never mind that I had forgotten one of the basic laws of creativity: there is always something in the box.

This is a phrase I took from the book IMPROV WISDOM – a great little book – which warns you not to overprepare, but to pay attention to the moment, to prepare only to be surprised. The book suggests an exercise in which you close your eyes and imagine a gift-wrapped box. Imagine yourself taking the lid off the box, reaching inside and finding – what? What do you find? What do you pull out of the box?

I myself found a statue of a Chinese horse, but that’s not the point. The point is this: there’s always something in the box. Your mind will offer up its gifts. Your mind won’t let you starve. It will feed you richly.

You only have to start.

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If you’re anxious – and what is beneath procrastination if not anxiety – it helps to do what Eric Maisel calls hushing the mind. Sloooooow everything down. Breathe deep. Downshift those brainwaves into creative mode. When you’re in thought overwhelm, it’s way too easy to freak yourself out and go watch Real Housewives instead.

Empty your mind.

Do a brain dump on paper of all the things that are bothering you, all those pesky tasks you still need to complete. Get them out of your head. Clear that mental space for other, more creative thoughts. There’s always something in the box, but it helps to get rid of the junk.

Create a ritual that will shift you from the everyday-state into creative-state. Rituals are powerful because of the way they wire certain actions together, so that once you start one thing (just start!), you’ll move automatically into the next action, into the next action, and then suddenly you’re working on your novel. No drama. A ritual is like a willpower shortcut. You only need the willpower to do that first, simple thing – lighting a candle, or putting on a certain playlist, or tidying your desk – and the ritual will flow you through the rest.

Small actions are important, because they cannily sidestep that primitive part of your mind that senses change, or difficult task ahead, and so slams on the brakes and spins you toward some stress-relieving activity. Like shopping. You can use the power of small by setting small goals for yourself. Micro-goals. Five words of your novel everyday for thirty days. Five words? The brain laughs, but sits at the desk and meets that goal and feels the thrill of satisfaction, closing the loop, and so does it again the next day, and the next day, until three, four weeks have slipped by and sitting down at your desk to write everyday has become a habit. The principle behind this is called kaizen, the Japanese word for progress through tiny but steady improvements.

If I know you – and I don’t, except I do – there’s that book you want to write, or need to finish, but you don’t think you know how. You tell yourself it’s not the right time. You tell yourself you’ll get around to it tomorrow. You tell yourself this because if you think too much about the book, your thoughts crowd your head until you can’t think at all.

But a good friend once told me this, and I pass it on to you:

Everything you need to know is already inside you.

It doesn’t have to be perfect. It does have to get out of your head, to manifest, so that you can work it, and pay attention to it, and follow where it leads.

One small act of creativity begets another small act of creativity, like links in a chain leading all the way to a finished draft.

Breathe deep. Hush your mind.

Prepare to be surprised. You don’t know what could happen, or what you could start.

So go ahead.

Open the box.

Mar 15, 2011
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17 comments · Add Yours

I’ve been having fun walking around your site! Now, every time I hear the word badass, there is the accompanying sound of a smooth rock thrown straight up, as it breaks the surface of a lake. Vvvvup. Badass has gravity to it, a little payload all its own, but I think it didn’t always have. You seem to have brought the best out of badass. More power to you. I vote we divert power from Alaska?

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Just when I think that the interwebs is only clutter and distraction, I read a post like this. I was greatly moved and it was just what I needed to read in my life right now. Thank you.

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Justine, I know it’s a cliche, but I’ve needed this post for a long time! Thank you for writing it. I’m going to do some research of my own into kaizen.

I love the way that you harnessed so many different aspects of creativity thought into one post, so succinctly.

All the best,

Joe.

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Great tips. Recently I’ve started a ritual that I start my creative writing time with. I put the kettle on and make a cup of herbal tea. This simple task really helps me shift into writing mode. I sit down with my cup of tea at the computer and start up my timer in Focus Booster and I’m ready for writing.

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Great post, as usual. You have a great talent for talking/typing about things that matter to writers.
I often have the problem of starting a novel or short story over entirely because I realise the vast amount of errors in the plot or premise itself (this only happens when I’m halfway or almost done, obviously). Does that qualify as trying to get the draft perfect? I don’t know.

Side note : Every time I close my eyes, I see a Chinese horse statue now. Curses!

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I find that it helps to have a schedule. I need to get into the habit of writing some each day, rather than putting it off to do other things. Left undisciplined and without a schedule, I will always try and follow the path of least resistance, i.e. should I write now or watch SportsCenter first … or … should I study now or check my email accounts?

Also, logging on to the Internet tends to be a major issue, getting sucked in as the minutes and hours drain away. It is just as bad as television, maybe worse.

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I’m a chronic perfectionist procrastinator. This year my life felt like it was spinning out of control and the one thought that kept coming back to me was “change the things you can.” I put on my shoes, went outside and went for a walk. Seven weeks later I have lost almost 30lbs (just some of the extra weight I have been carrying around and doing nothing about for years now).

I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing. I didn’t shift my whole schedule around to do it. I just did it–for me.

So yes! Start now. Right this minute. Just one thing. The rest will flow.

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The deepest of heart-felt thank yous. I continue to learn that sometimes all you need is permission, and you gave it in the most lovely way today.

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Justine,

This is SUCH a great reminder. I work full time as a media strategist and health writer for a company. I freelance for magazines on the side (because I miss reporting for the newspaper like crazy), AND run my own blog (more weekly blurbs to write). That’s a LOT, and sometimes, I find myself unable to work on my novel. My mind is too jumbled.

I LOVE your suggestion of starting with something small–such as lighting a candle or cleaning your desk–and just allowing yourself to begin flowing through the creative process. I have an idea what I want my next chapter to portray; I just need to DO IT. Stop thinking, and just do.

Very inspiring post! Thank you.
Shari

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Many, many thanks for this — tonight, these were exactly the words I needed to read!

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Love this. All of it. The I Suck Fairy has been hanging out at my house all day, whispering “you really aren’t that good at this writing thing… wouldn’t you rather just hang it all up? I mean, seriously, who do you think you are? And who would read this drivel when there are so many other *good* things out there?”

Um, yeah. It’s my first draft of my second novel. Dude, I so need to just ignore the I Suck Fairy and soldier on.

Thank you!

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Thanks everybody, thank you for reading & for commenting!

Jeffrey — love that little riff. I shall soldier on in my cause for creative badassery.

Joe — this — “The Kaizen Way”, insightful & actionable, was one of the most helpful books I read last year: http://www.amazon.com/Small-Step-Change-Your-Life/dp/0761129235/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1300292158&sr=1-2

Lovelyn — I can relate. For me it’s getting my mug of tea or coffee, clearing the crap off my desk and tidying the area around it, putting on iTunes, and doing a few Sun Salutations (which is why I write in yoga pants). My mind kind of jumps all over the place, so I really need that kind of ritual to calm & settle it.

Jake — I am laughing (but with you, not at you). YES THAT QUALIFIES. I’ve totally been there, and I really — really really really — think that, in the end, you can work the plot out only by writing through it, because ideas work themselves out through the actual process and not the preparation, if you know what I mean. Besides, that’s what revision is for. And thank the gods for revision.

Kevin — I think you’re absolutely right, and I’m trying to be a lot better about that (but something in me balks at schedules, which means I waste more time than I should).

Amie — WOW. Good for you. And a beautiful example, thanks for sharing.

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Justine

This is such a wonderful post. I have been playing with just showing up when I teach and coach and allowing/trusting that what needs to be said/heard in that moment will be. Its such a different way to show up than from planning, over thinking or worrying.

I think you described it beautifully.

I was just snooping around your site and there is an incredible amount of inspiration and profound knowledge here.

I am so excited for more!

xx
Erin

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Amy — f*ck the suck fairy!

Erin — Makes me want to go to one of your classes even more. :)

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Justine, I couldn’t agree more. I haven’t read all of Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, but I remember three important words from somewhere around page twenty: “shitty first drafts.” The analogy I like to use is changing dirty diapers. Change enough of them, and your kids will be grown up, able to go out on their own and make you proud. Some days, I have to take a deep breath and give myself permission to write really, really badly. But I can’t tell you the last day that at least one word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph didn’t sparkle. When I stop trying to be Tolstoy, Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, or another writer whom I admire and just put some junk on a page, I find that I just need to be me. Even my sloppy craftsmanship has the power to change someone.

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Love this post, Justine. Your thoughts on the Improve Box especially resonated, since I find myself in that situation frequently when writing faster than I can plot. I’ve linked to you in my latest blog post where I talk about this here, so thanks for the inspiration!

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There were words on this post? :)

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