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Friday, January 29, 2010

Getting Unstuck

[Warning: This is post contains no pictures. I don't hold with pictureless posts, but there it is.]

People have suggested to me over the years that I should write my own book.
I like hearing that, but it brings up a bunch of demons, especially the demon of procrastination, with its attendant demonettes of doubt and shame.

I'm always defending laziness, which I experience as a wonderful, open-ended energy that moves, when it moves, at a very leisurely pace.
There's a lot of space in laziness, where anything might, and often does, arise.

Procrastination, though, is like being stuck in a dark closet. I'm supposed to be doing something and I can't or won't, so I just don't do anything at all.
This is a problem.

I. Dead in the Water

My star turn as a procrastinator came a dozen years ago, when I was thirty-five.
I was finishing my undergraduate degree, a tad later than most, and I spent about a year writing a senior paper to fulfill the requirement to graduate with honors.
I wrote 60-some pages of typescript on the development of the Christian theology of death.
And then I never finished it.

I always blamed my failure to finish on the emotional turmoil of having had an affair with my professor.
This was a huge problem, yes. But it wasn't the only factor, or even, with hindsight, the main one. The truth is, there's always a good, legitimate reason not to do one's work, and I always found one.

But really, I didn't know how to bring work to completion, how to work with myself instead of against myself.
Advice to strong-arm myself, to "just do it," never helped--I just balked more.

The other day, going through my visual journals from that era, I came across that unfinished paper. I sat on the floor and re-read it. It's really good, and further, it's incredibly close to done. I probably could have submitted it as it was, or with just a few hours of work to tie it off.
But I didn't.
So, I didn't graduate with honors, just a regular bachelor of arts.
In itself, that doesn't bother me, but I still dream that I never finished my degree at all.

II. Stuck at the Feast

Not finishing stuff is a lifelong pattern of mine. I never understood procrastination (not quite the same thing, but related), much less how to work around it. I just felt bad about it. Feeling bad about who you are is one of the most useless emotions ever.

Recently a friend who has studied Myers Briggs psychology helped me understand my nature better.
To being with, there's a whole tribe of us people who aren't "finishers." (We even get our own letter: P.)
I find this reassuring, and it helps me get over the shame. (Living with shame is like walking through molasses.)

Then, "not being good at finishing things" often comes attached to a whole set of gifts, which I always sensed was true but never heard anyone else say.

For instance, we nonfinishers are often the sort of people who ask wonderful big questions. We just aren't so interested in finessing the details.
Completing projects requires that second part--dotting the i's and crossing the t's. But having a great project to work on in the first place comes from having a hungry mind.

I loved hearing all that. I love people with big appetites for life, for food, for ideas, even if we don't always clean our plates.

But I also love it when people can figure out how to create a whole meal and serve it up for others.
I'd like to be able to do that without feeling like I'm slogging through molasses the whole time.

III. In Recovery

I've s l o w l y gotten somewhat better at finishing projects.
What helped most was figuring out how to work with myself, not against myself.

Working on the geography books series was the first work where I didn't back off when I met my procrastination at professional strength.

One problem is I get Big Picture Paralysis--I see an enormous task and freeze up.
Facing a geography book project, I would feel bad about myself for weeks at a time, while I did everything but write. Then, like a mule, I'd lurch forward and pull full-speed for a while.
Then stop again.

Part of what took me so long was that I spent a lot of time on the flip side of procrastination: indulging in the wonderful big questions.
For my first book, on Turkey, I spent a long time reading about the Byzantine Empire, though I knew it could only get a couple lines in the history chapter.
The books--basically long encyclopedia entries--had no room for cultural analysis. But I adored doing the research, and I'm sure it enriched the books, and my life.

Because I didn't get paid until I finished the books, I was highly motivated. More, though, I very much wanted to put together a decent book.
The day I saw my name in a Library of Congress format for the first time was a good day.
Like so:
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Fresca, 1961-
Turkey / by Fresca.
p. cm. -- Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Turkey--Pictorial works. I. Title.
2. II. Series: Visual geography series 2004002619

That first book, it wasn't very good, mostly because I didn't know how to write for young people.
But it is a book, with covers. And between the covers, a beginning, middle, and--tra la!--an end.

Having completed sixteen of them now, I've learned a bit how to break up the Big Picture Paralysis into smaller bits.

Blogging has been a huge help in doing this and in mobilizing me as a writer.
Like the 12-Steps advice to take it one day at a time, blogging is one post at a time.
Writing just one post, something I can do in one day, is a model I can apply to bigger projects.

It also helps immensely to know you are out there, you readers--even the idea of readers gives me some traction in the molasses.
I like that writing is mostly a solitary pursuit. But I don't want to be all alone with it.

Then, finally, moviemaking this past year and a half has opened my eyes to how much easier it is to get things done when I work with other people.
Involving a bunch of people in a project sure increases the motivation to finish the project, because you owe it to them.
But more, I figured out that I can ask other people can do stuff they like and are good at that I'm not.

IV. Quo Vadis?

I got thinking about all this because now the geography series is ending, I have a big open field in front of me.
As I've said, I felt sad at first about not having a new country to research.

Then I started to think--partly because people keep suggesting it to me--that I could start my own in-depth writing project.

(To be precise, people say, "Why don't you write your own book?" But this word, book, makes me hyperventilate, so I'll just say writing project.)

I worry that I don't want to write the kind of book that I think people would like.
I've always felt I could write a pretty good spiritual memoir--about all the good things I've learned from doing stuff the hard way. It would be a lot of work, but in a way, it'd be easy because I've already thought so much about it.
Whenever I write that sort of thing, I get a lot of positive reinforcement.

But it's not what I want to write. Anne Lamott, Pema Chodron, Saint Augustine, et al. have said everything I could say, and more, anyway.

What do I want to write?

Yesterday I sat in the sun in a coffee shop and finished reading Murder in Amsterdam; The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, which I'd started reading while working on the Netherlands geography book.

When I closed the book, my heart was full with what a great job the author, Ian Buruma, did writing about one of the hardest questions of our times--how can we live together in a world of shifting, dissolving borders--borders between nations, between cultures, between economies, between individuals...

He has that beautiful kind of stretchy mind that can understand--and help you understand-- different people's world views--from the Dutch Muslim kid to the right-wing politician.
And he makes it a good story too, which you don't have to be an expert to get into.
Makes you want to weep with gratitude.

So, I'm sitting there in the coffee shop, and I feel a wave of longing:
"I want to write like that."

Immediately all the reasons I can't write like that appear, including this problem I have finishing things.
This morning, though, I woke up and full of energy to start exploring a question that won't leave me alone ever since I wrote that series of Star Trek and 1960s Design:

Why, WHY? does the Guggenheim museum look like the starship Enterprise?

This is not a question about Star Trek, this is a question about the forces that shape--literally shape--our lives, our sense of selves. Further, it's a deeply personal question because it's about the shape of things--buildings, housewares, clothes, cars--that formed and molded me, growing up in the 1960s.
Most of all, it's about the shape of ideas, which shape our selves.

The exciting thing about this question is that I don't know the answer.
I know a lot of people I could ask for help though, and I thought, well, what if you go out and start asking them?
So I called Joanna and asked if she'd help me start thinking about how to think about this.
She said yes.

If I break this Big Picture down, really it's just a series of blog posts.

9 comments:

ArtSparker said...

I prefer the enneagram to Myers Briggs. This is partly because if I change the answer to one question on Myers Briggs, a question to which I feel mostly indifferent, I immediately change my type. Let me know if you are interested in finding out more about the enneagram - there;s an online test you can do which is pretty good.

I have some of the same issues, which is why I loved being an illustrator, because an assignment gives me boundaries.

I dreamed last night that you were thinking, or speaking, about :Oh, I'll just repost that one with the bird". Which turned into some possibility for a story about some enormous bird turning up for an extended visit. So now I have another idea....Did I mention that when I looked at my comments, you happened to be leaving one at about the time I woke up from the dream?

bink said...

I'm excited to watch your brain work whenever it takes on a new and interesting pursuit. I already love the direction--why does the Guggenheim look like the Enterprise--and I know the exploration is going to go boldly where no one has ever gone before.

Write on!

Fresca said...

ARTS:
Wow, your dream is AMAZING to me!
Because then I re-posted about a "bird" myself--the Enterprise!

Thanks for the idea of the enneagram. Yes, please send the link.
The reason I'm liking M-Briggs these days is because this friend has studied it, and psychology, in-depth and can talk with a lot of depth.
Otherwise, I'm with you--the on-line test kept shifting me around.

I very much need boundaries---hoping to construct them for myself with this project. Not sure how it'll go, but I'm going to try.

BINK: Bless you, you are my champion.
I think it'll be fun to see what's out there, anyway.

Dania said...

I like your point about it just being a series of blog posts. It does make it seem less daunting.

Reminds me of Julia Cameron's recommendation of doing three pages of writing a day. It doesn't seem like much at the time, but it adds up.

Fresca said...

DANIA: Someone else just recommended JC's "Artist's Way" to me too.
Blogging has sure shown me that the "slow and steady" route really does work. And it doesn't freak me out the way "writing a book" does.
Oddly, making a movie over a year or a month doesn't scare me in the same way... Not sure why. Maybe it doesn't trigger any childhood fears, as I never made a movie until last year.

momo said...

Finally getting around to reading this, and yes, I had a similar revelation with the help of my letters, ENFP!

deanna said...

Would have loved to comment sooner, but I procrastinated. ;o)

Teaching my daughter, I learned that procrastination can be essential to method - she didn't seem to worry or feel shame about putting things off until the last minute (drove me insane). In fact, she finally told me that she worked best with the deadline staring at her, with the challenge, I think, to put all her (lazy) thinking about the subject into its required form. She finished all the work of four Latin years and a college thesis using this method.

I, however, completely get your molasses description. And pondering what you said, I think this may relate to shame. Perhaps true procrastination is putting things off without shame...or maybe what my daughter did was something other...

Maybe not finishing can involve ourselves telling us something crucial. I didn't "finish" my marriage - I quit, despite shame, because my true self couldn't do this thing as I came to understand it. But I was shown something shockingly unforeseen - my husband didn't shame me but shared blame, forgave, asked forgiveness. Even if we'd stayed apart, this would have been a great lesson, only learned because I didn't finish. In it I saw mercy at work...

The journey, when something is important, involves being stuck and involves quitting and sometimes (or many times) starting again. That's what I've found so far when attempting "in-depth writing projects" (so get that term, as well). You will find so much to learn from, I'm sure, Fresca, and I'm excited for you, wherever this ends up going. Much more I could say, but I'm writing a book here, as is...

Except, must add that my love for text makes me not need pictures in posts, especially when the blogger knows how to vary their prose. You're an excellent poster of words as well as pics, just so you know. :o)

Jennifer said...

I can love the MBTI simply because no matter what I end up pretty much the same--INF at about 100%, and then a slight tilt toward P. Dan is far, far, far more P than I, which is always very strange to me because I grew up in a household of Finishers, and there I was...not. In my marriage I am the organized one, and it makes me laugh and makes me nervous at the same time.

I agree, btw, don't think of it as a book. Think of it as writing. You're good at writing! Books are scary, solid, real and almost-mystical things, but we can all write (some better than others, of course, and you're one of them).

Fresca said...

DEANNA: Your daughter sounds like a "P", like me. It's a good thing, unless we feel bad about being that way, which is a shame in itself.

I love how you see not finishing sort of like I've come to see "failure"--as an opening for other things.
Thanks for your encouragement.

You're right--good writing doesn't need pictures, but I've never gotten over my childhood disappointment when the books I read no longer came with pix.

JEN: I am an INFP! The thing that varies most for me is the E/I--sometimes I'm more "E". I call myself an outgoing or friendly introvert.

A household of Finishers--eek! That feels frightening, though I suppose it could be quite nice if they didn't pick on you.
How funny to find oneself "organized"! : )