Why I’d Rather Clean Toilets, or Writing Through the Fear

I have a confession to make.  I’m a procrastinator when it comes to writing.  Not assignments.  When someone is expecting something from me I’m a very fast writer.  I’ve never missed a deadline.  If I had, I wouldn’t have the career I’ve had.

It’s my own work that I avoid.  The novel I’m literally burning to write. The movie I know would sell.  I’ve come up with an equation for this problem:

Humiliation of missing a deadline is greater than exposing my writing to critical judgement equals sitting my ass down and writing.

Thus the inverse is:

Humiliation of critical judgement is greater than actually finishing something I want to write equals doing anything including cleaning toilets to avoid sitting my ass down and writing. 

And it’s not as if I’m a lazy procrastinator.  I don’t lay on the couch binging Netflix or spend hours on-line shopping.  No, my procrastination is productive.   I defy you to find more organized closets, or laundry piling up.  Or anything less than spotless counters.   I’ve replastered whole rooms to avoid sitting down and doing what I really do want to do.  Why?

It’s not because I don’t enjoy writing.  I love losing myself in words.  There’s nothing more satisfying than writing myself into a problem to only discover it’s a blessing.  A comedy writer friend once said he loved when he wrote something that “tickled him.”  I’ve thought of writing as tickling myself ever since. 

No, what keeps me from doing the work is fear.  Fear that what I write won’t be good enough.  Fear to put onto the page who I really am.  What I believe is good.   My silly little take on the human condition.  And yet when I have, I’ve been for the most part successful. 

The first pilot I wrote after breaking with my writing partner was inspired by my daughter who was nine or ten at the time.  She had hit that developmental stage known as the “Mom is a total embarrassment” phase.  Gone was the sweet girl who loved to curl up with me at night reading books or begging me to have me tell her a story from my childhood.  It was all replaced with an eye roll that said “you are so uncool I would rather have hot needles inserted under my fingernails than be seen in public with you.”   

At the time it hurt.  I fantasized about telling her about all the cool, fun, stupid things I’d done in my life.  I wasn’t just some boring mom.  I was cool once!  That speech led to me creating a show about a divorced doctor whose twenty-year-old daughter shows up to live with her, drawing her right back into the mothering role she thought she was done with.   And I wrote that speech for the doctor when she refuses to be taken advantage of by her daughter.  It ended with the line: “I even had anal sex…once.”    I was terrified to write that line.  Would people hate it?!  Hate me?   (Funny, it seems positively tame by current content standards.)

That script got me into meet with so many producers and every one of them started by quoting that line.  I ended up with a development deal at Sony which led to years of work. 

And yet I still fight the fear of doing it “wrong” years later.  But I don’t fight it as much as I used to because here’s some of the things I’ve learned and I’d like to share them:

Just because I’m not at the desk doesn’t mean I’m not writing.  If I have an idea I’m developing there’s a lot going on in the back of my head.  Plot twists.  Character development.  Especially when I’m out in nature, walking my dogs.  I can get pages written in my head on a long walk.

Getting down on myself because I’m not as disciplined as I wish doesn’t help get the work done.  Some people are 4-hours-a-day writers, day in and day out.   I’m more of a manic writer.   When I’m ready to write I work long and hard. 

Making deadlines with other writers to read my work keeps me moving forward.  I don’t want to look like an asshole.

Make friends with your fear.  It probably isn’t going anywhere.