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Procrastinating or Wool-Gathering?


I’d started writing this piece just before reading Bryan’s blog about finding your optimum creative routine, and they seem to segue rather neatly into each other. The start of a new year usually gets me thinking about my writing habits and why I don’t get as much done as I plan to. I also recently filled out an online questionnaire for a writing magazine which stopped me in my tracks.
Try it yourself: ‘What stops you from achieving what you want in your chosen artistic field?’ Many people would say lack of time. Now ask yourself: ‘When you have time, do you prioritise your art?’ My honest answer was that, more often than not, I don’t. When faced with this simple fact, I was surprised and a bit embarrassed. Yes, there are always other things to be done – but surely I value my writing highly enough to put it ahead of washing the kitchen floor, checking emails, going for a run, etc. most of the time?
There may be many reasons for procrastination, but the one I read cited most often is fear of failure, and this doesn’t just apply to new writers. Even if you’ve had ten successful novels published (I wish!), who’s to say you can produce number eleven? Writing is always about venturing into new territory; there are no guarantees. Sometimes students ask me for help in dealing with procrastination. One of my suggestions is to write as soon as they wake; this way the inner critic hasn’t had time to put the frighteners on them yet.
Another tactic is to break off your writing mid-sentence, so you can pick up the thread immediately. This might make it easier to return to a piece, but it doesn’t work for me – the thought of breaking off mid-sentence is too unnerving. What if I forget the second half I’d had in mind?
A further tactic to reduce the fear of failure is free-writing, where you put pen to paper and don’t stop for a set amount of time (e.g. ten minutes) even if you’re writing drivel. I found this really helpful when I first started writing, but I tend to have enough projects in mind that this isn’t so useful anymore. Either that or the piles of drivel mounting up were depressing me.
But I want to suggest that procrastination isn’t always a bad thing: sometimes it might look like you’re avoiding writing, but actually you’re mulling over ideas before committing them to paper. The poet Fiona Sampson has a wonderful phrase for when it looks like she’s not doing anything much, but is mentally gathering her thoughts in preparation for writing: ‘wool-gathering’. I’m definitely a wool-gatherer. When I’m getting into the zone I tend to potter about the house, leaping up from my seat every ten minutes to do small unimportant tasks like folding laundry or clearing out my purse. This is definitely part of the process of writing, however much it might look like avoidance. Eventually I settle and an hour or two can pass without my noticing: that’s me finally in the zone.
In my heart I know when I’m wool-gathering and when I’m procrastinating. This week, when I’ve found myself on the verge of procrastinating, I’ve asked myself the question ‘Do you prioritise your art?’ I really don’t want to have to say ‘No’, and this has helped me get on with it.
Do you have any advice for beating the procrastination habit? Or is it a necessary stage in the creative process (in which case it’s not procrastination at all – just tell people you’re wool-gathering!)
Image Credit: Wiki Commons. Image credit:Yair Haklai – The Thinker by Auguste Rodin at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.

Posted by author: Vicky MacKenzie

11 thoughts on “Procrastinating or Wool-Gathering?

  • To be more serious about this, I think that there are various states between flat out work and idleness and it is these intermediate states that tend to become confused. I am in favour of both the extreme states, the first produces obvious results and the former allows the brain to sort out the various bits of mental detritus floating around the semi and sub conscious to coalesce into ideas, what the more romantic than it tend to refer to as ‘inspiration’. the intermediate states are more problematic. There is everything form the panic that results in a blank mind that in turn results in further panic; there is the state of low esteem that results from the conviction that the current work in progress is mediocre at best which in turn reduces the quality of the work and so on, then there is true procrastination when one knows what need to be done and what to do about it and still one re-grouts the bathroom tiles. The trick is, perhaps, recognising when one is lying on ones couch in vacant or pensive mood and when one is hoovering it for the umpeenth time to avoid the assignment!

  • There is also being overwhelmed. When there are so many ideas and emotions flying around, so many directions you want to take, so much awe of your subject, it is hard to knuckle down to something.

  • Another thing…I quite often fall asleep in my studio. Sitting down, mulling over my work, I am often overcome by a great sense of drowsiness. I can’t fight it unless I get up. Often I give into it and doze fitfully on my hard chair. It is not like real sleep. Sometimes I kind of dream about my work. Now and then I open my eyes and catch a glance of my work in a new light. I used to feel guilty about these episodes. Now I like to think they make a positive difference. Perhaps I am deluding myself, but it could be a way of letting things settle in my unconscious and become more concentrated. Does anyone else do this?

  • I think “wool-gathering” is absolutely necessary for creative processes and one does not need to have a bad conscience about that stage. Even if one would be “scrubbing the kitchen floor or grouting the bathroom tiles” for the umpteenth time I think the unconscious mind is working on the “procrastinated” work – and when one starts with the project, one forgets time and place carrying on in Alpha Modus till ist done.

  • I’m currently doing Printing 1 and, believe me, procrastination and ‘wool-gathering’ is not just for writers. Being a total printing novice I’ve encountered a multitude of problems in getting good results. Never mind the design aspect, just trying to get good ink-to-paper prints has been very difficult over several months. This has led to an atitude of ‘I MUST spend time in the workroom and produce something – but I just know it’s going to be another wasted day with rubbish outcomes’.
    So whilst it looks like procrastination it is in fact a total loss of confidence resulting in me closing my eyes as I walk through the room to do the ironing instead.
    Last week I met a friend and we had a day mucking about with paints, stamps, sponges, paper and fabric. We printed and stamped whatever we felt like and didn’t stress about the results. I had a great time away from the course for a short period whilst still working with similar products, and it was so easy. I feel this has been a real benefit and that some terror inside me has been a little unknotted.
    I’ve done the prep for the next OCA project, I’ve blog-posted that work, now all I have to do is mix the inks. With a huge sign now on my wall saying ‘It’s OK. stay calm’ I’m resolved to take the advice given in the above article and print as soon as I’m up in the morning, before my brain finds more excuses.
    I can only improve if I actually print something instead of being overwhelmed by the possibilities.

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