"I'd read far too many books on "how to write a novel," had tried hundreds of writer's exercises and followed far too much advice much too seriously."
I don't remember ever wanting to be anything other than a writer. As a kid I devoured books and authors were my heroes. But no matter how many notebooks or pens I bought, no matter how many classes I took, no matter how many times I started, I never got farther the first two paragraphs.
I even told people I was writing a novel, hoping that saying it would make it so. But wanting to do something and doing it are two very different things.
Over the years, I came up with dozens of excuses why I couldn't get my book written: too much work at my day job, too little support from my (then) husband, no office at home in which to write.
Faced with a blank sheet of paper, I froze. A novel was such an overwhelming concept -- to start from page one and get all the way to page 310 paralyzed me.
When I turned 30 -- the age I had designated as the year I'd be published -- and had nothing to show for my efforts but stationery store receipts, a deep depression set in. Not knowing what else to do, I searched out a therapist who worked with people in the arts.
"Tell me a little about why you are here?" he asked at the beginning of our first session.
"All I want is to write a novel. But I'm starting to wonder if I just want to be a novelist -- as opposed to doing the work."
And so began a three-year relationship that culminated in a finished book, but it took the better part of that first year for us to uncover the problem.
I'd read far too many books on "how to write a novel," had tried hundreds of writer's exercises and followed far too much advice much too seriously. (A quick search at Amazon.com lists over 18,000 books on writing. More than 2000 just on writing literature and fiction alone.)
Overwhelmingly the authors who penned those tomes said: just sit down and write every day. Even if nothing comes out, even if all you write about is last night's dinner, even if you record your dreams, just write.
Guess what? Just sitting down and writing will get you writing, but it will get you writing a journal, not necessarily a novel. My head was so filled with the pressure to write, that I wasn't thinking straight. I wasn't looking for a process, I wasn't discovering a path. I wasn't immersed in my imagination. I wasn't in touch with the feelings and conflicts of my characters I felt compelled -- but incompetent -- to put down on paper.
About eight months into therapy, the good doctor made an outrageous suggestion. "Why don't you bring your main character with you to the next session? I'd like to meet her." He wasn't being sarcastic, but sincere.
Except I had no idea what he meant. And when I asked him to explain, he did the typical therapist thing: refused to answer and instead used the Nike tag line on me: Just do it.
During the six days until our next session, I thought about his request often. I wondered if I did bring her, what she'd wear, what she'd want to talk about and what she'd say to him.
Without my even realizing it, my imagination was engaged. My character began to have a life of her own. She came with me the next week. It was awkward at first to speak for her, but I did.
That next year she continued in therapy with me. The more I talked to my therapist about her issues and her conflicts the clearer her story became and the stronger became my need to tell it. I'd leave those sessions brimming with her thoughts and feelings, so impatient to write them down, I'd scribble notes during the cab ride back to my office.
Writing my novel happened without me knowing it.
What I finally understood was that you can't just stop procrastinating and then sit down and just write the damn book. Not even seasoned novelists go from one novel to the next without down time. And the process they describe that goes on in between books by another name sounds a lot like procrastination.
That's because procrastination is necessary. It's important.
Now, the three months before I start a new novel, I don't write a word. Rather I work on my main character's scrapbook. The very process of collecting her preferred poems, swatches of her favorite colors, and petals from the flowers she grows gives me time to find her.
I collect the ticket stubs for a performance of the Metropolitan Opera that she went to, a postcard from her mother's first trip to Europe, a piece of the red and white string on the pastry box from her grandmother's apartment: it's all in the scrapbook.
And only when I've found all the knickknacks of her life and I've done a fair amount of procrastinating do I even think about sitting down to write. And by then, I can't wait. | September 2002
M.J. Rose's most recent novel is Flesh Tones. She currently teaches an online class on How To Procrastinate Your Way Into Writing A Novel.