When it comes to writing, procrastinating is what I do best. I recently read Megan McArdle’s article in The Atlantic, “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators.” In it, McArdle suggested that writers are the best procrastinators due, in part, to a fear of failure. She theorized that because most of us were on the “A” team in school, when writing we are faced with the potential reality that whatever natural talent or “smarts” we might possess isn’t enough. That suddenly, we must work…hard.
But what does it mean to work hard when you’re writing? Does it mean we read incessantly, hoping to gain the genius of Chekhov, Carver, or O’Connor by osmosis? Does it mean we listen to everything that goes on around us to steal from the lives of our loved ones and turn their woes or celebrations into art? Or perhaps working hard means pouring over each word, trying to pick the most excellent one?
For me, it means all of those things, and I find that work overwhelming. I love to write, and on some level, I know I have at least a small amount of talent. Yet the idea of honing that little bit of talent into something beautiful is stifling, so I find myself the day of deadlines cranking out as many words as possible and sending those words that pose as stories to my writer’s group. The work is passable but far from the best that I can do.
Several weeks ago, I found myself talking to writer friends about “the story I was writing.” I spoke about what was happening in the story and who the characters were and how those characters related to the characters in other stories I have written. What I didn’t tell them was that “the story I was writing” was only in my head. Sure, I knew what and who I was going to write about. I even had some sense of what might happen in the story, but what I really had wasn’t “the story I was writing.” It was “the story I might write if I absolutely had to write it.” I think a lot of us are often in this state—a story on the tips of our fingers but no real motivation, other than an impending deadline, to write it.
For most of us, this isn’t a good place to be. While I operate fairly well in last-minute situations, the truth is that I don’t have the time or energy to deal with the stress of a writing cram session. I have a husband, two kids, jobs, and a variety of other people, events, and things that need my attention. Taking a twelve hour stint on a Saturday to pound something out isn’t fair to anyone involved—especially my characters.
As such, I devised a plan to beat my procrastinating ways. I have taken to studying one short story that I love each week. I analyze what, when, and how the writer uses dialogue, description, narration, and then I use my super-detailed format notes provided by said story to help me write my own. I guess in a way you could call me a copycat, but I’m not plagiarizing or stealing. I’m simply helping myself get words on the page.
You see, up until this point, I have been afraid to study other writers’ works too carefully for fear of finding those writers’ themes, words, and situations in my work. Of course, when I read Bastard Out of Carolina last year, my work took on a grittier tone as inspired by Dorothy Allison, but I did not truly study her work; I used that osmosis technique I mentioned earlier. Sure, I read incessantly, and I think my writing improves with each new book I read, but the idea of trying to get into the head of the writer and understand he/she made the choices she did and emulate that was entirely off limits until recently.
Yet each day, I sat in front of my computer and counted my cursor blinks. It didn’t matter how well I scheduled my writing time or how many pre-writing rituals I performed. Ultimately I was left with a white screen. Finally, I’d had enough and decided I must do something new. I thought back over my most recent residency for my MFA and remembered an amazing craft lecture where Andre Debus’s “Leslie in California” was discussed and how taken I was by the story. It occurred to me that I could use the blueprint Debus had already created to help generate my own story. What I was left with was one of the best shitty first drafts I have ever written.
It forced me to realize that the hardest part, for me, is to start, and if picking a part the work of another writer and giving my best try to emulate what that writer does helps me get words on the page, perhaps that’s not so bad.
Shea Faulkner holds a Master’s of Education from Southern Wesleyan University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College. Shea’s primary literary interests include the Southern family as portrayed by Southern writers. She currently works as an adjunct English and Reading instructor at Spartanburg Community college and is an independent quality consultant. She and her husband, Campbell, reside in Upstate, SC, with their two children, Ian and Caroline.