Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Guest Blogger: Susan Kushner Resnick on Putting Procrastination in its Place

Ten years ago, emerging from a second round of postpartum depression, I stumbled across Susan Kushner Resnick's memoir, Sleepless Days: One Woman's Journey Through Postpartum Depression. When I closed the book, I has one of those moments of realization that are incredibly clear and also painful -- I had to dramatically revamp my writing life.

The author's note said Susan was a fellow alumna of the journalism program at Syracuse University, so I emailed her, and in the course of a few exchanges (though I really had no right to do so) I unloaded my anxiety and frustration about not doing the kind of writing I really wanted to do. Susan wrote me back with a bunch of really good advice, but for me it all boiled down to one sentence: look into a
low-residency MFA in creative nonfiction, and do it right away. I had never heard these terms before, but I printed out her email and kept it on my desk -- for another two years. But finally, I leaped.

A final requirement for my MFA was to write an Artist's Statement, which contains this important line: "As with everything in my life, it began with a book." Susan's book. We recently reconnected. I can't remember exactly why or how, but it doesn't really matter because all of that time I never really felt disconnected.

Please welcome Susan Kushner Resnick.

Here’s what I’ve learned about working on more than one book project at a time: it enhances the craft of procrastination. Even if you thought you were impressively skilled at putting your writing last, as I did – you should see my clear kitchen counters, my every washed and folded towel, my tidy car interior – this talent can be honed by adding additional writing projects.

I figured this out as I began to corral hundreds of tiny yellow airsoft gun pellets from far under my couch. My son’s obsession of the month involved assaulting empty soda cans in our yard, then trailing the ammunition throughout the house. For a long time, I thought the sunny little balls were candy so I threw them away. But when my son requested a ride to the creepy hunting store to restock, I realized that I’d been tossing the arsenal. I decided to collect the strays instead. After all, a trip to buy new ones would take a lot of time away from my writing!

I flattened myself onto my belly and lifted the couch skirt. This was supposed to be the last of many “straightening up” tasks I’d been at that morning, despite having free time and the word WORK written in my datebook. As I reached under the couch and through the dust, I saw that I had reached the pinnacle of avoidance. Pathetic.

How had I fallen so far? I have rules and strategies designed to prevent time burning. I’ve followed them for years and they’ve allowed me to maintain a writing career while raising two relatively sane teenagers (the gun is a phase!), staying married, and occasionally seeing friends.
How could I have forgotten?

In this case, I blame paralyzation. Somehow, I’d gotten myself involved in three book projects at the same time. This was a very good thing for my identity (I guess I really am a writer if I’m straddling projects), but not so good for time management. When I wrote WORK in my datebook, I didn’t specify which work.

Do I plunge into Project Past, getting my 10-year-old book on postpartum depression reprinted to coincide with my testimony to the state legislature about the need for mandated postpartum care?

Do I stick with Project Present, a marketing plan I’ve created for my second book, which comes out in January?

Or do I take notes for/organize research for/manage translators for Project Future, my third book, which really isn’t a book at all yet, but just a big box of notes?

Or, do I clean up airsoft pellets?

We all know the default answer. We know that it’s easier to clean or shop or cook or rake than it is to open the proverbial vein and write. Writing is complex and fraught. Housework is simple and straightforward, not to mention immediately rewarding. With housework you aren’t digging into yourself. It’s literally a surface activity. And if it gets interrupted by an actual crisis – big or small – who cares? When writing gets interrupted, when we have to cauterize that vein that took so much effort to open, it hurts.

Still. We aren’t in this business to avoid pain. We writers woo pain. It’s part of the fun and most of the challenge. So I will forgive myself for getting daunted by multiple projects. And I will remind myself of the rules.

*Set Deadlines: As a freelance writer, I struggled when I didn’t have a professor or editor waiting for my work. Then I realized I could fill that disciplinary role myself. Since I was trained to never miss a deadline, it works. I usually set my goals according to season: I’ll have this chapter done by the end of summer, I’ll begin that outline before Thanksgiving break, etc.

*Remember Your Long Term Goal: Everyone’s long term goal is different. I’m committed to being a role model for both of my kids, but especially for my daughter. I don’t want her to remember me as a woman who sacrificed her passion to take care of others, or to think that’s her fate.

*Think About Your Deathbed: I know, it’s a cliché. But do you want to lie there and realize you didn’t reach your writing goals because you wasted time cleaning? Or do you want to die knowing that you really tried your hardest, no matter how it turned out?

*Don’t Look Under the Couch: Just don’t. Look into your stubborn writer’s heart instead.

Susan's forthcoming book is Goodbye Wifes and Daughters, an account of the 1943 Smith Coal Mine disaster in Bearcreek, Montana. It's available for pre-order from University of Nebraska Press.

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