The benefits of writerly procrastination

The last two books I wrote, I wrote at a pace of 10,000 words a week and completed both books in twelve weeks total. It took me almost twenty years to be able to do so. I didn’t write every day, I didn’t write every week, but when I did, I wrote my 2000 words usually before noon. You still won’t find a person more against daily quotas for non-professional writers than me.

Ten years ago, I realized what the feeling of not wanting to write had nothing to do with not wanting to write. I always want to write if I’m excited about what is going to happen next. What I hated beyond everything else, was trying to write not being excited about what to write next.

My brain has two states. The “on” state idles at 9000 rpm. The “off” state exists to just absorb the experience. If I don’t want to write, it’s because I don’t want to write what happens next. So I open up a video game and play until what it is about the next scene I don’t want to write resolves itself in the back of my brain while the frontal cortex is distracted by the bright and shiny explosions.

I may have a dozen ideas. I may have none. But when the right solution occurs to me, the video game loses all its appeal. The act of typing words into a computer is a series of hundreds of choices. What words to use, what mood to set, what tone to build, what tension to squeeze or relax, what conflict to build or collapse. I need to know what has to happen so that I can make it happen the best way I can. To try to do both at the same time leaves no time to consider alternate outcomes or solutions and divides my attention away from what I know the reader is reading for.

Beauty may not be truth in people but it is in theories. It is very difficult to learn how to do something and how to do it the best way possible at the same time. Only abnormally talented, highly intelligent writers seem to be able to do it. Up until the computer age, this was never a concern. Peer review was by invitation only and only in very privileged places. It feels poetically ironic that writers who never felt safe in the modern (still mostly white, still very privileged) critique group had the best chance of not being impacted by the blight of there are no rules .: don’t even learn them mentality.

Because now we have a problem I’m calling asymmetrical skill acquisition where writers can spend 10-15 years practicing only the static aspects of craft while telling themselves they’re just breaking the rules by not practicing plot, pacing, theme or tension.

To those writers, to bring up the fundamental moving aspects of craft means going right back to the drawing board. I’ve had to do that multiple times in my life where I had to question everything I thought I knew. Seeing how much work something is going to take in order to learn new skills by rote is enormous. It pushes career goals back years, if not decades. It makes some people seriously consider whether they have that time and energy to invest. The illusion that no rules means no learning or prolonged practice is necessary to succeed is insulated against critical thinking on multiple levels.

As much as asymmetrical skill acquisition is a problem to the modern learner, so is having an asymmetrical drive. Writers cannot want to be published more than they want to learn how to use all aspects of their craft.

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