I have hit the panic button.
I have rolled my schedule back one week. This is my confession.
I have lost all sense of progress other than to know that I’m really behind. Week Four’s worklist lays pristine and untouched, while weeks One to Three lay disassembled in parts all over the workshop. I’m basically up to date on the commentaries, but I allowed myself to become demoralized with the slow progress on the main thread of the work, which is the chapters themselves.
Once I slowed down on the chapters, I continued to slow down. The initial week’s chapter – a single, 82-page monstrosity – was easier to deal with than week two, even though Week Two was only 60 pages. The best cure for resistance is no escape. When your army has the water at their back and no way out but through the enemy, you can bet they’ll fight.
Because Week Two was two chapters, and I was working on them concurrently, I could always put one down and work on the other one; at least, that’s the way I experienced it. I soon found that my response when the work on a chapter got difficult was to switch to the other chapter or to the commentaries. While this kept me moving more or less forward, it failed to create enough pressure to break through the more difficult organizational parts of the work. To create that pressure, I needed constraints: constraints of time, constraints of attention, constraints of form.
(An example of combining all three constraints would be “In the next 90 minutes, create an outline briefly describing the content of each section of this 30 page chapter”. The constraint of form gives a structure for the pressure of the work to release into.)
So, what happened? Facing difficult decisions about the work in front of me, I deferred them; those deferred decisions created unfinished work where my schedule called for finished work; my schedule lost authority; my morale dipped; and my frame of reference for how close I was to being on schedule went out the window. It went from “Looking good” to “A day or two late” to “I don’t know. Late. Not close. Who cares.”
This third category is bad news. Addicts recognize the to-hell-with-it switch that trips when you wander too far off the path. You might not be an addict, but I bet you know that feeling. When I’m a writer facing resistance, I’m an addict without an addiction. If I was hooked on alcohol or junk or coke or porn or ebay or gambling, I’d go on a three-day bender. Instead, resistance lets me say “to hell with it” in a hundred tiny ways. Dirty dishes, dirty laundry, messy desk, late night videogame sessions, stacks of graphic novels from the library, the staring purgatory of the internet. Click, click, point, click. In the trance of “to hell with it” there’s no work to be done. It’s kind of soothing, except that the part of you that knows you should be working keeps it from fully being fun. And you can step off the path in the space between heartbeats.
How did I get here? I started with an active decision to set a schedule that was extraordinarily difficult. I fell behind when I encountered difficult work and made a passive decision to abandon my task management – my “I’m going to do this and this today and that and that tomorrow and then Friday I’ll finish up” traffic direction. I made an active decision to reduce my available time for the book by simultaneously working on a rewrite of the Shine libretto and a rewrite of a websomething. (Both of those projects are going great.) Finally, I made a passive decision to wallow for a few extra days in “poor me I’m so behind schedule” land before dusting myself off and getting back to it.
In the time since I began this blog yesterday, something shifted. This morning, I sat down and wrote the closing paragraph to our 82 pages on Victorian architecture. Week One is complete. The task that had been dogging me for three weeks only took me a few minutes. Week Two is tantalizing close: the two chapters are each well marked up, and need only a final push. I believe I can finish them both today. Tomorrow morning I’ll get started on Gothic and Edwardian. I should be able to finish Gothic by Sunday and get a beachhead on Edwardian. With pushing the schedule back one week, I’ll just owe the rest of Edwardian. That’s my plan and I’ll stick to it until I have to change it.
The crux is this:
If you do not have a plan, then you are relying on inspiration.
Resistance can mess with your inspiration, but it can’t mess with your plan.
Actors spend a great deal of time analyzing their scripts to find playable actions. The cornerstone of contemporary acting technique is performing an action that places your attention on the other character in the scene: you’re trying to borrow fifty bucks, you’re trying to extract an apology, you’re trying to talk their pants off. The last place an actor wants their attention to be is on their own emotional state, because i) it will inhibit organic emotional response, and ii) it prejudges the “right” emotion and elimates vast territories of rich experience. So you want an action that you can perform whether you’re angry, sad, relieved, ecstatic, or hopeless.
This is exactly the same criterion that we require for any artistic activity, unless we choose to allow our productivity to be held hostage by our moods.
If you realize that you’ve been sitting at your desk for an hour and you don’t know what you’ve been doing, it may be time to draft a quick plan. The exact form the plan takes will depend on what form you’re working in, what stage of the work you’re at… and how much gas you have in the tank.
In its simplest form, the plan is a contract with your attention: for the next twenty-five minutes, you will keep your attention focused on one task. So get a nice hot cup of tea and set the timer. Set your worries aside for the moment: your email and your debt and your lover and your laundry can wait.
It can all wait, for just a few minutes.
While you do the work.