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