Emily Dickinson had her attic. Scott Turow had his commuter train. For years I imagined that someday I’d have the perfect place to write. I had enough ideas to put any Pinterester to shame. When I changed jobs and moved to a new city ten years ago, one of the main requirements I sent to my realtor was that any house I bought had to have a place to write. A spare bedroom? Uhmm… You mean like a home office? Well, yes…no. Like that, but more creative, more magical.
I imagined peaceful and productive days spent in some sunny, inspiring (and soundproof from children) nook where I’d finally be a real writer. You know, one that actually completed all of those projects I started over the years–a historical novel from high school, a play from the same period, a half finished collection of poetry, several notes I had for short stories, creative non-fiction pieces, and more poems packed in cardboard boxes, saved to flash drives, and packed away in the dim corners of my memory. They could finally be dusted off and set free to dazzle the literary world.
Unfortunately, houses with magical, inspiring, soundproof writing spaces were well beyond my budget as a teacher and single parent. A decade later, I’m still working on acquiring that magical space. I have a house with plenty of space now, but it’s not so magical. It’s a 97 year old Victorian house that needs more than a little love, and even more carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work.
So, it appears that my magical writing space is still a few months if not years away. Has that stopped me from being a writer? Well, I’ve tried my best to let it, but in the end, it has not.
Like I said, though, that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried. I’ve found myself often lamenting if only I had a better/brighter/softer (feel free to insert and apt adjective here) place to write, it would be easier. I would make the time to do it regularly. I wouldn’t wait until the night before my deadline. I would…(feel free to insert any writing related goal here). I would while away the time coming up with excuses or adding pins to my Pinterest account of what my writing nook would look like one day.
Why do we do this as writers or as students? Why do we invent excuses or put ourselves in circumstances which delay or hinder our progress? What is our fascination with procrastination?
Psychologogist Edward Hirt uses this example to explain our self-handicapping tendencies. He writes, “Instead of studying, a student goes to a movie the night before an exam. If he performs poorly, he can attribute his failure to a lack of studying rather than to a lack of ability or intelligence. On the other hand, if he does well on the exam, he may conclude that he has exceptional ability, because he was able to perform well without studying.” People who procrastinate or even engage in behaviors which lower their chances of succeeding at a task do this, he says, because they feel forced into a situation where they are under prepared. So, essentially, fear of failure leads some of us to always give ourselves an out should we fail, which we feel we are very likely to do.
Carol Dwek studies the psychology of motivation at Stanford University. Her research focuses on failure and how people respond to it. She says that it’s not just the under prepared student who self-sabotage. Her studies have shown that students at the other end of the preparedness spectrum also tend to procrastinate or engage in behaviors like those Hirt describes. Why? Because these students who have always found reading, writing, and other scholastic tasks took very little effort. These students found at a young age that success =ease, and it was a message that was reinforced in them for years by the time they reach college. Therefore, they wait until the last minute to begin writing assignments because that is what has worked for them in the past.
Some of these students also fall into self-handicapping habits because their assignments present them with a new intellectual challenge. This can can trigger a fear of failure, of not living up to their past successes, or of those successes having been a mistake all along. This leads them to engage in the same type of behaviors as students who are under prepared.
Dwek states that whether or not students are going to sabotage themselves depends on how they view intellectual challenges and potential failure. Some people have what is known as a growth mindset. They view challenges and even failure as an opportunity to learn and grow, to better themselves. People who have a fixed mindset view these challenges and the potential failure as a measurement of their intellect. If they rise to the challenge and succeed, they are smart, they belong. If they fail, then they are not, they don’t. The only thing to learn from their failure, they believe, is how they measure up, or not. These are the people most prone to procrastination and self-sabotage.
Complicating matters even more, researchers say, is the fact that when we teach writing, all too often, we only focus on what is “good” or what “works” in a piece. This is all too often true in literature and language arts classes as well as composition classes. In an effort to give students examples to strive toward, we study “great” or successful authors and their works. However, very little (if any) mention is made of the work it took for them to get to the draft we are reading. We teach students to analyze works to determine the author’s intent, as if there’s one true intent that the author was fully aware of as they wrote the text. We study Emily Dickinson who wrote in isolation in her attic with no peer feedback, brainstorming group, or writing tutor. We read bio blurbs in texts of Wordsworth who composted poems while hiking, committed them to memory, and wrote down his lyrical ballads grand enough to help launch the Romantic Period in one try. The problem with practices like this is that very little of it resembles the experiences of student writers. This dissonance does nothing to calm the fears of those who think they might not be up to the writing task assigned them.
Understanding why we do the things we do is the first step in possibly changing habits that don’t work for us and adapting better ones. If you want to know more about this topic, check out Megan McCardle’s article in The Atlantic.
Writing, like most things in life, though, has no perfect time or place to begin or complete them, nor will we ever be as prepared for them as we would like/hope to be, and if we wait on that perfection we will have missed our opportunity. So for now, I’ve resolved to try to eliminate this excuse as much as I can. Here I am making the writing magic happen today.
Next week we’ll look at some strategies to help you avoid procrastination and other habits that undermine your success when it comes to your writing assignments.