Why do writers procrastinate? Why do we avoid the task we say we love? As if looking at a wordless page might blight our vision? In fact, once those words hit the page, our vision begins to take shape. Could it be we fear the vision? Certainly not the vision, but our ability to transcribe that vision into meaningful words?
I’ve recently returned from four days in one of the creative capitals of the US, Asheville, North Carolina. I came home with ideas swimming like trout through the great French Broad River that flows through the town. I’ll be writing about Asheville, its history, inhabitants and its environs in HuffPo, but I also came home with a fully shaped idea for my next novel. I would like to call it “Son of the Circus,” but John Irving beat me to that name with his 1997 novel, A Son of the Circus. Instead, the working title will be “The Beautiful Fallen World,” and will feature the childhood of Rip, the sword swallowing father of my yet-to-be published novel, The Sword Swallower’s Daughter. Rip’s childhood backstory is briefly explored in The Sword Swallower’s Daughter and it’s always fascinated me.
Last night I wrote a lengthy synopsis for “The Beautiful Fallen World.” This morning I woke at 6 a.m., the sun still below the horizon and far from cresting the sky-high trees that surround my home, made a cup of the Counter Culture coffee I brought home from Asheville, took the doglets out for their morning duty, then sat in my writing chair with my open laptop glowing.
The first thing I did was google “Counter Culture Coffee,” because this is the best dang decaf coffee I’ve ever tasted. My wacky up and down blood pressure woes now have me drinking decaf exclusively and my beloved Yuban has served me well. Yet my first sip at Early Girl Eatery in Asheville was arresting — decadently rich, cocoa-like on the top note descending to a velvety java when swallowed. Not even a hint of bitterness. I stopped talking, pointed to the cup, and changed the topic to coffee. I bought a bag of the decaf from Early Girl Eatery so I could indulge myself at home. Counter Culture sells coffee from its website, and interestingly enough, I discovered the company is located in Durham, just over the hill and down the way from my home in Hillsborough. I’m on my third cup as I write this.
Thrilled that I found Counter Culture’s Slow Motion decaf so readily available through the click of a few keys, I buoyed myself with a visit to Facebook. I know. I know. Never open Facebook until you’re achieved your writing goal for the day. Whether you measure your writing quota in words, time or scenes, a sure way to fail is opening Facebook. I admit, I usually check my notifications first thing in Facebook. I want to see who responded to my blathering, because, you know, Facebook is the world’s largest street corner for shouting your stuff at people. I saw that 12 people liked the photo I posted of plants laid out on my dining room floor and awaiting their new home in our shade garden. Fifteen people liked the photo I posted from Sara Gruen’s spectacular event promoting her new novel, At the Water’s Edge, at Asheville’s Malaprops Bookstore. I liked several photos of people’s cute kids, their adorable pets, last night’s sunsets from around the world, and read a full thread of comments from a friend raging about the cheekie bikinis seen on a California beach that day. Then I got distracted by a promoted ad promising natural reversal of hearing loss.
In the mid-1980s when I wrote for a music magazine, I went to dozens of concerts where I sat in the comp seats near the front, always below a huge bank of speakers. I never wore wear hearing protection, and even if someone had warned me, I was so confident in my gilded youth I never thought my ears could be damaged by the volume. Fast forward five years and there I am sitting before an audiologist hearing the news that I had moderate to severe hearing loss. Nerve damage. The tiny hair cells in my inner ear had been blasted away from the sustained and repeated exposure to loud music. So when this ad claimed it had discovered a way to regenerate the growth of these hair cells in the inner ear, I was intrigued. I listed to the first two minutes of the video and realized that it was just another snake-oil treatment. It did get me thinking about new treatments through authentic medical research, so I googled “hearing loss research” and spent more than an hour reading through the latest treatments, surgeries, and clinical trials. Most exciting on the horizon is a study now underway at University of Kansas Medical Center using gene therapy to regrow hair cells in the inner ear. Stanford and Harvard have interesting research going on, but I was very disappointed not to see any cutting edge research coming out of nearby Duke University Medical Center or UNC Chapel Hill. With these ground-breaking treatments on the horizon for hearing impairment, I’ve decided it’s time to see an audiologist again.
Satisfied with myself for the reassessment of my hearing improvement opportunities–and more than two hours later–I opened a new Word doc. That blank page hit me again. Then a notification from Outlook popped onto my screen telling me the local representative from the Hearing Loss Association of America responded to the “More Information” request I made when I found the organization’s website on my hearing loss junket. I know. I know. Don’t open your email app if you expect to get any writing done. But it was already open from yesterday. (I don’t always power down at the end of the day. I know. I should.) So I popped over to Outlook to see what the HLAA could offer me locally. They have meetings every couple of months to share research and treatment options, but the bonus is the friendly, engaged community who shares this condition. I responded back that I’d like to receive the e-newsletter and might attend their upcoming meeting.
Back to the blank page. I stared at it again, but even though I scrawled out a detailed synopsis in my journal, my hands wouldn’t obey my head and put themselves on the keyboard. I got up to get that third cup of coffee (which is now gone). Returning with my steaming cup of Counter Culture Slow Motion, I remembered a free writing exercise learned at a writing workshop. I wrote, “Why do writer’s procrastinate?” I stopped procrastinating and wrote another line, “Why do we avoid the task we say we love?” And on to this.
We procrastinate when we think of something as a task. Writing isn’t a task, it’s a joy. Right? So how do we restore that sense of joy to something we’ve done so many times? That’s when it clicked. The joy is in the untold story. The joy is in the discovery of a character’s world. The joy is in revealing the heart of your character. The joy is in transcribing the story from vision to words. And there is much joy in having written.
So, here’s the first line in my new WIP, “The Beautiful Fallen World”:
“When your best friend is a chimp and your mother swings from a trapeze, it’s not hard to imagine you can be anything when you grow up.”
This post first appeared in The Huffington Post, Books, April 6, 2015.