I had the opportunity to speak to a writers’ group over the summer, and I hope I didn’t scare them away from the craft.

They were a wonderful audience, although hard-up for guest speakers if they had to invite me. My goal was simple: not to send any of them screaming into the street, breaking pencils and smashing keyboards and vowing never to write again.

They thought writing is great fun, an outlet for pent-up creativity. Most of the time, I feel that way too. But when ideas won’t come, writers without regular deadlines can step away for a day or so, no harm no foul.

Writers on deadline don’t have this luxury. Even when ideas aren’t there and words won’t come, fingers must keep pushing keys or pencils pressing paper. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of muscle memory, typing the same words over and over until something new squeezes out.

Somebody asked about writer’s block. I said I don’t believe in it. I subscribe to the William Zinsser theory. In his must-read book, “On Writing Well,” Zinsser treats writer’s block like a myth. Plumbers don’t suffer from plumber’s block, carpenters don’t have carpenter’s block. They just do the job.

I told the group that when I can’t come up with the words but know that a column is due, I mentally strap myself into a chair in front of a computer and tell myself that I won’t stand up again until I’ve completed a draft.

I’ve never had to literally strap myself into a chair, but the day may come. For now, I tell myself that I can get up and get a drink, eat a snack or use the bathroom only after I’ve written an allotted number of words. If that happens in 20 minutes, great. If it happens in three hours, not so great.

Is this fun? No. Is it productive? Most of the time. Good for my bladder? Assuredly not.

Procrastination in writing is like procrastination in most things, I suppose. When most of us face an unpleasant task, we find other things that must be done first. Need to make that tough call and eat crow over something you’ve said? Suddenly, Fibber McGee’s closet beckons, or the attic must be cleaned, or the sink screams for scouring.

I go through a whole series of maneuvers before I reach the writing “strap-in” point, which I call writing crow instead of eating it. Usually, I do tasks I hate even more, but ones that require little concentration. If I’m mowing or sweeping or, heaven forbid, waxing the car, I’m avoiding a particularly rough topic.

I used to fool myself when I did these things, saying that they really needed to be done. Now I’m honest: I’m ducking out on writing, I’ll say, but only until 10 a.m. Or noon. Or whatever time I select.

When I do start to write, though, I don’t get up until I’m done. Usually, the morning is my best time. But I’ll sit there all day long if I have to, trying not to fiddle too much on Facebook or Twitter and often failing. I’m only human.

One weird writing tick I possess is a reluctance to move on to a new sentence until the one before it is as good as it can be. This often means that when I’m done with a column, I’m really done, because I’ve pored over it dozens of times, one sentence at a time, until I reach the end. My first finished draft is often simultaneously my 31st draft.

While I tell my students that there is no wrong way to write, except not to do it, I also tell them that my method is one of the worst. It’s easy to work for hours and have only two or three paragraphs to show for your efforts. Two or three perfect paragraphs, but far from a finished piece.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t go back later — a day or two, at least — and revise. Revision is, for me, the part of writing that is true joy. I especially like to peel away excess words and rewrite sentences when the piece I’m revising is so old that I can barely remember writing it. That’s when I’m most honest, when I can effect the most changes. Sadly, I seldom sit on a piece that long.

So why am I telling you this today? Because I’ve been sitting here for hours already, and I really have to use the bathroom. And now I can.


cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Oct. 2, 2014, in The Alliance Review.