Playing Waiting Games
I’ve been a little obsessed with the idea of waiting, the joys and pains of it. Expectation and anticipation are a form of waiting that offer an element of surprise, a hint of ooh, this is exciting.
Other forms of waiting just suck. Waiting for events over which we have no control, like a scheduled medical procedure or the plumber coming fix the leaky toilet, can be anxiety producing.
No matter what we wait for, when it arrives there is little relief because immediately, there is something else to wait for. Perhaps this is the human condition: being in a constant state of waiting for what comes next.
After scheduling a knee surgery three months in advance, I could think about nothing else. The waiting to just get it over with became almost unbearable. It is now three weeks post-surgery and I am still waiting. Waiting for when I can drive, get on my bike, and when can I stop carrying a bottle of Tylenol around with me.
Writers Who Wait
A writer who waits is a writer who is not writing.
Procrastination, a favored skill by writers around the world, can be a good thing but most of the time, it’s not. While I am somewhat of a procrastination pro, I do recognize that it is often based in fear. I’m not good enough. I have nothing to say. No one will ever read or care about this. Why bother to write it?
A good content creator has to project an air of fearlessness, if only to themselves. Waiting games can help. Imagine if we could free our psyches of this ‘creator fear’ and recognize that good or bad, those first few sentences just have to find their way on to the page.
Try this: Beth and I are huge fans of inventing creative limitations, and they are perfect for waiting games. Don’t want to get started on the CEO speech draft? No worries. Set a timer for three minutes and write all the reasons you don’t like this assignment. Keep putting off the employee newsletter draft? Type with your eyes closed and write an embarrassing work story from your past.
Focusing on a limitation turns off that editor voice in our heads and makes it fun to be silly and to “write bad.” Once your fingers start moving, the words and ideas will graduate from silly to interesting.
No one need see these sentences. Consider them warm-up exercises, just like you do at the beginning of a kickboxing class.
Waiting for Inspiration
Years ago I heard the author Phillip Pullman give a great answer to that horrible question writers get asked: where do you get your inspiration from?
He said, I don’t know where inspiration comes from. But I know where it goes to. It goes to my desk and if I’m not sitting there working, it will go somewhere else.
This quote has stuck in my head and sometimes, during my inspiration-less periods, I recite it to myself like a mantra. Any trick to get me to the desk.
There are some artists who insist they need only create when inspiration strikes and they are fine with waiting for it to arrive. The problem is that for most of us, inspiration is not a lightning strike, it’s not a particular moment in which our imaginations are graced with a perfect story and out it flows.
Waiting for inspiration is a classic waiting game and the odds will always be against you. But what if we could turn that around? What if we could create an atmosphere where the act of waiting was replaced with routine?
Try this: Choose a piece of clothing, like a tie, hat, or scarf. You must wear it when you sit down for a writing session. Every time. You may not be successful at first, but eventually your body and mind will be trained to know that if you’re wearing the red Izod sweater that used to belong to your grandfather, then that means it is writing time. Don’t worry about what you write at this stage. Writing the worst sentence in the world gets you one step closer to writing a great sentence because it is lighting up your brain.
Turn Waiting Into Action
To reduce my anxiety before the surgery, I bought a case of Tylenol, made doctor appointments, scheduled work events far into the future, and set my out of office message. I made lists of tasks and one by one, I accomplished them. I considered these actions as all part of the surgical experience and that mindset helped reduce my anxiety and give me confidence that because I was putting all the pieces in place, the whole experience would go well.
Writing is the same way. I have a deadline that I have to meet and an idea, but I don’t yet have the words or the connective tissue to get started.
Instead of waiting for that clarity to magically arrive, I set myself some tasks: make lists of ideas, scrawl outlines in my notebook that I’ll never look at again, jot down phrases that sound smart. I do all of this as part waiting, part procrastination, part this is just my process.
I may not be writing full sentences, but I am writing something. I always remind students that we write to figure out what we’re thinking so this writing and note-taking process is an important component. I don’t know what I have to say until I start writing it down.
And that’s why waiting for the right moment to put pen to paper is a losing proposition. There is no “right” moment.
Think about this: StoryStudio Chicago Artistic Director and best-selling novelist Rebecca Makkai likes to remind her students that “writing” doesn’t necessarily mean typing sentences. She tweeted, “Outlining is writing, revising is writing, brainstorming is writing, going on a walk about it is writing, research is writing, interviewing is writing. Is eating writing? Let’s say yes.”
Don’t Wait; Do Something
Sure, patience is a virtue, but it doesn’t have to be. I mean, what’s wrong with complaining? Venting privately in my notebook feels great and almost always turns into something useful. In fact, this act of complaining makes me feel like I am taking some tiny measure of control.
I can’t manipulate time and I have little leverage over other people’s schedules. But I do have agency over how I spend my time. Breaking a project into smaller steps that seem doable make me feel like I’m making progress. Developing creative limitations, like forcing a daily word count, or putting a dollar in the jar for being lazy and using the word thing instead of a descriptive detail, can turn an unpleasant assignment into a good challenge.
During those three months before surgery, I kept as busy as possible. Some of my actions were useful, like doing “prehab” exercises to strengthen muscles I would need to get up out of a chair or go upstairs. Some actions were kind of silly, like wasting time checking all the expiration dates on cans in the pantry.
Instead of just sitting around worrying, I turned those weeks into waiting games and guess what? It worked. By the time the surgery date rolled around, I was already making my lists and filling my notebook with ideas about what might come next.
What Are You Waiting For?
What’s stopping you from diving into that creative project? Or, if you’re not a writer who waits, share your secrets for keeping the creative juices flowing.