It is only a phrase to cover up “procrastination” and “excuses.”
(And just because we gave ourselves a phrase does not mean that it has validity.)
This is the odd phenomenon that happens in creative endeavors, and especially writing: we acknowledge our artistic pursuits as our “work” (and in many cases, even our “life’s work”) and yet we so often fail to approach it as work.
This concept does not happen in other fields. You never hear, for example, about “chemical engineer’s block;” “rocket scientist’s block;” “trauma surgeon’s block.”
(Can you imagine a surgeon announcing that she “just can’t focus today” on the morning of a surgery, and instead choosing not to do it? Can you imagine an engineer announcing that he did not do anything at all for a whole week because he felt “uninspired” or “sad?” Of course not. Not really. Not for long.)
And it is important to note that each and every one of these vocations – like any vocation – offers the opportunity to become an artist; to approach the work with passion and enthusiasm and emotional surplus; to bring creativity and genius to the process and final product.
And yet there is one vocation above all others in which “procrastination” and “excuses” has a special phrase; one field whose professionals have adopted their own explanation for not actually working on their work. And that one field is: writing.
That phrase? Our “explanation?” It’s not real. When we don’t get work done – when we do not write – it is only because we are not sitting down and doing it.
Author Elizabeth Gilbert delivered a TED talk on the elusive creative genius, during which, with regard to her creative process, she says:
I’m a mule. And the way I have to work is that I have to get up at the same time every day and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly.
She goes on to confess that, in this “workhorse” approach to her own creativity, even when it was yielding some of the greatest work of her life – that being the memoir Eat, Pray, Love – she experienced the “pits of despair that we all fall into when we are working on something and it’s not coming and you start thinking ‘this is gonna be a disaster.'”
But as artists – as workers of our vocation – we cannot accept this feeling with a sense of finality and surrender. We cannot simply not do it. On the contrary, these are the most important times to go right on working.
I started to think ‘I should just dump this project.’ But then… I said aloud: listen, you thing. Um, you and I both know that if this book isn’t brilliant, that is not entirely my fault, right? Because you can see that I am putting everything I have into this. I don’t have any more than this. So if you want it to be any better, then you gotta show up and do your part of the deal. But if you don’t do that, then to hell with it. I’m gonna keep writing because that’s my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.
And that is our job as writers; as artists; as creators… as doers of our work, no matter what that work is. We cannot sit on the sidelines, limp and lifeless, simply waiting for inspiration to strike us. We have to get up every morning and we have to do our part; to create the habits and pave the way for inspiration to reach us. We have to take the process seriously if we ever want to see substantial product out of it. As Gilbert urges:
Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it.
In his new book, Linchpin, Seth Godin explains that an artist must learn to combat procrastination, and that one of the best techniques for doing so is “shipping” – i.e., delivering your product, finished or not, by the date you had intended. And that to get our work out there, we have to do the work, do it in a timely way, and release it out into the world, “good” or not.
I don’t get in the way of the muse… I ship.
Because the more we “ship” – the more we churn through our work – the more opportunity we have for that work to yield the beauty and brilliance we are looking for.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King says that he writes 10 pages a day without fail, even on holidays. One can assume that King did not always have ten pages worth of substantial inspiration every single day; that at least some of that writing was purely for the sake of the exercise.
Hemingway woke up at 7 am every day to write between 500 to a 1,000 words. He also once told F. Scott Fitzgerald, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
But if you never sit down to write those 92 pages and push through the 91 worth nothing, you will never have the one worth keeping.
Author Jeanette Winterson says, “Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.”
If this is your work, you must treat it as work. And do it.
Watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s whole TED talk here: