Parenting As Refuge From Writing

Writers who are parents love to complain about how parenting takes up writing time; so many great books, essays, plays, short stories, screenplays and the like remain unwritten because caring for a child is time-consuming and emotionally draining. Other members of the writer’s tribe–or sometimes the same folks–will readily admit that parenting provides great material for writing. So many reflections on the art and skill and science of parenting; so many confessions of humility; so many observations of grace and candor and existential discovery in the presence of unsullied human innocence (within which occasionally lurks a id-driven monster of desire and ill-formed reason), the child.

The original complaint about the pressures of parenting on writing time contains within it a disguised acknowledgement of one of the greatest reliefs it provides the writer: distraction from the task of writing. For if there is one thing the writer needs more than anything else, it is the excuse for not writing. Your avowed vocation and calling and passion and obsession is writing; why then, do you not write? Why, instead, do you do everything but write? Every writer has faced this question; and parenting provides a wonderful apologia for not writing.

For parenting is the most perfect form of procrastination devised for the writer: its tasks are innumerable, and always make their presence felt; it is work that carries positive moral weight; a parenting task well accomplished is guaranteed to provide a certain varietal of deeply satisfying validation. And so the writer who is confronted with a blank page, a disordered passage of text, a jumbled and incoherent argument, finds suddenly, relief at hand. Put down the pencil or push away the mouse and keyboard and head for the childcare section, there to immerse yourself, if lucky, in the adoration of a child, and in the pleasures of someone else’s achievements vicariously enjoyed. And there is no guilt here to be found or reported. Why did you stop writing for the day? I had to take care of my kid. There just is no arguing with that.

The clever writer-parent has found the right sort of relationship with parenting: plunder its experiences for story ideas and material; complain about its demands as an explanation for diminished ‘productivity’ and failure to complete all those half-written drafts tucked away in folders marked ‘Drafts’; but most importantly, use its availability as psychological comfort from the anxieties and terrors of the unfinished writing task. Your child awaits, perhaps the gratitude of your partner in parenting; there really is no downside to giving up writing in favor of parenting. There is, of course, the risk of regret–“I coulda written so much if I hadn’t been so busy attending to domestic minutiae”–but that is quite easily dispelled with the honest acknowledgement to oneself that writing is pretty unpleasant work at the best of times, and that if we had any choice in the matter, we’d take up something far more rewarding and enjoyable. Like parenting, occasionally.

 

Dishwashing: The King Of Procrastination Strategies

Washing the dishes has long held a honorable position in the arsenal of strategies adopted by those who procrastinate. (Sometime in the near future I anticipate Facebook and Twitter conducting some sophisticated data analysis to indicate how many of their users announce it as such.) Indeed, we should elevate this claim to be one of those truths universally acknowledged: if an anxiety-inducing piece of work awaits, well then, so does a pile of dirty dishes in your sink which demand immediate attention. The reasons for why dishwashing has risen to the top of the heap of alternative occupations of time instead of our work are not hard to find.

First, washing the dishes is a virtuous act. Dirt is banished from the kitchen and household; cleanliness is welcomed; salmonella are vanquished; disease and pestilence are expelled. Order is imposed; entropy is resisted, vainly, for just a little while longer. Cleanliness is next to godliness, n’est ce pas?

Second, dishwashing is a physically immersive and thus intensely absorbing act, all the better to dispel paralyzing anxiety with. Faucet flow and water temperature must be adjusted; sponge and soap make contact with dish surfaces; dirt dissolves underneath our fingertips; our hands feel the flow of soapy water over them. Dishes that call for extra scrubbing require intense concentration on the task at hand. Clean dishes must be stacked and arranged carefully; memories of wine glasses broken during this phase especially help concentrate the mind here. These considerations do not apply to those who use a mechanized dishwasher; those poor saps, slaves to technology and automation, have no idea what they are missing out on. (My wife often wonders why I resist buying a dishwasher; besides not trusting their ability to actually clean our dishes, I sense a grave loss would ensue. I would be denied a central strategy for procrastination.)

Third, dishwashing lets us feel we have helped out with house work, sometimes foolishly considered an ignoble calling. We sense our roommates–whether college buddies, fellow city workers, or significant others–will delight in the sight of a sink free of dishes. (These considerations do not apply to those who live alone, of course, but then, they have greater worries on their minds.) We anticipate our partners’ reactions of gratitude and appreciation with some pleasure, which make an excellent contrast with the imagined scorn of those who would read, or otherwise experience, the execrable work we would be engaged in otherwise. The payoffs here are greater; immediate pursuit of this venture seems an eminently sensible move. In this regard, some men might regard their washing the dishes as part of their movement toward a new sort of manhood, one more in tune with the demands of housework, a kind of personal growth which our newly acquired feminist sensibilities would appreciate.

Note: I’m writing this post in an anxiety-induced state, unable to finalize my syllabus for the fall, finish a long-in-the-works essay, resume working on a draft manuscript, pack for a soon-to-be undertaken hike, or do the laundry. I’ve already done the dishes.

An Anxiety-Provoking Description Of The Creative Process

There are many, many, descriptions of the stages of the creative process. Some have been memorialized into pithy, quasi-inspirational, meme-worthy statements that can be shared on the net, all the better to encourage anxious, insecure, doubt-ridden procrastinators, distracting themselves from their creative ‘tasks’ by incessantly checking their social media feeds.  Roughly, they amount to this: you have an idea; you think it is great; you get to work on it; you ‘find out’ it is actually a very bad, very unoriginal, very vacuous, superficial idea, one which no one in their right mind would ever have had; then you ‘find out’ your idea is not so bad; you continue working on it; finally, you discover that your original idea, having been modified through these creative interactions with you, is now actually a great idea after all. Hurrah. Or something like that.

These descriptions, which are intended to reassure ‘creators’ that their moments of self-doubt and anxiety are going to find a terminus of validation, include, as can be seen, a crucial, seemingly indispensable stage in which you are convinced your idea is no good. This turns out to be a little disquieting for two reasons: a) we do not know how long this stage lasts; b) we know all too many ‘artistic’ projects end up in the trash heap (those novels whose manuscripts remain filed away in drawers; those poems we burned, literally or electronically, before someone else could read our doggerel verse; those drawings we crumpled up and threw away; those sculptures pushed off the pedestal.)

And so we find ourselves anxious again: Are we in the middle of an especially long ‘this-is-shit’ stage, or are we experiencing the death throes of an abortive, hopelessly misconceived folly that should never have seen the light of day? To give up prematurely is to invite a fearsome cognitive dissonance whose dimensions can only be imagined; we risk subjecting ourselves to the worst condemnation of all, our own, the one in which we castigate ourselves for lacking backbone and ‘moral fiber,’ for giving up all too easily.  No facile solutions present themselves; no matter how familiar you might find your own ‘process,’ the uncertainty of the ‘this-is-shit’ stage is always novel, always as forbidding as before.

So there is no good news here, I’m afraid.

As might be surmised, I’m writing this post because I’m in the middle of a ‘this-is-shit’ stage, one that has lasted a long while.  My verbal descriptions of the writing I’m trying to pull off always generates encouraging responses from my listeners–‘that sounds really interesting; I look forward to reading a draft when it is ready’–but matters worsen considerably when I return to my ‘writing desk.’ There,  masses of notes and observations and ‘insights’ refuse to resolve themselves into a coherent structure; no argument emerges; the threads and braids I seek to weave do not hang together. There is no magical insight to be had; I can only keep returning to this scene of the crime, hoping a clue or two will emerge from the murk. Cold cases suck.

The Curious Irony of Procrastination

Do writers procrastinate more than other people? I wouldn’t know for sure just because I have no idea how much procrastination counts as the norm and what depths practitioners of other trades sink to. But I procrastinate a great deal. (Thank you for indulging me in my description of myself as a ‘writer’; if you prefer, I could just use ‘blogger.’) At any given moment, there are many, many tasks I can think of–not all of them writerly–that I intend to get around to any hour, day, week, month, year or life now. (I procrastinate on this blog too; I’ve promised to write follow-ups to many posts and almost never get around to doing so.) This endless postponement is a source of much anxiety and dread. Which, of course, is procrastination’s central–and justifiably famous–irony.

You procrastinate because you seek relief from anxiety, because you dread encounters with the uncertainty, frustration, and intractability you sense in the tasks that remain undone. But the deferment you seek relief in becomes a source of those very sensations you sought to avoid. The affliction feared and the putative relief provider are one and the same. It is a miserable existence to suffer so.

One of my longest running procrastinations is close to the two-year mark now; this period has been particularly memorable–in all the wrong ways–because it has been marked by a daily ritual that consists of me saying ‘Tomorrow, I’ll start.’ (I normally go through this in the evening or late at night.) And on the day after, I wake up, decide to procrastinate again, and reassure myself that tomorrow is the day it will happen. As has been noted in the context of quitting vices, one of the reasons we persist in our habits is because we are able to convince ourselves that quitting, getting rid of the old habit,  is easy. So we persist, indulging ourselves once more and reassuring ourselves of our imagined success in breaking out of the habit whenever we finally decide we are ready to do so. (But habits are habits for a reason; because they are deeply ingrained, because we practice them so, because we have made them near instinctual parts of ourselves. And that is why, of course, new habits are hard to form, and old habits are hard to break.)

Similarly for procrastination; we continue to put off for the morrow because we imagine that when the morrow rolls around, we will be able to easily not put off, to get down to the business at hand. All that lets us do, of course, is continue to procrastinate today. The only thing put off till the morrow is the repetition of the same decision as made today–the decision to defer yet again.

Now, if as Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do, I’m a procrastinator; I’m an irrational wallower in anxiety, condemning myself to long-term suffering for fear of being afflicted by a short-lived one. That is not a flattering description to entertain of oneself but it is an apt one given my history and my actions.

The Never-To-Be-Returned-To Perennial Draft

My email client shows eighty-two drafts resident in its capacious folders; my WordPress dashboard shows thirty-seven; and a quick search through various document folders on my desktop machine shows several dozen others. They are monuments and gravestones and white flags of surrender; they are signposts of intention, evidence of procrastination run amok; they are bitter evidence of an old truism, that you don’t know what you think till you see it in writing (and some of these show that I wasn’t thinking very much); they are caustic reminders of how imagination all too often outstrips effort and completion, how writerly ambition outruns ability.

Unfinished emails, some of them intemperate rejoinders to online commentary, personally critical emails, offensive or presumptive correspondence, some of them idle thoughts left half-formed, yet others overtaken by the turn of events; embarrassing reminders of what might have gone wrong had I ever, hastily and recklessly, hit the ‘send’ button; these sit in my mail folders. Very frequently, I sigh with relief at a bullet dodged, and wince at how I might have irreparably damaged a relationship. Here, there are many a drawn and then subsequently holstered gun, put away with its chambers still cold.

On this blog, my unfinished draft count had run as high as eighty; it needed some persistent cleaning up–deletions–to bring the number down. Some are mere notes to myself, with a pointer to something I felt needed response and commentary; yet others bear the mark of an incompletely worked out thought, simply run aground for lack of inspiration or perspiration. And my document folders show that I have started many more academic projects than I have finished. Like the blog posts, I have set out and then given up; the inspirational thought of the evening all too quickly turned into the laughable conceit of the morn; and sometimes, awed and intimidated by the dimensions of the presumptive task, I have let my shoulders droop, battened the hatches, and retreated. 

I have deleted many drafts over the years. Some were too ludicrous to tolerate any longer; why had I ever thought that line of thought was worth pursuing? And some too, were so incomplete, so grotesquely misshapen, that I could not even recognize the thought that had initially germinated it – let alone proceed with it any further.

And so there are the ones that remain. I humor myself, often, with the thought that I will return to them, to move them on, to push them on beyond the proverbial finishing ribbon, to bring them to conclusion and pat myself on the back for having shown persistence and gumption. But some of them will never be completed; I have moved on; I leave them around to tell me where I had gone wrong in the past and where I might again; and for all the various edificatory reasons listed above.

There is uncertainty here aplenty and certainty too, that their count will increase. But that thought is reassuring; for perhaps they will only increase as the completions do. That much is enough for now.