Responses to responsibility

The thing that finally tipped me over into buying my own place was not some burning desire to get 'on the property ladder' or being seduced by Channel 4 home shows, but wanting to stop being at the mercy of landlords and to be able to take some responsibility for the place I live in. Which sounds good, except it does of course mean taking responsibility.

Last Saturday I woke up and thought I'd finally get round to painting the fence, something I've been meaning to do for about a year but have been putting off (more on procrastination later). I figured it'd only take a couple of hours; oh how wrong I was, as I found myself painting the final panels on Bank Holiday Monday morning following a second trip to Homebase for more wood stain. So while it is a good thing that I am in charge of the fence, and it is in my power to make it presentable and make vague attempts to stop it rotting away further, it is not so brilliant when such responsibilities knacker up your plans for the long weekend.

It was particularly galling since I'd earmarked the bank holiday to get back into writing the novel. Yes, I'm indulging in that most cliched of pursuits and it doesn't help that I keep catching repeats of Family Guy where Stewie rips the piss out of Brian for his continuing failure to complete his clearly terrible novel. I've wanted to be "a writer" since I was tiny – ever since I realised that books only came into existence after somebody created them, in fact – but the attempt still fills me with a certain embarrassed shame. I think I'm capable of producing 100,000 words of literary merit, do I? Hmm? Honest answer: I don't know, but I sure as hell won't know unless I try. And since I outed my attempts on Twitter last week I might as well make a clean breast of it.

I could probably do with the ritual humiliation of public confession since I am simply abysmal at self discipline. This wretched bundle of sentences has been on pause at the 10,000 word mark since I went back to work because I lack the hard willpower to force myself to sit down in the evenings, or at weekends, or even in the mornings before I get properly get up, to add a couple of hundred words here and there. It was slightly gratifying to read a bunch of writers in the Guardian a few months ago (and which I now can't find), talk about how hard they find writing, and I know it's not just a case of bashing out 300 words off the top of my head on a particular topic as I can do for Londonist every lunchtime. This requires deeper thought, an immersion, if you will. I also know that these are excuses, and that lapses in deep thought can be fixed in the editing and revision processes, and that all I'm doing is weaselling out of completing the first draft. Because, what if it's rubbish? What if it turns out I can't write something of that length after all? What if this exercise exposes my ambitions as pathetic and hopeless? I also know that on the Screenwipe writers' special last December, Russell T Davies said you're not a writer until you've written something. I felt personally chastised. And I know that all my prevarications and self doubts are all just variants on the theme of procrastination and that there is a masterpiece within. Bloated self confidence and self doubt; we are all of us a little bipolar, I think.

And then an entire three day period gets wiped out by fracking garden maintenance. Even my best laid plans get derailed by the delaying tactics of fences.

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4 responses to “Responses to responsibility

  1. Kate May 31, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    Discipline, focus and utter bloody-mindedness.
    And even then you need to find a way to sell your efforts.

  2. Marie May 31, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    “I am simply abysmal at self discipline… I lack the hard willpower to force myself to sit down in the evenings, or at weekends, or even in the mornings before I get properly get up, to add a couple of hundred words here and there… I know it’s not just a case of bashing out 300 words off the top of my head on a particular topic as I can do for Londonist every lunchtime. This requires deeper thought, an immersion, if you will. I also know that these are excuses, and that lapses in deep thought can be fixed in the editing and revision processes, and that all I’m doing is weaselling out of completing the first draft.”
    Actually those aren’t excuses and you were right the first time. You can’t just bash out a few hundreds words here and there, and I’m not surprised that you’re finding it hard to write while you’re working full-time. We all need a kick up the backside sometimes – even often – but don’t give yourself too much of a hard time about this.
    I can only go on my own experiences, but I find that writing something long-form like a novel does require a particular kind of long-term focus which can’t just be switched on and off in the occasional half hour here and there. I have to let go of my day-to-day thinking and enter another part of my mind, and if I’m working in the bitty way you’ve just described, that generally means that once I’ve thought my way back into the book, time is up and I get frustrated at having achieved nothing.
    My advice is to try to get as much of a routine as you can so that it’s always the same specific time that you write. If you are able to ‘click in’ quickly (I never could), an hour each morning might be a good time, but you have to be committed to that hour. If it’s the same hour each day, you will get to know it as your writing time, you won’t use it for anything else, and it’ll be faster and easier to get into the right frame of mind. But I found that too hard (I can’t work in short bursts like that) so I worked a four-day week, including one weekend day, which meant I had two full days writing during the week with no distractions. If you can bear to sacrifice a weekend day every week that might do the trick. Again, I would strongly advise that it’s the same day(s) that you write each week, and they are sacred. Otherwise it’s too easy to schedule other things, assuming that you can make up the time later, and you never can.
    The other advice I’d give is not to read or listen to music on your commute, and to use that time to think ahead about what you want to write the next time you’re at your desk. When I was writing GBB, I had over an hour each way on the bus to work, and I did some of my best thinking then.
    As for fear of writing rubbish, that never goes. The key is to write for your own enjoyment, and try not to care too much about the results. Easier said than done…
    Good luck!

  3. Rachel June 1, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Marie: phew! I should’ve come clean months ago 🙂 Funny you should mention a four day week, I’ve just swung my contracting to do just that… at the moment it’s only until the end of June, but with any luck I’ll be able to make that a condition of wherever I end up next. It’s perhaps not as stable and long term a routine as I’d like, but it will have to do for now. And I may have to unfollow Alan Davies and Richard Herring on Twitter so I don’t have to see them post their daily word counts (bastards).

  4. Tom June 1, 2009 at 10:03 am

    The greatest way to avoid procrastination when writing is, of course, that of Hunter S Thompson: to get someone to hold you at gunpoint until you finish the copy. That not being generally practical, I favour physically disconnecting the internet, arming myself with gallons of strong coffee (and cups and milk and spoons – retreat to the kitchen is fatal) and removing cats to another room lest they should attempt to sit on the keyboard.
    This technique, combined with the pressing need to pay for a new roof, works pretty well for me. Not sure if it’s suitable for novel writing, but it could be worth a shot.

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