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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Creative avoidance: it's just so key

Back in the 1920s, the great humor writer Robert Benchley did a piece called “How to Get Things Done.” In it he suggested, based on his own rich experience of avoiding the writing of his column, that “anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”

This is also key in my productivity. In fact there was a time when my writing deadlines were the only reason anything in my office ever got cleaned.

“Must be deadline day — you’re scrubbing the bathroom!” I’d hear that from Tim Newcomb, a political cartoonist and graphic designer in Montpelier, Vermont with whom I shared an office for a number of years when I was covering Vermont for the Boston Globe. And it was true: Friday, the day my stuff had to get done for the Sunday paper, was when I had the chance to compose something that thousands might read and enjoy, and when I noticed that gosh, that sink has gotten really pretty bad.

This reflex even kicked in years later: I finally sold a book, and I responded by scrubbing trash cans. I’d been striving for years to get a book accepted, all through the time sharing the office with Tim and beyond. My first book was rejected 75 times; my first four altogether pulled in something like 115 “sorry, but no” responses, and none ever saw print. Then finally — it was late morning on a Friday, in wintertime like today — I got a call from my agent in New York. She said a young-adult novel I’d submitted had drawn an offer from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Did I want to accept? Yes I wanted to accept!

And when we’d congratulated each other and got off the phone, I called two or three people to tell them — to tell somebody — but it was a late Friday morning and nobody answered, so I gathered up all the plastic trash receptacles in the house and threw them in the bathtub. I was scrubbing and thumping them around. This was technically a departure from my usual practice, which is to do something ridiculous and time-wasting before I start writing, not after a thing has been submitted or accepted. But it’s a tested and proven technique, and here it was useful again.

What I do these days, when I have something to write, is I’ll negotiate. Say it’s ten of eight in the morning (see how early I start, in this fictional example? maybe I should make it ten of seven). I’ll glance at the time and decide I can read junky news on the Internet for ten minutes, but then I have to start. And when that time comes, I do start. So this does work, at least for me.

Writing involves fear — there’s almost always going to be that anxiety, coming up before you start. Giving myself that small avoidance time allows a little space for the fear, so I can be with it without focusing on it, and without letting it stop me. Because I’ve found that the more anxious I feel before starting something, the more important it is to start — because I only feel the fear if I’m taking some risk, and in any creative work, taking at least a little risk, pushing beyond your comfort zone, is very important; but first, what is the latest in the world of sports? Maybe I’ll just check.

This time-bargaining is a pretty good approach. It doesn’t require cleaning supplies, and I generally do get the writing done. But those trash receptacles ... I mean, just look at ‘em. It’s like nobody cares any more.

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