That novel? I’ll get to it when I get to it.
Procrastination feels bad but can be a productive part of the writing process. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself this summer, which I started off with grand ambitions to finish the first draft of a novel I’ve been working on for more than a year.
As a writer, I find what best motivates me is a deadline. It isn’t until the due date is fast approaching that I start writing. But there is no deadline for my novel. No agent breathlessly waiting for a first peek. No editor nudging me for updates. No rabid fan club demanding my next book.
Not only is no one clamoring for my second novel, if history is any predictor, once it’s done, it will be a hard sell.
With no deadlines, it’s easy to excuse myself from my self-imposed work schedule on the slightest of pretexts. After all, it’s summer! I’m vaccinated, I’ve had covid, and the world beckons. I’m finally able to see old friends and meet the new ones made online during lockdown.
There’s an invigorating intimacy that comes with personal contact that cannot be simulated in onscreen congregations. Profound discussions with close friends can be more thought-provoking and instructive than contemplative reading; even lighthearted bullshit sessions are more nurturing and edifying than the latest true-crime documentary or outraged op-ed.
I have written before about how I get some of my best ideas while swimming laps. As my body does the repetitive work of moving through the water, my mind relaxes into a receptive state, the pool my Bodhi tree, a portal for enlightenment.
The long walks I take with my dog are also conducive to inspiration. We amble along the creek near my house, on the lookout for the birds whose evocative names I chant in incantation: yellow-crowned night heron, belted kingfisher, pileated woodpecker, yellow-bellied sapsucker, northern flicker, eastern phoebe, kestrel, red-tailed hawk, black-capped chickadee.
Listening to their trills, cheeps, and screeches, I think about the endless permutations of language. My dog frequently flops down on the grass to cool her belly, so close to the heat-scorched ground, and we watch the parade pass by — she catching the scent of other dogs; I noting the multifariousness of people and their pets in all their manifestations.
Last year, my husband and I replaced most of our lawn with bee- and butterfly-attracting native plants and a pond with a burbling fountain. We find ourselves hypnotized by the play of water, the bathing birds, the gleam of goldfish as they surface to nibble at the feathery roots of the water plants, the inexhaustible bumblebees weaving among the pollen-rich panicles, the swallowtail butterflies banqueting on blossoms, the sturdy stalks of the purple coneflowers bending under snacking goldfinches, the ruby-throated hummingbird hovering to sip from a bee balm bloom. We watch as the winged seeds from our neighbor’s mighty maple tree twirl through the air, portending the coming change of the seasons.
And, of course, there are always books. Taking the summer off from my required reading for book reviews, author interviews, and research, I am reading my way up the Jenga tower of my TBR pile. Among other books, I have enjoyed Kosoko Jackson’s YA time-travel gay romance, Yesterday Is History; Emma Donoghue’s detail-perfect historical crime novel with an unnecessarily complicated narrative structure, Frog Music (sent to me by my favorite editor!); Neil Davidson’s translation of Chilean author Carla Guelfenbein’s generation-spanning linked stories of lust and loss featuring poet Gabriela Mistral, One in Me I Never Loved; and my current read, Vailes Shepperd’s Gothic-tinged portrait of a globetrotting family roiled by a successful but distant father and a mother with multiple personalities, A Good Ending for Bad Memories.
Sometimes, when I’m peering through binoculars trying to identify an uncooperative bird or taking a leisurely stroll during my writing time, I hum that ketchup commercial jingle from my youth, replacing “anticipation” with “procrastination”:
“Procrastination, procrastination, is making me wait.”
While retrieving a link to the commercial for this column, I discovered that Carly Simon wrote the original song, “Anticipation,” on which the ad is based. Then, I started down the YouTube rabbit hole, watching old commercials and Simon performances and interview clips, somehow ending up, as I always seem to do, chuckling along with Trevor Noah.
Well, why not? I got time. This column’s not due for another few days. And there are three more weeks until Labor Day.
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, co-founder of the Adoptee Literary Festival, and a book reviewer.