Actually, I’ve got very little to show for all my literary aspirations.
All I’ve got is a dusty cardboard boxful of false starts, random sentences written on serviettes and an assortment of never-again-opened notebooks in which I bang on about my inability to get down to the writing but wax lyrical about how this new idea really is the one.
Write of what you know, they say. Flicking though those old notebooks after a recent loft clear-out, it occurred to me that what I really know about is… how not to get down to the writing.
And thinking about my endless creative procrastination a bit more, I noticed the same reasons to avoid getting down to the work keep cropping up again and again.
You can see these demons in novel-writing, but they’re essentially the same in our working lives too: whether you’re trying to complete a short story or a strategy deck, a novella or a guest blog, a radio play or a b2b white paper, the demons will dog you still.
Here’s my infernal dirty half-dozen, with a few ideas on how to exorcise them…
‘But it’s all been said before!’
Of course, there are so many words in the world, what could I possibly add that hasn’t already been said a hundred times before, a hundred times better?
This demonic counsel of despair has been given a massive boost by the likes of Google, which in a cruel instant can index just how unoriginal your idea is and how often it’s been addressed already.
Exorcism tips: Yes, it may have been said before. But not by you, to your specific audience and requirements. What you alone can bring that no one else can is your own perspective.
So make it personal, tell a story. Tell them about your loft clear-out.
Go niche, go granular, go specific. Go back to the brief you’re working to. No one is asking you for the final word on a topic – they want something that’s relevant, digestible and engaging.
So leave stuff out, select and kill: choose one telling detail or example to make your point, not five.
‘I can’t start writing till I’ve finished the research’
…And you’ve still got dozens more books and reports to read. The demon of over-research is well-known in journalism. Perhaps you’re really passionate about your topic, or perhaps you’re worried that you just don’t know enough.
Either way, you feel you can’t actually get down to the work till you’ve read every other word on the subject. But – and you know this already – you never will.
Exorcism tips: Practise loving acceptance over your perceived ignorance. By reading even a few sources on your subject you’re actually helping to clarify your own thinking. It almost doesn’t matter if the sources are good or bad – you’ll either be adding to what you know or building your own argument based on what’s missing.
Journalism has another good answer here: the deadline, which concentrates the mind wonderfully. At a certain point, the presses need to roll and your copy better be ready, regardless of how much background material you have or haven’t read.
So if you don’t have a deadline, invent one.
Agree with the host of your meeting or event that you will send over an advance deck by a certain date. Make a commitment to your ‘publisher’, whoever that may be, as to when you’ll have the piece ready. Book some time in a valued colleague’s diary to show them a first draft of your piece. Do anything that makes you feel you have to get something done by a certain time.
‘I don’t have my nice notebook/fountain pen/tablet to hand’
The demon of equipment fetishism is an agreeable chap most of the time – many of us go a bit weak-kneed in the notebook aisle in Rymans – but he can of course become another excuse not to get down to the work.
The experimental novelist BS Johnson wrote fiction based on his diaries, which were always written in ‘handsome, leather-bound parish logbooks’ (in the words of biographer Jonathan Coe) obtained from a Christian bookshop his father ran. To Johnson’s superstitious mind, it was a terrible omen when supplies of this book threatened to run out.
Similarly, a screenwriter friend of mine cannot do his first drafts without his trusty Pentel Rollerball of a particular shade. He used to tramp miles to find a replacement if his local WH Smith was out, and in the end took to buying 20 at a time because he genuinely believed that he couldn’t do any good work without one.
Exorcism tips: Sorry, but get over it. Just start, using whatever’s to hand. If you’ve actually managed to carve out some time in your day when you can get down to some real creative work, do you really want to sabotage that because you’ve only got a scruffy biro to work with?
‘That bloody drill! I can’t hear myself think’
When the work isn’t flowing, it’s easy to blame ambient distractions. Someone’s voice in the office is too loud. The roadworks are a nightmare.
How can anyone concentrate with that dreadful gargling sound from the coffee machine? Would you mind not stapling so loud? I’m trying to work here!
Sorry, but this is procrastination 101. You just can’t get down to it and you’re annoyed with yourself, so you cast round for someone else to blame.
And it’s funny how all those murderous thoughts about the guy with the annoyingly loud phone-laugh miraculously vanish when the work’s flying…
Exorcism tips: Set yourself a manageable time limit with a teeny treat at the end of it. Say: ‘I will write down notes for my talk – just jot down stuff – for the next 30 minutes, till 1pm, ignoring all distractions, and then I will check the cricket score/my Facebook page.’ You’ll usually end up doing a lot more.
‘I just don’t know where to go next’
Sometimes you reach a point – let’s call it the middle – where the start has been safely tucked behind you but the end shows no signs of hovering into view. You know where you’ve come from and you know where you want to go, but you just can’t see how to get from one to the other.
Exorcism tip: Keep going, meta-style. If you don’t know how to say the next thing, write about what’s missing, what effect you’re hoping to achieve, how it fits into your structure.
Move from show to tell. Eg: ‘At this point I’ll insert a really funny yet smart observation that links my initial thoughts about how people still think in keywords to my example of perceived ease as a powerful nudge to ecommerce conversion.’
Or: ‘Insert here a couple of examples that show why our original tone of voice guidelines don’t work for omni-channel, perhaps taking a couple of core journeys (use customer experience deck) and walking through the UX?’
No, these make no sense to me either. But they will to our writer, and they have the advantage of keeping them focused on the work at hand rather than browsing BuzzFeed.
‘I’m going to look stupid’
Fear of failure is another classic nudge to inaction. But – at the risk of sounding like mum – if you don’t push yourself, you’ll never know what you were capable of.
Exorcism tips: Remember that the more you do, the easier it gets. As with public speaking, performance anxiety recedes over time – you start to develop a detachment from the person who’s out there exposing their by-line to the world.
Also, when you complete a project, take a moment to pat yourself on the back. Actually pat yourself on the back. Stop and savour the feeling of a job well done – before you enter the hell of the next one…
Final thought: Just, er, do it
How often do you hear people say, ‘I’d love to really think about this some more, but it’s just finding the time.’
We all lament the lack of time we have for creative work. But the reality is that it’s much easier to tick off those self-contained, type-A, fast-thinking tasks – where there’s a clear outcome and less mental effort required – than it is to get down to those slow-thinking, immersive pieces of work with no predictable end point and where success may depend on the judgement of others.
After all, there’s coming up with the ideas, gathering the material, finding the right way to express it all, not to mention the knotty issue of structure – what Virginia Woolf called the ‘eternal struggle with form’. No wonder we want to put it all off.
No wonder it’s easier to sort out your email folders than it is to create an original piece of content.
But the reason we hanker after more time for the creative bits of our work is the same reason we struggle to get down to that work: things that are satisfying in retrospect can be hard, even agonising at the time. It’s gratifying to see a presentation go well or get positive feedback for an article. But more often than not, the creative process that got you there was anything but fun.
So ultimately, all these tips above boil down to one single piece of unavoidable advice. Just start. Sit down and do something. Don’t worry about completing things, just focus on progressing them. Put yourself in front of your keyboard and bleed, as Hemingway almost said. Perspiration, not inspiration.
You can’t force ideas to come knocking, but you can at least be dressed when they do show up.