One Question, Five Authors #10: “Can you say something nice about procrastination?”

Procrastination. I guess everybody does it (or doesn’t do it) regardless of career choice. But it’s suffered most acutely by creative types. Full of despair and self-loathing, we beat ourselves up over our perceived lack of productivity.

In my calmer moments, when I’m more generous-hearted to myself, I understand the word “procrastination” is often a misnomer, part of a false narrative we tell ourselves about the nature of the creative process.

For today’s “One Question,” I asked five talented friends to share their thoughts on procrastination. Thank you: Jo Knowles, Barbara O’Connor, Charles Waters, Jay Cooper, and Susan Hood. 

 

Jo Knowles

Procrastination from my writing has provided me with a reorganized office, getting my taxes done, laundry folded, dishes put away, a snow fort built, countless levels of Candy Crush passed (don’t judge!), long walks with my dog, an epic closet clean out, and… NEW IDEAS. All of these somewhat mindless tasks allowed my brain and heart the necessary time out to realize why I was resisting the writing in the first place. When I let go, stop struggling and allow myself to do ANYTHING else, eventually my brain begins to solve whatever writing problems I’m struggling with. When I yearn to walk away and procrastinate, I’ve learned that there’s usually a good reason and let myself do it. I know that if the project is meant to be, it will call me back.

 

Barbara O’Connor

Ah, my old friend, Procrastination. I know her well. I procrastinate because I’m human. But I also procrastinate when I’m struggling with a manuscript. Much to my dismay, I’m a pantser. Although I would dearly love to outline, I don’t –- or more accurately, I can’t. My process is having a clear idea of character and setting but a very hazy idea of plot. (The other P word I sometimes hate.)

Writing the first draft is usually like groping in the dark with a dim vision of where I’m headed. This process is extremely frustrating to me. As a result, I’d often rather do laundry, walk the dog or organize my sock drawer than face that dreaded blank page. The good news is that eventually the story comes to life and I find myself racing to my computer, anxious to dive back in.

Another reason I sometimes procrastinate is because I’m stuck, unable to move the action forward. In such cases, time away from the manuscript is often just what the book doctor ordered. Usually, while walking the dog or doing laundry, I noodle things around in my head and eventually have a breakthrough. Other times, I get back to my manuscript after time away and see it with fresh eyes and the clarity I need to move forward.

Now pardon me while I go organize my sock drawer.

 

Jay Cooper

Oh, procrastination. It’s hounded me all my life, kneeling on my chest like that imp in that Fuseli painting. I have nothing good to say about it, aside from the fact that it can be used to gauge how important a thing is in your life, because in my experience procrastination has two polar causes: on one end, apathy (like when I procrastinate doing my taxes, or laundry) on the other, such fervent love of a thing that you’re petrified you’ll be terrible at it (like professional illustration, or that book you’ve always wanted to have a real go at writing). If you’re procrastinating because of the first part, I say, “do the work when it becomes unavoidable.” As to the second, you need to wrestle that fear to the ground, stake its heart, wrap it in chains and drop it into the Gowanus Canal.

How? I think it’s just jumping in and doing the work no matter how much fear it causes in you. My sketches are dreck. My early written drafts are barely legible . .  total trash. But I also could barely run a whole mile until I did it for five months straight, and then I ran a half marathon. I pushed down the fear of failure (I still do, every time I sit at the drawing table) and told friends I couldn’t attend parties, or go to movies, or spend a week at the beach. I got up weekend mornings and showered and shaved, and even put on a dab of cologne like it was a regular workday, but instead of walking to the train, I took a cup of coffee to my drawing table. I worked every day for months until I was sure my book was in shape. And by then, procrastination was no longer even an issue for me, because the habit of digging in and creating became part of my everyday routine. And I understood with time and diligence that a crappy sketch will ultimately become a decent illustration if I just keep plugging away at it. Once I had faith in myself, and some discipline, I slaughtered the imp.

That being said, I still haven’t turned in my taxes this year.

 

Charles Waters

This is something that, from what I’ve heard and read and has happened to me more than once, most writers go through. It’s important, at least to me, not to beat oneself up over it too much and get back to it when you can, hopefully sooner rather than later.

One way to help with the procrastination is to read a lot — reading is as vital as writing, so look at it getting half the job done when you’re going through a writing drought. Ultimately, to quote the great (and prolific) Jane Yolen, it’s all about BIC (Butt in Chair). There’s no replacement for it.

Another way to get out of the procrastination funk is jotting down things you see in your everyday life.

How a rain drop might hit a plant,

which ways the lines zig and zag in the chipped concrete,

checking out the different cloud formations in the sky.

I’ve typed up thoughts like those above, and many others, on my notebook phone app, and when I accumulate a healthy amount, I transfer it to my writing notebook, so when the time comes to write, I have something to at least get the writing motor started.

 

Susan Hood

Can I say anything nice about procrastination? It gets the laundry done. But seriously, procrastination for me means that my ideas aren’t fully formed and I need time and space to mull them over. Taking my dog for a walk, gardening, or kayaking frees my mind to wander where it will. It’s the equivalent of putting a manuscript in a drawer and letting it rest for a day or a week or a month. More often than not, I see what wasn’t working when I pull it out again. Right now, I’m procrastinating big time! I recently finished a mammoth research project and a writing marathon for a story that grabbed me the moment I saw a tiny paragraph about it in the back of The New York Times. Titan and the Wild Boars, the story of 12 boys who brought a divisive world together, comes out in May— a collaboration with Thai journalist Pathana Sornhiran and illustrator Dow Phumiruk. So in this case, procrastination is a way to rest and recharge. And I’m mulling over what my next book will be. I have several ideas in different genres: a picture book bio, a nonfiction book and a middle grade historical novel. But not one has gelled for me yet. I need to do more reading and more thinking . . . my favorite kind of procrastination!

 

Student Artwork: 2 Wonderful Notes Handed to Me!

“I love you visiting author.”

“You me.”

Checking In with Ralph Fletcher: On Writing & Photography

Ralph Fletcher needs no introduction.

[Pause.]

[Whistles softly, drums fingers on desktop.]

[Really, people?]

Okay, fine: Ralph Fletcher has not only published 20 books for young readers, he’s also established himself as one of the foremost mentors to classroom teachers, helping to exhort, instruct and inspire effective methods of teaching writing. 

Simply put, Ralph is one of the most respected voices in children’s literature today, and it’s an honor to have him as my guest.

But that’s not why, humble readers, we’re gathered here today.

I wanted to ask Ralph about his photography, and how that practice might be connected to writing.

Here he comes now.

Greetings, Ralph. Thanks for stopping by.
   
You’re welcome. Funny that we have so much in common—both write books for young readers, and both have worked with the same editor—but we have never met. It makes me wonder….are you perchance avoiding me? ☺
   
I don’t think we get invited to the same parties. We have another connection: I believe we also both come from large families. I’m the youngest of seven.
   
I am the oldest of nine. A big family can be a cauldron for great stories.
            
It’s a cauldron all right. I’m a longtime admirer of your writing, and your work as a teacher of writing. Through Facebook, I’ve learned that you are an avid and accomplished photographer. Is this a longtime hobby or something relatively new for you?


   
Mostly, I’d say it’s a passion that has taken hold in the last 5-6 years. I don’t quite call it a hobby, but I’m certainly not Richard Avedon, either. I’m not sure what it is.
   
A photo buff — or a buff photographer? I’m confused. What were we saying?
       
I choose “buff photographer.” Seriously, there’s this prevalent idea in our culture that unless you’re making money doing something you can’t be serious about it. That’s flawed thinking.
          
Excellent point. It occurred to me that there are similarities between photography and writing. 
   
Yes. And I have been thinking a great deal about this subject. I’m writing a book for teachers about the links between photography and writing. Focus Lessons will be published by Heinemann this fall.
   
That’s great news –- and proof that I’m on the right track. Certainly, some links between writing and photography are fairly apparent. Both begin with noticing things, an appreciation and an awareness of the world around you.
          
That’s true. Like  many people I spend a lot of time in my head. Taking pictures certainly pulls me out of myself. It has given me a door into the tangible, visual world. That’s not a bad place to live.


   
I mess around with haiku for the very same reason. Do you think that taking photos has helped you as a writer?
   
I think so. For most of my career I’ve been a language guy.  The items in my tool box are words. I write books (for kids and for teachers), and I speak at educational conferences. Photography draws on a different part of my brain (the non-language part) that I’ve rarely used. It’s fun flexing these new muscles! But to get back to your question….I do believe that photography has helped hone my powers of observation. When you’re trying to get a really good photo of wild creature you find yourself paying close attention to your subject. You can’t help it.  And aren’t writers (like photographers) involved in the business of creating engaging images?


   
Patience is important, too. You can’t blast through it. And all the while, your antenna is up. Waiting and ready.
   
To borrow a sports metaphor: photography has taught me that you have to let the game come to you. You’re right: there is a lot of sitting and waiting. But suddenly it happens: a merganser followed by a string of swimming chicks. And I’m there, sometimes so close we’re practically breathing the same air. That’s special.   

You’ve shared some incredible photographs of birds in flight. But recently you made a comment about practicing your “street photography.” In what way do they require something different from you?


   
I do think there’s a lot of overlap. Whether you’re photographing a heron or a couple of people chatting on a park bench, certain principles apply. You try to make yourself invisible so “they” (your subjects) are not aware of you. It’s not because you’re trying to spy or stalk but you want them to act naturally, to be themselves. If you do that you might be able to enter their world  and see them as they truly are.
   
I often think of writing as the art of getting out of the way. That is, not intruding as the writer, “look at me!” — and instead letting the characters step forward.

Well said. You try to make yourself disappear so the focus of the reader/viewer is on the story you’re trying to tell.


       
Technical question: What kind of equipment do you use?
   
Can you picture me smiling? Because this question fingers a running joke amongst my group of friends. Many people have seen my photos and said: “Your camera takes great pictures!” And I’m thinking, well, ah, no, actually I take the pictures. I think there’s a mistaken notion that all you need to do is get an expensive camera. There’s a lot of craft involved, no matter what camera you used.
       
But hasn’t that been the issue with photography as an art form all along? Because it is so accessible, where even Uncle Bill can take a “decent” snap, people tend to think anyone can do it. 
   
Yes, we’ve definitely seen a remarkable democratization of photography in the last few decades. It used to be a rarified skill practiced by few. Now almost every middle school kid gets a smart phone with a powerful camera in it. Here comes everybody.


   
I will acknowledge that having decent equipment does help. I shoot with a Canon 7D Mark II. I use various lens. It’s great to use a telephoto lens when shooting birds, but a telephoto is impractical when you’re walking around the street. Plus those lens can be heavy.
   
Ah, that explains your buffness. Thank you, Ralph. I respect and enjoy your work -– in any medium. And I look forward to your upcoming book, Focus Lessons, that brings photos and writing together. Do you have a cover we can share? A publication date?

 


        

     


September 2019 (I think). No cover yet. The book will feature about 60-70 of my photos, and explore connections between photography and writing, especially in regards to teaching writing.


Good luck with it, Ralph. I wish you the best. 

Oreos with the Author

For years on school visits, I’ve often enjoyed lunch with small groups of students. Problem is, I never get to eat. These days I’ve tried to shift that to a shorter, very loose Q & A session (25 minutes). I usually explain it as “Cookies and Conversation.” Last week one librarian gave it a fresh twist. Nice! They come for the Oreos . . . and stay for the conversation.

 

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