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The Best-Laid Plans
by Moira Allen
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On Tuesday, for example, I planned a day dedicated to writing. (Well, OK, plus a few games of "Jewel Quest Heritage, expert level" -- but mostly writing.) That plan fell apart when the house began to shake. And shake. As I calmly strolled outdoors to watch my plants doing a little dance on the deck, I could hear things toppling from shelves throughout the house. Fortunately, only my nerves were shattered!
Now, I'm a California girl, so I'm no stranger to quakes. Unfortunately, that means I know that if a quake keeps going (or worse, pauses and then starts up stronger than before), that could mean trouble. Fortunately, it didn't. And since this was the worst quake on the East Coast since 1897, I wasn't too worried about a recurrence. But I found it tough to focus on writing for the rest of the day.
Thursday, I meant to write when we came home from dinner at Don Pablo's -- and found myself, instead, waiting in the car for the AAA truck to come along and jumpstart our battery, while hoping that the ominous clouds wouldn't cut loose just yet because we'd managed to roll down the windows and now couldn't roll them up again.
Today I'm pulling patio furniture off the deck to prepare for a possible hurricane. (Though, in all fairness, it looks like we may only get hit by a "severe tropical storm...")
Granted, most of my weeks aren't like this, and I hope yours aren't either! But it doesn't take earthquakes and hurricanes to disrupt our lives. My sister, for example, has been plagued for two weeks with equipment failures that are preventing her from running her own home business; each new "fix" seems to bring a new set of problems.
What does this have to do with writing, other than the admission that I haven't been doing a lot of that this week? Simply this: I know too many folks who are waiting to start writing when their plans come together. As soon as I do this... As soon as I get that project squared away... When I get all those things marked off my to-do list... When I'm past this difficult stage/phase/era of my life... When the kids are gone... When I retire...
But as the commercial says, "Life comes at you fast." One minute you look like Fabio and the next... Well, like Fabio in old-man makeup. The problem with plans is that something always manages to make things take longer than you planned. That set of errands that you thought would take one hour ends up taking three. A child gets sick and you spend the day in a waiting room. The car breaks down. The computer breaks down. Or you get to the keyboard at the end of the day and realize you're about to break down.
The problem is two-fold. First, we have a tendency to "plan" to write after something else. I'll write after I finish this project, help my child with her homework, do the floors, do the dishes, do the shopping, have a cup of coffee, do my exercise. (Well, admittedly, since it's as easy for me to postpone exercise as writing, I do make an effort to put that first.) The point is, we are forever putting writing second.
The other half of the problem is a mirror of the first: We are experts at finding something, anything to do instead of writing. After all, we need to eat, so the grocery shopping must get done, right? My child's homework is due tomorrow. My paying assignment is due tomorrow. I need to exercise. The floor is a mess. It's true that there will always be something else that needs doing. Conversely, there will always be something else that needs doing. (I know, that sounded like the same statement, but it isn't. Quite.)
In short, we always plan to write "after" -- but we always manage to find something else to do "before."
Here's another way to visualize the problem. Imagine you have two boxes on your desk, "A" and "B." In Box A is a single sheet of paper describing the writing project you want to tackle: A story, a poem, a novel, whatever. In Box B is everything else -- a sheet of paper for every task, project, distraction and recreational activity in your day or week. Needless to say, that stack is pretty tall! Chances are, when you look at the two boxes, Box A seems "optional" compared to all the tasks clamoring from Box B. I'll get to it, you tell yourself, just as soon as Box B is whittled to a manageable size. Only Box B never "whittles." No matter what you subtract, things are always being added. But the only thing getting added to Box A is a growing layer of dust.
It's easy to dismiss this as a "classic definition of procrastination," but it's also life. Box B will never, ever be empty. If it were, you'd be dead. Since dying is not an effective writing strategy, something else needs to change.
The only approach I know of is to change one word in your vocabulary: Change "after" to "before." Instead of saying, "I'll get to my writing after I do X," say "before." I will write before I start the laundry. I will write before I go to the grocery store. (The food will still be there!) I will write before playing Jewel Quest. I will record that TV show and write before I watch it.
It doesn't mean that the tasks in Box B get postponed forever. But imagine what would happen if, instead of "planning" to spend an hour on Box B and then, "afterwards," start to write, you wrote for an hour first? All that other stuff would still get done. But by switching to writing "before" rather than "after," your story might actually get done as well!
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.