On Writing, Procrastination and Quitting Facebook

I have always been a procrastinator, and love a deadline hanging over my head, pressing me to get things done. A deadline, even a distant one, keeps me focused and organized. There’s a fair amount of guilt involved with missing a deadline, too, and  the desire to avoid it can be a useful motivator.

It’s the open-ended tasks that give me trouble. Idea generation, following up on a month-old pitch, blog posts. Things flitting around my head or scribbled down on paper that require effort, but no one but me will know or care if they don’t get accomplished. Of course, some of that can be attributed to competing priorities, both professional and personal. But far too much can be blamed solely on procrastination.

Let’s say I have five solid hours to cram in my work for the day. Two need to go to a living, breathing, paying job. But three of those precious hours can go to whatever work I choose. I have two great ideas to research and pitch, a blog to update, an essay to edit, and three articles I should read. What do I attack first? 

I’ll tell you what I attack first: personal email, Facebook, Twitter, and my disheveled desk. One and a half hours later, half of my time is gone and I barely have enough left to get a portion of one thing done. In another common scenario, I do dive into the work, but take disruptive (as opposed to productive) mini breaks when the going gets tough. Procrastination is the scourge of the freelance writing life. 

A few months ago, I decided to remove one of my biggest weaknesses from my ample supply of procrastination tactics, and quit Facebook. I did it on a whim and cold turkey one day when I found myself looking at vacation pictures of someone I’d never met…the friend of a “friend” I barely knew. That’s just sad.

Before quitting, I tried to trick myself into using Facebook like a more reasonable person might. I removed the app from my phone and made myself log in every time I visited on my work computer. At one point, my anxiety researcher husband suggested I do 10 push-ups every time I checked Facebook mindlessly. I developed really beautiful shoulders, but the treatment did little to deter my pointless and compulsive checking.

So I quit. My thought was I’d take note of the pitfalls associated with not being counted among the one billion, and provide tips on how to do it more effectively. As it turns out, though, there are very few pitfalls involved with moving out of Facebook. (Unless, perhaps, your work is really tied to it.) As for tips, I would recommend letting your friends know you’re doing it, because a few people got their feelings hurt, thinking I’d “unfriended” them. I would also set up private groups elsewhere, because I do miss the daily contact with my far-flung circles of friends.

Other than that, unhitching myself from Facebook is nothing but sweet relief. It’s like the albatross has been cut loose, or the monkey has sprung to someone else’s back. It’s freeing to not feel compelled to wish distant acquaintances a happy birthday, offer condolences for the deaths of great-great uncles, or otherwise keep up with more people than can reasonably be done with sincerity and care. With a few exceptions, I kind of like being out of the loop.

As a result, I have probably gotten back two productive hours a day. Not necessarily because I was on Facebook for two hours, but because it took me 10 minutes or so to get back into whatever I was working on each time I took those eight five-minute procrastination breaks. I’d be lying if I said I don’t procrastinate at all, but at least now it usually has some kind of value. Like comparison shopping turntables for my nephews’ Christmas present. That’s valuable right?

The Story Behind the Story: Spirit Magazine

When it comes to pitching story ideas to national magazines, “freelance writer” is really just a fancy way of saying “cold caller.” I accept this fact as part of the job, and do not take it personally when an editor sends a cursory “Thanks, but no thanks” or just ignores my pitch altogether. I get it. They didn’t ask me to send an idea,  and mine is one of hundreds hopefully lofted into their inbox on any given and already-harried day.

It’s the near-misses that will break the heart. The ones that actually do get a, “Hm, interesting. Can you flesh out the idea and send it back?” It’s like winning the lottery, one of those emails…until the editor opts out in the end. It was almost the right idea, but not quite. Moreover, it was not quite right enough for the editor to massage it into something that IS the right idea. I get that, too, though. Again…hundreds of ideas, looming deadlines, hordes of talented writers.

Recently, though, I got lucky.

I read Media Bistro’s “How to Pitch” guide (I love Media Bistro) for Southwest Airlines’ Spirit magazine and emailed the editor interviewed in that article. I’d pitched Spirit before without success, and thought I’d see if a personal note might help my cause (or, more realistically, completely alienate her).

The editor very kindly sent me some extra insight into pitching the magazine, and eventually I pitched an idea I thought might work. While she didn’t think it fit exactly as it was, she suggested if I tweaked it just a little so it was less feel-good service, more practical business, it could work. She connected me with Spirit’s Associate Editor Noah Bunn, who then embarked with me on a trial-and-error process to get the focus just right. 

The result of that much-appreciated partnership, “Cash in on Culture” can be found this month in Southwest seat backs nationwide, and could be read by up to 3.4 million happy flyers. Woo Hoo!

Down With Perplexity!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s this great passage in this great book by Joseph O’Neill. The main character, Hans, is thinking about a restaurant critic friend of his, who, he is beginning to realize, has a less-than-complete understanding of the things he writes about. It goes like this: 

“As I repeatedly went forth with him and began to understand the ignorance and contradictions and language and difficulties with which he contended, and the doubtful sources of his information and the seemingly bottomless history and darkness out of which the dishes of New York emerge, the deeper grew my suspicion that his work finally consisted of minting or perpetuating and in any event circulating misconceptions about his subject and in this way adding to the endless perplexity of the world”

Like the rest of the novel, it’s pretty much perfectly written, but it also really struck me because I think all writers should do the opposite of adding perplexity to the world (wait for it…there it is…the earnestness eye roll). Of course, some subjects are really, really complicated and some are written about even as they are unfolding, which means facts can change. But a writer’s first and biggest responsibility is to understand what the heck she’s talking about before spewing it out onto a page, and passing it off as some version of the truth. That responsibility is even greater if you call yourself a journalist. (Which is why some news outlets, as well as some bloggers really, really, really, really bug me. But that’s a post for a different day.)

There are some journalists that are so great at understanding and explaining things. I love Gina Kolata and her ability to dissect and make fascinating complex health and science news. I love listening to Nina Totenberg on NPR as she eloquently dumbs down and makes relevant uber-complicated Supreme Court cases.

All that is to say, clarity is a worthy goal for us writers. So is writing a PEN/Faulkner award for fiction winner with an endorsement from President Obama on the cover. It is within my power to achieve at least one of those goals; but I won’t say which one.

Words for Sale!

Words for sale!

It’s a pretty good life, working as a freelance writer. I get to read lots of cool stuff by smart writers, learn new things, and puzzle out pretty ways to put words together. At the end of most days, I can point to something that hopefully educates, entertains, enlightens or otherwise makes someone’s day a little fuller than it was before. Not a bad gig. 

Like any job, though, there are challenges and frustrations. Like fruitless pitching, unstable paychecks, confounding edits, dry spells, the sometimes overwhelming pull to know at least a little about pretty much everything in order to stay relevant.

On the other hand, those challenges and frustration have a flip side. Like the excitement of coming up with what feels like a good idea, working with talented editors who make you look better, the freedom and creativity that often come with dry spells, knowing about some fascinating people, places, and things. 

It’s because of that push to be relevant that today I’m switching my web site from a beautiful, but static format to this more utilitarian, but livelier way of doing things. I already know it comes with its own set of benefits, challenges and frustrations. Mostly, I’m a smidge worried about this blog. It demands attention, calling for reasonably interesting ideas and words that may be difficult to muster. We’ll see.

So, in the spirit of a Shel Silverstein poem wherein a little boy offers up his little sister to the highest bidder…

Words for sale! But not just any words. Carefully chosen words, affectionately assembled into useful little packages like magazine articles, op-eds, press releases, key messages, media plans, and the occasional self-indulgent essay.