Thursday, 18 April 2013

Talking Back to Procrastination: Homage to Dennis Palumbo

Ages ago, Dennis Palumbo wrote a very good book on the writing life.  Called Writing From the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within (John Wiley and Sons, 2000).  How people who take their writing seriously, be they earning a living from it or not, feel about the job.  Its one of the most validating and understanding books I’ve ever read on the weird thoughts and insecurities you get, as someone who writes.  A lot of the book is about the things that stop you writing and interfere with your wanting to do it. 

In particular, there’s a very funny chapter on procrastination.  Palumbo spent years as a screenwriter, and then become a therapist to writers. He gets round the idea of procrastination by having himself talk back to the procrastination as though it were a person.  The whole chapter is very amusing, and slides right round the way you seize up and just can’t get to the writing and wander off instead.  By engaging with the Evil Forces Of Your Running Off To Clean The Kitchen, and chatting to them, you end up writing anyway – because of course, you’re writing down this conversation, not just talking to yourself in the kitchen…By talking to your fear of writing, you start to tame it:

“…See, all we’ve done [says the Procrastination] is use the same technique you often suggest to your clients.  Instead of obsessing about the fact that they’re procrastinating, they should write about it.  As a dialogue with themselves.  Or a story. Even a letter to themselves.”

“That’s right.  [replies Palumbo]  If a client writes about his feelings about procrastinating, the underlying doubts and fears may emerge, as well as the meaning he gives them.  Say for example, that he shouldn’t even be trying to write.  Or that if he does, it won’t be good enough.  Whatever.  Hopefully, as these self-defeating meanings are examined, the writer can better understand his procrastination as a kind of defence mechanism.  That he procrastinates as a way to avoid discovering some imagined ‘truth’ about himself.”
~ Dennis Palumbo, Writing From the Inside Out, p.131.

Reading that back alone, it sounds a bit silly and psychobabbly, but reading the whole chapter really clicked with me.  And I realized, reading that exact section, that when I was doing an exercise from a different writing book the other day, I had done exactly what he suggested without meaning to or wanting to. 

I was feeling blocked and boring and full of absolutely Nothing Of Any Interest to say, when the exercise (that I was already part of the way into), instructed me to add ‘a voice’ to the situation I was creating, and then a figure for it.  To create a character, talking about the scene…Out came what I realized was My Inner Critic who was very active that day, yelling at me and making things almost impossible to get on with: being the very spirit of Procratination, MEAN Procrastination.  The Critic slammed me about my…procrastination and what it meant, for writing and for my life in general.

Here’s the exercise.  I was supposed to start in a dark spacious room (this exercise is courtesy one of Holly Lisle’s several writing books – its called the Shadow Room exercise) with a smell, then a sound, then connect them, then a voice would come, that I would clothe.  That day I merely felt this exercise had gotten away from me, out of control, and I HATED the character that emerged, and didn’t want to work with him at all, as he was just unpleasant.  To ME, the writer, and I’m supposed to be in control of this…you know, a bit, at least! 

But after reading Palumbo, I thought I should try to tame this nasty dude some more…

So here it was:
Cinnamon maple syrup cake.  It’s the smell of the powder before you shake it, when it’s still settled within the spice shaker.  The smell that is coloured terracotta, and that makes your nose prickle.  Underneath that, there’s the bitter edge of maple syrup, deep and viscous.  It settles and does not mix.  Beneath it all is the smell of baking cake, rising sweetness.  The smell of waking up and feeling less sad, of engaging with the morning, looking forward to that break where the cake is.  Of no longer looking at small patches of whatever’s in front of you, but of raising your eyes and seeing the big picture: the whole room, whole spread of your day.  One thing at a time, with the help of sweetness, off you go.

It’s the sound of the rain, of hailstones on the roof of the outhouse.  The roof is only made of corrugated hardwearing plastic, old now; so the sound is loud, really loud.  Sounds like stones, or bullets hitting the roof, endless percussive sound.  It varies a little as the wind changes, but mostly that’s it – a sound that saturates my range of hearing.  A sound that hisses of cold empty space, of breath clouding in the air and wind pushing in under the rotting bit of wood that is the bottom of the door to the garden.  It’s a sound of odd nostalgia when indoors.  You can watch and hear power without being harmed.

I stand in the doorway between kitchen and outhouse, feeling freezing.  I close the door to the warm kitchen and sit down on the steps to the outhouse.  Fully cold now.  I hold my plate of still warm cake, so it’s under my nose, heat gently rising with those smells.  My fingers are warm; the backs of my hands are freezing.  I want my scarf for my neck, but I’ve sat down now and I don’t have long.  So I just listen, holding the plate with both hands and waiting to take my first bite, enjoying the fact I still have the whole cake, and this whole piece.  Trying to just be, with the sounds of that hail on the roof.

There’s a rustle beside me, I’m budged rudely over, and he sits down.  Starts talking, without a hello, without telling me why he’s here.

“Well.  You wanted something to change.  You wanted the endless winter to end.  I give you –” sarcastic hand flourish, “Spring!  I give you the time of your life, any time, all these times right now.  All the times you sit there wishing for other than what you have.  I give you now.  Just sit there – the kinks in the left of your lower back (you can’t even tell if its muscle or bone anymore) are hurting you every time you adjust position even one bit.  Your toes are cold.  Your hands are cold.  And you are getting a headache, as usual.  You are tired.  You want to close your eyes and drift off, wake up some other time when whatever it is that bugs you is gone away, don’t you?”

I try to not be gape mouthed.  I look at my plate.

“And there’s always something bugging you.  You want to relax all your muscles, always, to feel slender and warm and at rest.  You want to full immerse in this sound, and actually Have An Experience, instead of fighting against it.  For once.  But you can’t, can you?  It’s like meditating.  All you’re conscious of is the body being uncomfortable, in pain, distracted, tired.  And in your mind, while you try so pathetically hard to be present, all you really think is that this, whatever this is, will be over soon, like everything else.  And soon you’ll be able to sleep.  That’s what you really want.  To just not be here. For long enough to feel better about being back, whenever you do get back.

“And this, the rain and hail, the sweet smells of cinnamon and maple syrup, the cake you fussed about baking so you’d feel like you accomplished something today.  This is all wasted on you.  It’s all going to be lost, because you can’t just experience anything.”

His voice is calm, very calm.  It barely has inflection, but when it does (to say ‘pathetically’ with a bit more sarcasm) it’s a sexless voice.  It has the slight aggressive edge male voices can have; but the sibilant soft tones of a woman reading a book aloud to someone she is trying to soothe to sleep.  It’s Ian McKellan in a really louche bad mood.

He looks thin and middle aged.  He’s wearing a herringbone tweed overcoat, Doc Marten boots.  His face is delicate and androgynous, like Tilda Swinton’s can be, but not quite.  Pale, pale grey eyes in a pale shiny face.  The hands are nervous and the fingers fiddle with thick silver rings, back and forth, on and off, on and off.  He smells of smoke.  His forefinger and thumb of the right hand have slight nicotine stains.  Even that is mocking me.  His smoking says to me – once you didn’t give a shit, you did what you want; now you cower like a kicked child, in case you get…cancccccerrrrrr.  Coward.  He doesn’t lean forward while talking, but he sits right next to me.  Delivering his unfriendly one-slant words with the precision of a God in Judgement.

He is convinced he is right, confident of his conclusions.  He thinks the cruelty of these observations will spur a change he can congratulate himself for.  Otherwise, he thinks, he can watch me disintegrate under the weight of slamming truth.  And feel power in what he has achieved.  Removing the weak by holding up a mirror which the viewer could not bear.  He is insufferably self righteous.
I really don’t like this character.  I was annoyed and upset that I was writing him, and that I knew who bits and pieces of him were annoyed me even more.  (Many years ago, my diary got read and passed round a street’s worth of hostile people.  This was of course, bloody terrible; as was the thing I had done to deserve a revenge like that.  But part of this Critic was the person who stole my diary – it was his coat, his shoes, his confidence; Alias Octa.  I had imagined, all that time, what all these people were saying about my private words, about me, my identity and writing.)  I knew who other parts of this Critic were too; nasty little internalized parts of people who may otherwise have been nice to me, but what I kept were the razors, as if once cut by them I had to keep cutting myself to remind me of how much it hurt.  Hmmm.  Lots of other healthy stuffage of this ilk.

The thing was, I had been disgusted and upset by this piece of writing, worrying that if I played with this character anymore, he would just start running me – as he knew what to say to hurt me, as he is me!  It wasn’t till I read the passage in Palumbo that I realized that I didn’t need to be frightened of this little twat.  I had already pulled him out of the shadows.  He hadn’t said a damn thing I wasn’t already aware of.  What I needed to be thinking about was the fact that all he was, was slant.  If you can spin something one way, you can spin it another.  I might well have sat there, unable to quite enjoy my cake and listen to the hailstones because I had backache, a headache and I was tired!  So what!  As another friend has said to me, several times recently, I need to learn to have far more “grace with myself”.  When I hear my unfriendly Ian McKellan/ Tilda Swinton Critic start pontificating, I need to just turn round to them and say:

Alright!  You’re so clever!  What have you actually done?  What have YOU achieved and experienced?  Have you, possibly, been so busy criticising and minding other people’s business that you have had no life of your own?  Are you so damn scared about that fact, that you don’t want me to have one either??  So you just drag me back everytime I start trying?  At least I’m trying!  And I don’t stop trying!  You’re a wanker!  And you’re going to shut up, sit down, and behave.  Do some knitting or something.  Or go away.  Ok?

Hmmmmm!  I have never stood up to myself in such a strong fashion before!  And the fact is, all that day he wheedled at me and made my writing not a joy; I did write all through it.  He didn’t stop me.  Its funny: characters, and parts of yourself that are like this, they only have real power when you let them speechify  and soliloquize endlessly.  If you don’t take them so seriously, and stand up to them, make them look stupid…they do tend to simmer down, even if only for long enough for you to finish that days work.  It’s a good tactic, I think. Probably, the more I stand up to my Inner Full Of Himself, the more he may get bored and wander off.  (I suspect he wants to write a hard hitting and pretentious political screenplay.  Off you go then; not stopping you.)

That isn’t quite what Dennis Palumbo meant, I think, by talking to the Procrastination.  It just so happens that mine, as Critic, really truly viciously hates me and wishes me dead, so I had to be particularly firm with his nihilism; not just chat with him.

Palumbo continued to chat with his own Procrastination; who it seems was more of a sneaky type, rather than a horrible pig:

“For a writer struggling with procrastination, the important thing to remember is that writing anything is by definition the act of overcoming it.”

“And by that you mean…?”

“I once had a client who figured out ingenious ways to procrastinate – I mean, forget house cleaning and file cataloguing.  This woman organized block parties in her neighbourhood, kept up mailing lists for her alumni association, spent days trying to invent a new blend for her local Starbucks –”

“I get it.  So?”

“So I had her write down what she was doing instead of writing…each activity, her problems with it, her feelings about it.  At some point, she began to see herself as a character doing these things, then writing about that character.  Soon, this all turned into a novel.”

“Interesting.  Have you noticed we’re just about finished with this chapter?”

“But I was just getting started.  Ironic, isn’t it?  All that time and effort spent procrastinating, and now that I’m writing I don’t want to stop.”

“Now, what have we learned from this, Grasshopper?”

“I’ll have to get back to you.  Don’t forget, I’m in the middle of a book here.”
~ Palumbo, Writing From The Inside Out, pp.132-135

1 comment:

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