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PR Isfeld

Nothing real is ever ideal, and vice versa
Nothing real is ever ideal, and vice versa

“Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

–Alain de Botton

As the old joke goes, I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about this subject, but it took me a long time to get around to it. In my case, though, it’s true. I am a longstanding practitioner of the art of procrastination. When I was a graduate student, I got a call from a former member of my programme, now working as a radio journalist, asking if I wanted to be an expert guest on his show.

“Of course,” I said, swelling with pride. Finally, someone was interested enough in my niche area of Russian politics to want to hear my wisdom about its wide-ranging implications. It would be important to manage expectations. “What would you like to focus on?”

“Well,” he said, not sounding the least bit embarrassed, “the theme of the show is procrastination.”

Gulp. Much as I hated to admit it, I was an expert on that subject too, having delayed finishing my thesis well beyond reasonable limits by that point. I did the show and was shocked by the outpouring of empathy and solidarity that came in from the audience. Lots of people procrastinate, it seems, but students, writers, and of course student-writers are particularly good at it.

At the time, I diagnosed the problem as perfectionism: most of us were used to doing well in school, to succeeding at things, and we had high standards that were harder and harder to meet as the competition got stiffer and the goals themselves became even more amorphous. Now, however, I call it what it is, i.e. fear, pure and simple.

If you haven’t yet written your novel, short story, article, thesis, or whatever, it’s still perfect. And as long as it’s not done, it might still be perfect, or at least excellent, or at a minimum, very good. It’s hard for anybody to criticize anything but your tardiness if you haven’t produced the piece yet, and most of us have a gazillion ways of justifying our delays. Procrastination can even be a form of “self-handicapping,” where people deliberately do things that will make them perform badly so they have an excuse.

Does that sound familiar? Maybe you might have produced a better contest entry if you’d started work on your draft sooner, but hey, considering the amount of time you had available, what you did wasn’t that bad, right? It’s okay if the judges don’t like it since it never really represented “the real you” anyway.

The way we learn about literature and writing doesn’t always help us, either. I remember how revelatory it was when one of my writing instructors brought in the first submitted drafts of stories that had been published in their magazine. In some cases, they bore only the most general thematic resemblances to the final published versions, and it was educational to see how hard both the writers and the editors worked to coax out the final, polished versions. After going through an education system that only ever showed the published versions of things, it was exhilarating to know that other writers must also work hard and generate a lot of bad stuff before they get to the good.

So, now that I’ve finished this blog post, I have no excuse for lack of attention to my WIP…or don’t I? Maybe I need to do a little research… or review my notes… or read a craft article… or…

But then again, as one of my former professors–the one who finally dragged that thesis out of me–used to say, “nothing real is ever ideal, and vice versa.” And then he would add “so you have to get to work.”