battling creative procrastination: the art of the start, part two

Get things off your mind.

One of the smarter things I did this year was buy David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. Six months later, I actually read it. Allen is a wise dude, and a very good writer, and I can’t recommend his books enough. But that’s not the point.

The point has to do with Allen’s observations about multitasking. Multitasking, he says, is a myth (and here, by the way, is a study to back that up). The brain can only concentrate on one thing at a time. (People who appear to multitask aren’t doing many things at once so much as efficiently switching their attention among various tasks.)

Shortly after reading Allen, I read another book called Brain Rules that devotes a chapter to the issue of attention and our delusion that we can, say, drive safely and text at the same time. Like money, like time, we only have so much mental energy to spare.

So if you’ve got ten things on your mind — buy cat food, buy a new house, pick up the kids, resolve that fight with your spouse, go to Paris, etcetera — you’ve already overloaded it with stuff it feels it needs to concentrate on all at once. Turns out it really sucks at this. When left to its own devices, the mind weighs everything equally, so that buy cat food is just as important as write compelling and socially relevant novel (and no doubt it is, to the cat). You want to work on that love scene, but your mind keeps turning back to Purina Chow, because it’s worried that you will forget, and Snowflake will promptly starve to death or take to the streets and join a roving cat gang or something.

When you rely solely on your mind to remind you of these things, your mind takes that responsibility very, very seriously. And if you treat it as a bucket to fill with all those thoughts of tasks that need doing, the mind flits from one thing to the next, trying to remember, remember, remember.

(…don’t forget to buy the dog a bed…)

It gets stressed out.

It gets tired.

Allen’s solution to this is to collect everything that’s in your mind and put it in a safe place. All those tasks and goals and dreams taking up space in your head, costing you mental energy — write them down. This is only one part of Allen’s system, but you might be surprised by the power of it. If your mind knows that it no longer needs to focus on cat food because you wrote down ‘buy cat food’, it will release that concern and move on to something else. It will put that energy and focus into, perhaps, thinking about your book. This is why

It’s good to do morning pages.

I”m talking about The Artist’s Way author and teacher Julia Cameron’s practice of sitting down first thing in the morning and filling three pages with stream-of-consciousness writing. No self-censorship, no attempt to write stylish, compelling prose, no attempt to be ‘interesting’: just move your hand across the paper until you’ve filled three pages without stopping, even if all you’re writing is “I need to fill three pages and this is a crappy task and I hate it and feel stupid and want to eat pancakes” over and over again.

I do this. I don’t do it everyday and I don’t always do it in the morning — my pages have a way of becoming afternoon or evening or midnight pages. I found this practice incredibly helpful for, I think, several reasons. It got me back in the habit of writing, of sitting my ass in the chair and applying pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, and after some major life upheaval and personal drama (a.k.a. “getting divorced”), I needed to be brought back to basics.

I leveraged that habit into the writing of actual fiction, including the story I sold to a zombie anthology that comes out in October (including stories by King, Gaiman, and Brite) and the novel I’m working on now. In the process, I uncovered a love and excitement for writing (and for writing about writing) that I feared had been exhausted. I found new direction and vision for myself.

And I also discovered that the act of ‘morning pages’ calms me, and I think it’s because I often find myself writing out lists of things I need to do and want to accomplish, whether it’s for that day, that week, that month; whether it’s notes for a scene in my novel, or a half-baked idea for some vague future screenplay, or the drawers in the bathroom cabinet I want to clean out and the boxes of books to donate to various libraries, or the kind of home and family life I want to create for my sons. I am getting stuff off my mind, in a way that goes beyond ‘to-do’ or ‘next-action lists’ to include general life stuff, about a rich and burgeoning relationship or will the kids like their new school or I haven’t worked out in five days, or whatever.

Morning pages serve as a clearinghouse for the mind. There’s something about taking all that internal stuff and making it external, collecting it on paper so that the mind doesn’t have to try to hold it anymore, that makes it easier for me to write about the people and events that don’t exist anywhere except in my head.

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