Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Moira Allen
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I'm really going to tackle that short story. But first...
I'm going to start working on my memoir. But first...
If you're anything like me, you probably have a lot of "but firsts" in your life. Part of you wants to get started on that special project -- or keeps thinking that you should get started on that project. But another part of you keeps coming up with other projects that need to be done first.
And now, if you're anything like me, you're expecting to read yet another classic motivational editorial about the importance of avoiding procrastination, of following your dreams, of just doing it, and all the rest. If so, relax. It's not going to be that kind of editorial. You've heard it all before. I've heard it all before. I've written it all before. And I have come to the conclusion that what these "don't procrastinate, just do it" messages accomplish best is... to make us all feel really, really guilty.
The problem is that guilt is not a motivator. In fact, guilt can quite often lead to "writer's paralysis." This is what kicks in when two halves of your brain start arguing over what you should be doing right now. "You should stop focusing on paid projects and write your novel," whispers the one half. "You'd better send out more queries and get more assignments because you need the money," whispers the other. Whatever you choose to do, you feel guilty about not doing the other. And quite often, rather than face the choice, you'll do something completely different, like clean the closets or scrub the kitchen floor.
So let's face reality for a moment: Sometimes, there are good reasons for why that "but first... " project really does come first. For example:
1) You need the money. In today's economy, that's hard to argue with. If your writing income is important, then that's where you'll want to focus most of your efforts. These may not be projects that you enjoy; they may even bore you to tears. But right now, they are the ones that are most important to you and your family.
2) You honestly enjoy it. We often find it difficult to admit that we don't always enjoy the sort of writing we think we ought to be doing. We think we should tackle that novel -- but precisely because we think we should, not because we actually enjoy it. Conversely, there may be other tasks that we enjoy more. For example, I discovered early on that I really love editing -- not the mechanics of correcting punctuation, but the sense of assembling a bunch of discrete parts into a new, interesting, even beautiful whole. You probably have "but first..." project that makes you feel the same way: It gives you pleasure, but makes you feel guilty at the same time, because you're sure you ought to be doing something you enjoy less.
3) You benefit from it. There are many benefits besides money and enjoyment. Perhaps you need to spend time promoting your last book before starting work on the next. Perhaps you need to hone your skills before tackling a major project. Perhaps you want to branch out into a new area of freelancing -- from stories to screenplays, or from writing to photography -- and you need to spend time mastering the basics all over again. Whatever the reason, if your "but first..." project conveys a valid benefit, don't ignore its value.
In short, there will always be periods in your writing life when the things you want to do, or the things you think you ought to do, will go on hold for awhile. Fortunately, "for awhile" doesn't have to translate to "forever." The key is to determine whether that "but first..." project really is conveying a benefit. If it is, then quite often, the best thing that you can do is stop feeling guilty and just get on with things.
If, conversely, you can't come up with any reasonable benefit from your "but first..." project -- it's not earning any money, you're not enjoying it, and it's not doing anything else for you -- then perhaps it really is a procrastination tool, and you need to examine why you're using it to avoid some other writing task.
But then, even the kitchen floor needs to be scrubbed once in awhile!
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.