The Assignment comes in. The deadline is far off in the future. As the deadline approaches, I begin to think about the Assignment every day. Thoughts crystalize, ideas happen, I am at the least opportune moments digging through my giant satchel for a receipt, a pad, something on which to scrawl a line that seems to be the key to making the Assignment click, to making it not only brilliant, but fun and easy to write.
I am always always always the same girl I was in college who leaves things not to the last minute but to the minute before the last minute. I am searching for the word that refers to that moment -- the moment at which successful procrastinators stop procrastinating and start working. I think this word only exists in German. A successful procrastinator spends exactly as much time avoiding the work -- no more, no less -- so that there is exactly enough time to get the Assignment done by the deadline. On either side of the moment, the procrastination and the work expand to fit snugly in the allotted time frame. I have an inner clock (not that clock) and it has a very quiet alarm that goes off when I must stop the avoidance techniques and start the work. I can barely hear it. Evidently it hasn't gone off yet in this case because, well, this isn't the Assignment.
While I am typing this I am writing the Assignment with the rest of my brain. I am also listening to Band of Horses on noise-cancelling headphones. This is a band (of horses) that I have listened to so much lately that the music is playing in my head even when it's not (leaving no room for my default songs, thankfully). I'm not even sure I like them (Ben & I decided they're sort of Modest Mouse meets Arcade Fire...I'd add that they sort of have a tussle with the Decemberists somewhere in there and get their hands on some acoustic guitars too). But it doesn't matter because I can lock out the world and blast this music that I know so well ("I know you tried, I know you're cursed, I know your best was still your worst") it is like the music of the spheres and it seeps into the blanks between what I'm doing (writing this blog post) and what the other part of my brain is doing (writing the Assignment). There is no room for anything else. I can write without music, but I'm more panicky. I like to have loud music to shut out other possibilities, at least when I'm starting an Assignment.
My fight-or-flight writer's reflex is a dull mechanism. It cannot distinguish between truly terrible, terrifying deadlines and mundane tasks like picking up the laundry. More to the point, a large, difficult, research-intensive assignment and a short, breezy, funny piece that I can write in my own funny-girl voice inspire the same amount of terror. No, the fact that I wrote a 500-page book (that clocked in at far more than that before severe editing), over the course of many years, does not really make me any less terrified by assignments large and small.
The problem isn't that I don't think I can do it. The Assignment is there and it is Everest or it is a tiny speedbump that I've dressed up in an Everest costume and I have been training for long enough that I know I can scale this. But there's no guarantee that this is not the hill I will die on. I am not ever truly in control of my inspiration, my sense of humor, my most articulate self. I can create the ideal conditions (rested, caffeinated but not too, a teensy bit hungry but not starving, water close by, Band of Horses) but there's still no guarantee. There could still be an avalanche. I could draw a blank. It's performance anxiety.
I heard Fran Lebowitz on The Infinite Mind a year or so ago (I insist you go listen to it right now) talking about writer's block. She has famously had writer's block for decades (when asked once why she didn't write another book, she said something like, "I would but I'm too busy smoking"). On the program she talked about how she has a certain low-level current of guilt running through her whenever she is not writing. Which, given her eons-long block, is all the time. I think I cried a little listening to this, because it's so true, and -- god help me -- because it's so pathetic.
I mean it. Writers are lucky. They get paid to do work that they love. The problem is -- and I have heard every writer I know say this at one time or another -- I sort of hate writing. In the same way I hate every single thing that I have to do for money, for a deadline, for public consumption. Does Roger Federer hate tennis? Do my photographer friends hate taking pictures? (Do you, photographer friends?) I doubt this.
So, back to the Assignment. I have no doubt it is going to be a success. I also know that I could go home right now and dye my hair and make raw pesto and watch Grey's Anatomy and forget about the Assignment until tomorrow, when I will be in a blind panic, giving myself word counts that I must hit each hour, hating the whole thing. If I work now, tomorrow has a far better chance of being a good day. If I bail, the fight-or-flight goes into overdrive.
Because I want to have a good day, because I am very set on giving myself the ideal conditions for success, and because I keep thinking about what Gretchen says, "Do what ought to be done," which is so simple but so right on, tonight I stay and work.