On procrastination/blogger’s block

I want to confess into the Internet ether that for months and months I’ve been stuck with this blog. Badly stuck. This post is about the learning arc ­– how I wound up in a procrastination sinkhole, and how I’ve managed to start crawling out.

Diagnosis

Procrastination can take over a person’s life like chronic disease. Left untreated, it can turn one’s mind into a sinkhole of anxiety and avoidance, a fetid gaseous swamp strewn with the skeletons of late essays, superannuation forms, expired kale, unfinished novels and unused gym subscriptions… a place where schedules and dreams go to suffocate and die.

Early diagnosis is therefore important.

In Mae Sot I flailed under the weight of self-imposed expectations (to write every day, blog 3 x a week, etc.) Not posting on events as they happened made me stressed, pressured, behind. I thought it meant the blog would be a flop. But I couldn’t seem to squeeze out more than one a month, and as the weeks went by and the events and ideas and experiences and photos and hyperlinks and draft posts started mounting I felt more and more behind, like Sisyphus with his boulder on a pathetic mound of mediocre grass.

In the New Year I fell into the sinkhole and by then even the thought of blogging invoked anxiety and frustration, which worsened my aversion and, from there, my avoidance. It was like being encased in wet, hardening, mental cement. Like a window was closing but I couldn’t jump through.

Towards the end, I started entertaining the thought that maybe everyone was right – maybe it didn’t matter that I hadn’t blogged that much about the Thai-Burma border while I was there on it. Huh. Then I started reading more about how others have found it hard to maintain their blogs and writing practice. This helped to detangle my negative thoughts and turn the heaving, leaking vessel that is my procrastinating mind around.

Management

There’s a lot of advice out there for writers and would-be writers. A list of some practical tips and insights I’ve been finding helpful:

–       Aim Low. This one is hard. It means replacing perfectionistic delusions with Realistic Expectations (RE). The problem is that sometimes aiming high works and when it does it tends to attract a lot of positive feedback. However, clinging with white knuckles onto an unrealistically high bar is invariably a bad idea. Leaving you dangling in mid-air, petrified, your lofty goals eluding you, it leads to discouragement, dissatisfaction, tiredness and feelings of failure, which can lead to real failure – the failure to do anything at all except whimper on the floor with a sprained mind. Lowering the bar is therefore a critical first step (like Airway, Breathing, Circulation).

–       “Keep your doing and your deciding away from one another this nugget was airdropped into my inbox from Raptitude, which is like a humanitarian blog for internal-conflict-affected writers. It made me realize that most of writing, and living, comes down to micro-decision making – what David Foster Wallace called ‘the work of choosing’. This is something that takes a lot of practice but is easy to avoid. And when you’re a chronic over-thinker, infected with self-doubt, it makes sense that you would go to pains to scurry away from it.

–       “Worry destroys the ability to write” — Hemingway. Yup. Fear disables decision-making. Anti-anxiety strategies are therefore essential.

–       Distraction is a never-ending threat. Fear + Doubt + Distraction = the worst. Being ‘on the grid’ in this situation can mean paralytic indecision, hence this incisive piece of wisdom from Zadie Smith: “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”

–       ‘The Redirect Technique’ – one of Life Hacker’s ‘Six scientifically-supported ways to crush procrastination’. This is about procrastinating well, with intention e.g. by doing the washing up, or going for a run (the best). Virginia Woolfe advocated ‘gentle exercise in the air’ and getting ‘out of life’ as ways to overcome writer’s block. She is also quoted as saying “My mind works in idleness. To do nothing is often it’s most profitable way”.

–       Self-forgiveness = another effective, evidence-based antidote. No matter what you’re procrastinating about, it can lead to guilt, however nonsensical and indulgent that guilt might be. When this happens, self-flagellation is never a good idea. Unlike with aiming high, it doesn’t work. It makes everything worse, always. Giving oneself a break, both literally and morally, is very important. Learnt that the hard way….

Remission – out of the sinkhole

On that note, I’m going to re-start this blog with a less self-defeating, flea-like, dilatory mindset and some revised aims: to embrace failure; let go of what I was trying to do; remind self that every post is a small, irrelevant experiment, not some legally binding public document.

Also, to be more optimistic. When I told a friend about my blogging woes she told me to stop whining and think of “Proust and the biscuit”. This is in reference to a well-known part of In Search of Lost Time where biting into a Madeline evokes a flood of involuntary memories in the narrator, who relives them all in the one compressed moment.

What I take from this is that life isn’t linear. Blogging definitely isn’t linear. This means it really doesn’t matter if I blog retrospectively about Mae Sot from London, or wherever. Maybe there will be upsides to doing it this way.

Even if not, everything is still clear in my mind. And I’ve been taking a lot of notes.

Why I Write

I absent-mindedly went on twitter this evening and noticed that ‘Orwell’ was trending. It turns out today is his 110th birthday. So I decided – at the risk of inflating expectations about my theoretical ability to deliver thought-provoking naturalistic prose – to revisit his essay Why I Write in the hope that it will help to outline some of the reasons behind my own incipient attempt at becoming a writer (whatever this means).

The opening passages – a brief account of George’s ‘non-literary years’ (before the age of twenty-five) when he tried to abandon the idea of being a writer ‘with the consciousness that [he] was outraging [his] true nature’ – provide a sense of heady relief, at least to anyone worrying about a Failure to Launch in this respect. This is in view of the recently-extended time-frame in which one can be considered ‘young’, a phenomenon, endorsed by sociologists, whereby changing conditions – the move towards information-based economies, more (and more) education, advancements in sexual and reproductive healthcare, science, technology etc. – have led to what’s known as the ‘prolonged incubation period’ and a new generation of emerging adults rising phoenix-like from their parents’ couches, long after they hit twenty-one. Not least is the onwards-and-upwards global trend in life expectancy: while Orwell died in London from complications of tuberculosis at the age of forty-six, I ­have a reasonable chance of living till at least eighty-two (and just had a BCG vaccination) i.e. in all likelihood it doesn’t matter that my own ‘non-literary years’ have lasted a bit longer.

Back to WIW. Orwell posits there are ‘four great motives for writing’. He notes: ‘[they] exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living’. Or she. They are:

I. Sheer egoism – a shared trait that earmarks writers as inherently ‘vain, selfish and lazy’ and, on more flattering note, as members of a ‘gifted, wilful’ minority…determined to live their own lives to the end’.

The first part rings uncomfortably true. For one thing, benign narcissism is a flaw I have been found guilty of in the past as a repeat offender. Exhibit A: a compilation of passages from old diary entries (pending), written mostly in my early twenties, in which I chronicle the litany of thoughts, feelings and pulsing anxieties that were occupying my attention at the time, complete with arresting headings like ‘Tonight I flossed’.

But egoism itself is not always a bad thing, as George takes pains to point out. And there are plenty of other career options out there for the vain and self-centred besides being a writer. Take doctors, for example, who bathe in ego-gratification on a daily basis like pigeons in a dirty fountain. Or politicians. Or armchair human rights activists ranting about politicians. In WIW, all of these are lumped into a tainted but still enviable category: “the whole top crust of humanity”.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of this unashamed elitism. Orwell obviously doesn’t really think that all writers are gifted, or wilful, or leading independent lives; this is made blatant in another essay from the same collection called Politics and the English language in which he derides modern writing (as of 1946), and writers, and laments the decay of linguistic and professional standards that has corrupted and devalued the whole enterprise.

Which brings me to the second motive, on which he seems to place a relative amount of importance.

II. Aesthetic Enthusiasm – a sensibility (‘very feeble in a lot of writers’) derived from ‘perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement…’ and ‘the desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed’.

This one resonates strongly with my own neglected inclinations. At least since university I have felt compelled, sometimes obsessively, to document and describe various aspects of everyday life, as if it’s passing me by when I don’t.

This was problematic as a medical student. In lectures my mind would wander incessantly off-topic, either stuck on the poetic sound of nomenclature (amaurosis fugax…leishmaniasis…fixed flexion deformity…) or leaping flea-like from rote-learnt scientific fact to fact to abstract – sadly, irrelevant – metaphors. During nervous forays into hospital I was routinely struck by moments of sensory overload (N.B. mostly not because of all the beauty in the external world). I spent lunchtime talks, bedside tutorials, ward rounds – almost every opportunity for structured learning – in a lethargic daze, tormented by a vague but insistent sense that my energies would be better spent jotting down notes on aforementioned moments, like a fly-on-the-dilapidated-public-hospital-wall, rather than struggling to stay physically upright and maintain a bare pretense of clinical interest and budding professionalism.

Unfortunately, instead of acting on these inclinations, I ended up stuck on the aesthetic/practical fence with a stethoscope slung half-heartedly around my neck. And so they never translated into anything substantive, or readable – at least not by anyone except myself.

III. Historical impulse ­– the ‘desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity’.

For my own purposes, this motive has two dimensions: one is personal – the drive to make sense of the past and one’s ‘earlier selves’ and the flickering mass of neural connections that operate like a filter or series of lenses through which one interprets and experiences the world; the other is historical in a wider sense, which I think is the way Orwell intends it.

In this vein, the act of writing can represent an attempt at subjective honesty or authenticity at the one end, and at collating and making sense of facts, or more objective truths, at the other. Both aim to produce writing that is transparent, as clear as possible – that is, if it is to qualify, in Orwell’s eyes, as ‘good prose’ (i.e. windowpane-like).

IV. Political purpose – ‘the desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after’.

I don’t see how this last one could be taken to cover all prose writing, despite the qualifier that the word ‘political’ is being used in ‘the widest possible sense’. Maybe it would be more appropriate to label it an ideological purpose, underpinned by a certain belief-system or value-set? But is all writing even ideological?

In any case, the idea that the more conscious one is of one’s bias – political, ideological, what have you – ‘the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity’ is an invaluable one. For the record, I should note that my own general bias has pluralist, feminist, constructivist, social-democratic and cosmopolitan threads, bundled together into a naturalistic worldview in which death = the end of the line.

One last thought.

WIW has its limitations. This beginner’s post is not meant to be an exhaustive list of reasons but a starting point for thinking about the overall purpose of writing, or of certain forms of writing – namely, blogging.

Who controls the past, controls the future... ....Who controls the present controls the past...

Who controls the past, controls the future…
….Who controls the present controls the past…

this is an ‘aside’

Having trouble with blogging i.e. the ball is not rolling (see below). And birthday looming. On the upside, as an early present I’ve been given a 10-week course in narrative non-fiction writing, to help get unstuck. Watch this space. Actually don’t watch this space (on the off-chance nothing happens on it – blergh).

reasons

Another sadistic cold spell has been cast over the UK. For the morning and most of the afternoon I stayed inside, scrunched up on the couch, glancing at intervals out the window as obstinate, bloated snowflakes spat themselves down onto the dry pavements, and ruminated on the beginning of a symbolic thirty-day countdown to my thirtieth birthday – the impeding new leaf.

In the weeks since my ill-fated maiden post I’ve started working as a locum doctor in an over-strained A+E department on the outer edges of London, after two years away from clinical work.

This administrative and psychological feat has resulted in lots of hours spent trapped on a tube, train or bus as part of the numbing commute out to hospital and back over the wintry Thames.

In these moments and on days off and while hiding in the staff toilet, I’ve managed to squeeze out some notes on why I want to start a blog, what it represents and what I intend/hope it to be, despite a low-grade but self-defeating background anxiety about blogging, or not blogging (i.e. another feat).

……