Posts Tagged ‘procrastination’

I am sad that I’ve finally caught up with Girl Genius.

I’ve been racing through it over the past week. Which means I’ve been spending more time reading it than doing the things I should be doing–writing, getting ready for the fall semester, and so on.

But it was like reading a good novel: you just couldn’t put it down. Or close the browser. And yesterday I finally reached the comic that was posted on Monday.

This morning I read Wednesday’s comic. It’s going to be a very different experience, reading it one page at a time, three times a week. For one thing, it made me realize part of the reason I couldn’t stop reading it when I was catching up for several years: although, like a novel, it is a unified whole (although I think I can see the moments where the story evolved for the authors, where they threw things in and tied other things together), the fact that it’s being posted page by page makes it very episodic: the end of every page is a mini-cliffhanger, or mini-resolution.

For another, the experience of really sinking in to something, inhabiting the breath of a story, is something nourishing. I guess I’m referring to this experience when I say that Girl Genius feels novelistic. It’s not something you can get from one page MWF, or from short stories. You need the breadth and depth offered by longer forms, something that gives you space to really live in it, alongside the characters who inhabit that space.

When I complained to Keith about how much time this comic was wasting, he half-seriously asked if there was any way I could justify reading it, make it a part of the work I was procrastinating. “This helps my work because X.” The short term answer was no. No, this is NOT helping me write my literary short story about skunks.

But the long term answer, I think, is yes. The ideas and inspiration behind the story; the characters, the world, the plots, the various storylines pulling apart and coming back together and weaving in all sorts of ways–yes, I think it can be justified.

Any novel, anything you read as a writer feeds you. Even if it feeds you garbage. (So maybe reading a bad novel is worse than reading a bad short story?) But a good story, well-told, sinks into your bones, makes the world in which you write a bigger place.


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EDIT: It occurred to me that I should clarify up front that I am NOT a wannabe MFA dropout. Just someone who contemplates the “to MFA or not to MFA” question from the inside.

I stumbled across this answer to this question while procrastinating on the internet. It’s about getting an MFA in art, as opposed to writing, but it interests me nonetheless.

Treat this course of study as though it were a work of art that must be finished at all costs. Persevere through your uncertainty and your panic. Pay attention to the details of your subjective responses. Think about what it means to be panicking in art school. Think about what it means to be borrowing so much money, to be following the directions of teachers. That is all part of being an artist.

Think about what it means to want to be an artist. That can be your art for now. Study the lives of other artists; consider their agonized indecision, their confusion about what role to play in life, their methods for completing their work and making a living in the world. Use this time to learn all you can. That’s all you have to do.

You don’t have to “produce art” now. You’re in art school. This process can be your art for now. You’re supposed to think and learn, acquire techniques and skills, grow and develop as a person. That’s what you’re doing. So go to class. Throw yourself into your problems. Believe in yourself. If art has changed you, then honor that change; make this your way of paying art back. Devote yourself to art. Be a humble servant of your craft and your genius. Do the right thing. Stick with it. Be an artist.

On one level it’s kind of silly. Including the whole “don’t worry about debt!” part. And an important aspect of the asker’s question–you don’t need an MFA to be an artist–is totally ignored.

What caught my attention was the sentence, “That can be your art for now.” I’m not sure that I agree with this on the level that “producing art” can wait. (Maybe because I have to come out my program with, you know, a book.)

But I like the sense that part of being an artist is more than production. When it comes to production, I have a lot of insecurity. When I’ve written a decent draft and people tell me it’s pretty good, I am happy. Not that anyone has to tell me it’s perfect–they can be honest. But something that is at least passable for a story, as opposed to a bunch of mangled, melodramatic, boring crap. (I sometimes write mangled, melodramatic, boring crap. And it makes me feel … crappy.) When I take forever to get one draft written, when I have to abandon something I’ve put hours and hours of time into, when I have no idea what my thesis is going to be (gulp), I feel like I’m failing.

I am pretty sure I’m reading a little more into this answer than the author intended, but it seems to present an MFA program is a time of discernment. Not just about whether or not to be an artist, but on what that means, and how it translates into action.

I have more thoughts but they are not worded at the moment.

And I have a draft to finish. Yes, the draft that was “due” on Wednesday. Ungh.

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While conspiring with the internet to procrastinate my long list of Things I Have To Do By TOMORROW, I stumbled across the NaNoWriMo Coffee House, and was pleasantly surprised to find it active.

It’s a pretty happening place in November, and when it first “opened” in 2004 it stayed active all year round. But now, come January, it drifts around aimlessly, knocked about now and then by a few stray posts.

Reading it reminded me that I have an idea for this year’s NaNo–a vague one, granted, with two vivid characters and an opening setting–and it also reminded me of one of last year’s failed beginnings that might also make a good novel. Which means that more than one idea is vying to be written–which has been, in the past, a good sign.

What makes me think I’ll have time to do NaNo this year when last year I unceremoniously gave up and ran away screaming?

I’ll tell you what: if I can get excited about NaNoWriMo–more importantly, if I can get excited about my NaNoWriMo novel–then I’m golden. I know I can do it. And I think part of the key is lurking around the forums, getting back in the communal spirit and feeling the electricity that runs through those threads, even in the off-season. That was how I first met NaNoWriMo; how my first November Novel came together, bits and pieces sticking to each other and then exploding into something.

And I need to be excited for November, for the actual month, the season of fall, which always, always feels like the Time of Novels to me.

And I need to write some good old speculative fiction.

And I need to figure out what trouble is rumbling at the bottom of the mountain my characters are skiing on.

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I am a bad blogger.

Granted, I can use the but-I’m-teaching-a-summer-course excuse, and that is a good reason to have huge gaps on your blog. But I am also a horrible procrastinator, so when I’m online I spend my time reading design*sponge and watching “Lost in Austen” on Netflix. (I thought the concept for this miniseries had the potential to be fun: a modern day Jane Austen fan switches places with Elizabeth Bennet, thus causing havoc in the world of Pride and Prejudice. But I stopped watching it about an hour in because I didn’t like it.)

Perhaps the habit of blogging isn’t so important, but I believe I need to cultivate more habits of discipline in my life. I’ve heard and read many times–mostly in spiritual contexts–that discipline is liberating. The more I live with myself as an adult, the more this makes sense. Like how I tell my students, now and again, that rules are what allow creativity and originality to blossom.

I tell them things like that, usually because something I’ve said (or they’ve said) sets me off on a ramble on one of my pet subjects. I used to worry about these diversions, but not any more. I think one of the most basic truths about teaching is that you have to be yourself; and this is doubly true of teaching writing. Even if that means going off on the occasional tangent or simply being a little weird. (I have also reached the point where I simply don’t get embarrassed in class. Ever. I need to learn how to do that as a student.)

Today was my fourth 3-hour-long class (of twelve). I am surprised, every day, at how quickly these three hours pass. At the fact that they are full, and that hardly anyone ever looks like they’re about to fall asleep. To a large extent this is because I’ve been blessed with good students; they have a lot to say, they are perceptive readers, and they are serious about writing. Thank goodness.

I told them on the first day that while I would try for variety, I was only going to teach from stories that I loved. That is all I can do, really: share with them from my store of treasures that nourish me as a writer, and hope it also speaks to them. I can usually judge who connects with what by their faces, by their level of participation–and no, not everyone loves what I do. That is okay.

We have talked about dialogue, characterization, point of view. Today the topic was Plot, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that eyes wandered to windows and empty corners of the classroom. Now and then I would catch one of those deep, involuntary sighs coming from a desk outside my range of vision. Time still passed quickly enough; but I set all of us free early. Plot is not my favorite subject. I don’t know how to talk about it. So I borrowed words that didn’t move me, words that I didn’t care too much about when I was an undergrad. Maybe I could have found some excitement in Plot; maybe I would have tried harder if I knew my own lack of enthusiasm would affect the classroom so much. But part of the problem was that it was reciprocal:

I say words that aren’t mine because I don’t have many of my own to say;

I am faced with eyes that are glazed over or squinting skeptically;

I catch the same itch to get things over with as quickly and painlessly as possible, so I barrel on through.

Perhaps this situation falls under the first soundbite I stole for this class: 1 character (complete with personality, desire, etc etc) + situation (say, a classroom) = plot (things happen, which causes the character to act, which causes more things to happen).

The latter half of the class was devoted to structure, which does interest me; the way relationships other than strict cause-and-effect can be implied, the way a story changes when you fiddle with how it’s put together. But by then we’d been in class an hour and a half already and lost steam.

But I feel pretty good about the other three classes, and hopeful about the next (Setting and Detail).

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My Seminar in Composition class has a regular cycle throughout the semester. We read and discuss an essay (most recently “Deep Play” Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” by Clifford Geertz), along with all the attendant discussion board posts and in-class writing exercises; the students write an essay related to that reading; we workshop certain essays and move on.

The workshop phase is meant to use student writing to learn about writing, to provide the class with something concrete they can work with and hopefully apply to their own writing.

Generally there are patterns in each batch of essays that need to be addressed. For example, in these Geertz essays, the students were very adept at describing the symbolism in various cultural “texts,” from Confirmation to boxing to prom, much as Geertz explains the symbolism of cocks in Balinese society. But unlike Geertz, most of them didn’t go much farther. Geertz treats the cockfight as a text that is saying something about something. Most of my students were able to show what their “texts” were speaking about (the second “something”), but not what was being said (the first “something”), or to whom.

So yesterday I brought an essay in where the first “something” was implicit, but not brought out, not pushed, perhaps not even seen by the student author. The themes of the “text” of confirmation–religious identity, responsibility, maturity–were aptly described, but not interpreted. So we talked about questions the author could ask to push the essay into interpretation: what does confirmation say about these things?

However, as I read the questions I had them ask of their own essays at the end of the workshop, I am realizing something didn’t quite click. I’m also realizing that it’s my fault. I assumed (as I do sometimes) that the connections I see between the things I have them do in the classroom–finding instances of certain language, pulling out themes, asking questions–are obvious. They are in my head. They are not to my students. I was not explicit enough.

The hard thing is that when you don’t make the connections then, you can’t really come back to it again. I mean, I could have them do the exact same things tomorrow and then be explicit. Or say, “hey, remember yesterday?” Both of which would annoy and bore my students.

This is a lesson I keep on learning and relearning, and I guess it’s one that only sticks with experience. My hope is that, in addition to learning better how to lead a classroom, my mistakes can help me read my students’ writing, to see the connections that are not made and help them see how to make them.

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That I am a procrastinator, and always have been, and probably always will be, is not shocking news to the world. If, by some miracle of God, I were ever to become a canonized saint, I would be the patron saint of procrastinators.

The Internet, whom I like to think of as my friend, is actually the enabler of my weaknesses. (See: this blog post, written while I have approximately one hour to read six or seven student essays, pick one, and build a workshop around it.)

I actually like the feeling of getting things done. I like the idea of sitting down for a day of work and crossing bunches of stuff off my to-do list. I love lists. I need lists. If I don’t have a tangible, written list, I keep a list in my head, or try to, and that eventually drives me crazy. So, written lists. I like Gmail’s task feature.

I love planning out how and when and for how long I’m going to do things. Give me a free day, and I will map it out with things to do, to accomplish. Give me the morning of the free day, and I will sit around in my pajamas. Give me the afternoon of the free day, I will poke around on Facebook and Twitter and follow all their rabbit trails. Give me the evening of the free day, I will read a book. And give me the day after, and I berate myself for having gotten nothing done.

Give me a deadline, and I will get things done. In the few days before a thing is due. This is, sadly, how the majority of my work gets done.

The crazy thing is, despite my procrastination, and despite my general lack of organization (lists aside), I am also a perfectionist. This really is *not* a happy combination, in terms of my stress levels. But I suppose that perfectionism is what keeps the negative effects of my procrastination in check.

And now that I have procrastinated by reflecting on my procrastination, I must return to my students’ essays. I’m not sure what it is, but I swear that this is the second or third time I’ve found one of them using the word “perspicacity.” I don’t like it when I have to look up a word a student uses. Have they ever heard of astute or shrewd? Simpler words, but I like them better.

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Do you have days where anything and everything on the internet is more interesting and much more important than the story you are working on?

I think the Internet is a trickster-like presence in my life. It can be of immense help, or cause much trouble. Either way, it’s nothing personal.

Back to fiction.

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