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Laila Lalami explains how to procrastinate (hint: you're off to a good start)

At the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books some years ago, I heard a writer claim that he gets up at 6 a.m. every day, does 50 push-ups, drinks a pot of coffee, and then sits down to write. He seemed very proud of this fact, as I suppose he ought to be, but I confess I looked at him the way one looks at a rare specimen of butterfly encased in glass. I do not get up at an ungodly hour, I do not exercise or drink a pot of coffee, and I do not write. Which is a problem, since I’m a writer.

What do I do instead? I procrastinate.

Take this column. It was commissioned two weeks ago, but did I sit down to write it two weeks ago? Ha! Of course not. I looked at my calendar every day, took note of the approaching deadline, worried about what I would write, and then went off to do something else. My browser history tells me that I’ve researched herbal cures to jet lag; scrolled through a Flickr set of pictures from a literary festival I attended recently (hence the jet lag); read the Economist; looked up “Dalai Lama and CIA Tibetan program” for reasons I cannot recall anymore; and checked the gym schedule, but did not in fact stir myself enough to go to the gym.

Not so bad, I guess, except that this doesn’t include the precious hours I frittered away on Facebook and Twitter. I found myself engaged in a heated debate about Bernie Sanders, read tributes to the late Muhammad Ali, shared a friend’s post about the victims of the homophobic attack in Orlando, Fla., and liked more pictures of kitties, puppies and babies than I can count.
 

After this, I usually set about the task of re-organizing my workspace. The novel I’m writing involves a lot of research, which means that over the last few months I’ve collected books, maps, photographs and newspaper clippings, and stuffed them on my bookshelves or in boxes. At the sound of rustling paper, my cat wanders into my office and, of course, I have to play with him for a bit. He needs the exercise at least as much as I do. Then it’s time for second breakfast. I forage for leftovers in the fridge and make another cup of coffee. Oh, and look! Now I have a whole bunch of new notifications on Twitter.

It doesn’t matter how many times I admonish myself about the foolishness of engaging in political debates online or the futility of scrolling through dozens of curated snapshots of other people’s lives, I can only start writing once I have exhausted all possibilities of distraction.

I berate myself regularly about this waste of time. Imagine how much you could get done, I tell myself, if only you’d quit social media. Imagine all the things you could write!

But I can’t help my procrastination. And for me, at least, it is intimately connected to self-doubt. The novel I’m envisioning at any moment and the novel I’m actually writing are never the same. One is perfect; the other is imperfect. One is intricate and surprising and beautiful; the other is straightforward and conventional and ugly. So ugly that I can’t bear to look at it just yet. When I try to put the fictional world into real words, the result is often frustrating. Before I’ve even started writing the story in my head, I know it will disappoint me on the page.

So I log into Facebook instead.

I cannot seem to find a cure for my procrastination. To prevent myself from getting on social media, I use Freedom software, which blocks access to the Internet. That worked for a while, until I realized that my smartphone could do whatever my computer could do. (I still use Freedom, but now I have to put my phone in a different room.) I’ve even tried working out. My friends know what depths of despair such a measure must have entailed. But aside from slightly more toned arms, all I’ve succeeded in doing is delaying the procrastination until after my return from the gym. I’ve tried maintaining a log book, in which I dutifully record my word count every day. It was depressing.

So you see, I do not lack for discipline. But I still need to waste a lot of time.

I’m genuinely surprised that I get anything done at all. In the last 10 years, I have somehow managed to publish three novels, in addition to dozens of stories, columns, reviews and essays. I have no explanation for this, except that perhaps the procrastination is not an impediment to my writing process, but an intimate part of it.  

Just because I’m scrolling through a feed or reading the newspaper or idly jumping from website to website doesn’t mean that my brain shuts off. It’s still trying to flesh out characters, create scenes, work out plot points, or think of a better way to structure a paragraph.

Writing a novel is like living in a house full of ghosts — even when you ignore them, they’re still there, waiting to talk to you. They have all the time in the world. No matter how much you avoid them, the time comes when you have to confront them. Hear them out. See what they have to say. Over time, their features become clearer, their voices stronger, their histories richer, their lives fuller.

And so, once I have exhausted myself with avoidance, I must face the inevitable. Get it down on the page, I tell myself. You can always revise it later.

It’s only when I’m facing the blank screen that all my procrastination doesn’t seem like such a waste of time. I already have a rough idea what the widowed mother will say to her son-in-law when he asks about the will, what the necklace she will wear to the funeral means to her, and what it will take for her to finally lose her temper. When I’m revising, the time I’ve wasted away from the novel might help me figure out that the argument at the gravesite must be cut and moved to the kitchen instead. Little details that I might not have noticed if I had dutifully sat at my desk all day long suddenly stick out, begging to be explored.

So I’ve come to accept that there is no cure for me. I’ll do anything to avoid working on my novel. Even writing a column on procrastination.

Lalami, one of our 10 critics at large, is the author, most recently, of “The Moor’s Account,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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