Things To Do To Avoid Writing by Katie Gould
I am supposed to be writing. It’s 12:48 and I’ve been up since nine and have so far managed to avoid writing a single word. I’ve been given a book to review about a woman who develops multiple sclerosis and whose husband becomes embroiled in IRA politics in an attempt to get hold of the funds to pay for her treatment. It’s really quite a gripping read and has remained so throughout. The trouble is that there are so many equally appealing books on my shelf some of which only have pictures in them so I wouldn’t technically be reading other things if I looked at them.
However, I have a deadline which has already been renegotiated once – albeit in the friendliest manner – and the author is a regular reader of the journal in which it is going to be published. He even signed my copy just to make his book all the more attractive when I promised to review it. I really have no choice but to write something about it, but before I do I thought I’d spend a little time thinking about the possible reasons behind my reluctance to write.
Doing this might be quite cathartic: questioning my deliberate attempts to curb my creative output might release me from them. Perhaps there is some innate part of my personality that prevents me from fulfilling my true potential. I may even have been carrying it around since childhood (although I’ve never tried it, think how marvellous a diversionary tactic therapy could be). Alternatively – and more likely – I am lying and the closest I have to any self-perpetuating characteristic is laziness. Anyway, enough procrastination on my procrastinating.
There are few things as unattractive in the home as the vacuum. It makes a horrible noise, has a long hose and wire that invariably become entwined in each other or the furniture, it is heavy, and requires quite strenuous physical work. Yet seen in a certain light it can appear quite exquisite. The noise fades to a not unpleasant background hum, the hose and wire appear decorative (especially when accompanied by the bright, smiley face on my vacuum for which the hose provides the nose), and the work gives me a stimulating cardiac workout.
A similar transformation can be seen in the washing-up. Seen in the right way a three-day-old pile of pans and plates is positively inviting. It also coyly carries the possibility that there might not be enough washing-up liquid. In a flash I am struck by the image of festering dishes supporting entire ecosystems on their surfaces and am compelled to go to the supermarket and stand in the aisle for a good ten minutes contemplating the most suitable scent and colour. While there I decide I might as well do a bit of a shop. (Deciding, seemingly on a whim, to shop for random objects is a not uncommon tactic for getting out of work.
I have a friend who works as a freelance illustrator and last week, while trying to make a cup of tea (another technique) realised that he didn’t have a tea strainer. According to his new-found expertise on this matter tea strainers are notoriously difficult to find and so he spent most of his day traipsing round town all to no avail. My personal favourites are really quite boring things like blu-tack, light bulbs and telephone extension cables.)
Anyway, I get back and am about to return to my computer when I think of the washing machine. I change my sheets, handwash the woollens that have been in the bottom of the laundry basket since February (getting desperate here), and search the flat for anything belonging to me or my flatmates that could go in a hot wash. While doing so I notice that my wardrobe seems overly full and so decide to have a sort-out of my clothes. Apparently there is a rule that you should get rid of anything you haven’t worn in the past year so I assiduously try things on and fill a bag for the charity shop. In truth this bag only contains a pair of jeans, a shirt and a pair of excruciatingly uncomfortable shoes, but it is enough to convince me that I am in dire need of some more summer clothes (a shopping trip to be saved for another day). By this time the washing machine has finished so I carefully hang things out, putting all delicates on hangers and spacing out socks and knickers.
Yet again I approach my computer, but am suddenly reminded of a friend I had at university who – retentive though she already was in her neatness – rearranged into rows all the post-it notes on her notice board and lined up her pencils ready for exam revision.
Unfortunately this process exposed some of the ‘cutesy’ notes her boyfriend had sent her referring to her as his “little chicken” and “cuddly bear” who he couldn’t wait to practice “nesting” with on their next camping trip. I decide I will limit myself to my cds. Most of them are in a pile so I start by putting them back in their boxes, but decide that this really isn’t enough and they will have to be arranged in alphabetical order if I am ever to be able to find anything to listen to. Altogether this has taken about five hours and, not having started until one o’clock it is now time for dinner.
By the time I decide what to have, cook, and sit on the roof to eat it (not as dangerous as it sounds) another couple of hours have gone by and I am now deep in discussion with my flatmate about the merits of waking up to Radio Four compared to those of Sara Cox on Radio One. He gets up very early and works long hours so the debate remains unresolved so he can go to bed. My other flatmate is staying with her boyfriend which leaves me unexpectedly alone with my still unwritten review. I decide – just so I can cement my opinions of the book – that I will re-read the parts I marked with post-it notes. So conscientious am I that this takes over an hour by which time, after my strenuous day, I am ready to go to sleep.
I love my computer. It may appear that my frequent attempts to avoid it indicate otherwise, but I really do love it. I just don’t always want to do work on it. However, the computer itself is replete with attention-grabbing devices all designed to make users feel that they have in some way personalised their own computer despite being given exactly the same pallet as everyone who bought the same model. Thus I discover the range of display settings for the monitor alone: I have 37 wallpapers to choose from (I have to specify if I want them to be centred, tiled or stretched); 20 patterns for the active laptop to fill any space left around the wallpaper; 15 screen savers (I choose the aquarium one, set it to come on after five minutes, choose the fish, the resolution, whether or not I want bubbles (yes) and the volume); then I move onto the colour pixels, icons, and web home page. All have to be carefully considered – I am, after all, going to be spending quite a lot of time looking at it.
On a roundabout way out of the display settings I notice that my files look rather messy and so begin a folder-creating fest so I can put them away neatly. En route to this I delete so many things I then have to empty my recycle bin. Once I actually start writing there are yet more things to experiment with: word count become my new best friend (1,317 so far), I try different fonts and margin sizes, save every three words, add and remove buttons from the toolbar, change the language and all the default settings, and taunt clippit with fake queries until he falls asleep. All this for free – you don’t even have to write a word if you don’t want to.
The internet is, of course, part of my computer’s distractions, but it is so thoroughly invasive to the writing process that I think it deserves a category all of its own. It starts off innocuously enough with email. This has to be checked in case you have received any more porn, fake PhD certificate offers, or invitations to consolidate your debts. Occasionally, hidden in amongst these, there is something you might actually want to read. This is diverting for a while, but soon web search impulse takes over and you find yourself looking up all sorts of things you never knew you cared about. The other day I spent a whole afternoon investigating online dating agencies. One single search on Google pulled up 695,000 sites in only 0.09 seconds. I don’t want to join one, but I filled in the form on one site anyway. Worried that someone might actually reply I tried to make myself sound as unattractive as possible – the proverbial ‘train spotter’ enhanced with not a single physical attribute – and have so far heard nothing.
Being the only daughter among three brothers the other day I got talking to my mum about my wedding. For various reasons (primarily I don’t really see the point and also don’t even have a boyfriend) I don’t actually intend to get married, but the subject came up anyway and I later found myself typing the word ‘wedding’ into the search box. I started on the whole themed wedding idea (next year a couple I know are having a 1920s themed wedding for example) which sounds great until you try and decide what sort of theme you’d like and the extent to which you expect people to adhere to it. African-themed like Will’s twenty-first? Indian? Tarts and vicars (might be a bit of confusion over who was actually performing the wedding ceremony)? Hippy? Dangerous reptiles (everyone would have to bring or come dressed as their own favourite animal)? The list goes on and on. Then you get to the dress. Could be white (too late). Maybe scarlet, but that’s a bit of a cliché really and perhaps not the most auspicious colour in which to repeat after the priest your matrimonial vows. I decided on a deep aubergine, but what shape? Obviously not a meringue.
There seems to be a bit of a vogue for dressing down and pretending the whole thing’s oh-so-casual-and-ironic-really, but it’s the only day everyone in the room is going to be looking at you, whether you like it or not, so you want it to be for the right reasons. And the shoes. Obviously these have to be fab, but not too high – don’t want to go hurtling down the aisle dislocating your dad’s shoulder and tearing your dress. Then there’s the food, the place, the music….. If you don’t want to think about any of these things you are guaranteed there will be someone contactable online to do it for you. All you need is a few hours and several web searches to find them.
Rewards are an essential part of any writing process. They needn’t be anything extravagant, but here are a few examples:
1. Going for a walk. I have a friend who, while writing her dissertation, treated both herself and her boyfriend to a walk every time she managed to produce a good sentence. Depending on the weather, this can range from a dash across the road to the shop to a pleasant stroll perhaps taking in a couple of shops on the way. If you’re lucky you’ll have a dog so your walk will not only be a reward, but also a kindly gesture.
2. Food. This is my reward of choice. The other day a packet of minstrels seemed to be the only thing that could possibly satiate the sudden yearning I felt for some chocolate. I tried to ignore it, but suddenly it dawned on me that perhaps I was pre-menstrual. “I must be pre-menstrual!”, I thought, “I don’t just want some chocolate, I NEED some!”. By the time I had put on my trainers and coat I had convinced myself that not only did I need chocolate, but having written a whole hundred words, I deserved it too.
3. Watching television. Chances are if you’re working during the day and like neither Kilroy nor cricket there won’t be anything on so not only will this not be a reward, but it will also not be very time-consuming. Not much of a treat.
4. Friends/Flatmates. These can be endlessly diverting. One of my flatmates worries that one day I may write about him and say something embarrassing. In all honesty I think he hopes I will write about him so any time spent talking to him could, in a roundabout sort of way, be research into his character in the search for insightful/amusing tidbits. You may also have a healthy stock of friends you haven’t spoken to for a while. It’s possible you don’t actually want to talk to them, but in the midst of international conflict you surely owe it to yourself and them to re-establish links. Honest.
5. Miscellaneous. These could include listening to music, reading, looking out the window (see below), having a bath, doing a pilates class (unless you have rubberised joints this will not feel like a reward of any sort, but it’s good for you and it’s not writing). Basically anything that doesn’t require you to sit in front of a computer or piece of paper.
Looking Out The Window
If you think about it, looking out the window is actually research. Unless your room looks out onto a brick wall people will pass by all day long and each one is going somewhere and taking a whole life with them. Every day they have to make decisions about where their life is going. These might be as seemingly ordinary as deciding what to have for dinner or may branch out into life-changing choices all of which could somehow be incorporated into a narrative. Across the road from my flat there is a pub called The Blind Beggar (every time I look at it I think it says “The Blind Bugger” which provides a few seconds of utterly juvenile amusement). There is always a line of motorbikes parked outside so maybe it’s a bikers’ pub, but I happen to know some very artsy people who regularly drink there. This very fact suggests that perhaps a demographic study of the drinkers would be deeply significant (it wouldn’t, but my thinking doesn’t progress that far and at the moment it occurs to me I still think it would be a good idea). There is also an alley leading to a car park: the drivers leaving the car park cannot see the pedestrians crossing the alley who cannot in turn see the drivers.
I watch to see which pedestrians and drivers approach the opening to the alley with caution and which charge up regardless. The most troubling pedestrian is undoubtedly the mother with a pushchair – doesn’t she know her child is pushed ahead of her into this pedestrian black spot? This leads me to try and think of a safer way to transport children. None of this relates in any way to a book about a woman with multiple sclerosis and a husband risking his life to get treatment for her although a tenuous link could possibly be drawn if I spent enough time thinking about it.
This leads me to conclude that, admirable though any form of creativity may be, alternative avenues should never remain unexplored. Who knows – in ten years’ time I will probably have the cleanest house in the northern hemisphere and may even have finished a chapter.
Copyright Katie Gould 2003