The Art of Creative Aversion
"If it weren't for the last minute, nothing would get done."
"In the writing process, the more a story cooks, the better."
I don't like writing. There I said it. Sure, I love being a writer. Expressing my opinion is one of my favorite
hobbies. Researching an article or book is one of my most enjoyable endeavors. As is shooting the shit about the whole
process. The actual sitting down and composing is... well, too much like work.
-- Doris Lessing
There are many weapons... er... excuses in my writing-avoidance arsenal. First and foremost is baseball. I literally won't start
working until after I check the scores. If a game is on, I'll watch it before sitting down to work. When the post-season begins,
my productivity becomes almost non-existent. Thankfully, I'm not a huge fan of football or basketball or I'd never get anything done.
When no baseball is available, I answer email. During those times when my email consists mainly of penis/breast enhancement
ads, I can always do more research. I spent a good thirty minutes before writing this column just looking for the opening quotes.
I am not alone in my avoidance. Austin author and Wild Cards contributor Walton "Bud" Simons once told me that writers
have the cleanest kitchens.
Jonathan Carroll, award-winning fantasist (and one of the most popular writers with the women inmates of the Gatesville, Texas
maximum security prison), offers the Yiddish word pochkey for this creative quirk of aversion.
Pochkey means arranging your paper clips, sharpening pencils (often when they don't need it), cleaning the keyboard of your
computer down to the last speck of dust or fingernail clipping that might have fallen between the keys, etcetera. At the same
time, writers may pochkey a lot but for better or worse, that doesn't mean they aren't working.
Jeffrey Ford, acclaimed author of The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, chimed in about the need to pochkey.
All that brain bubbling, day dreaming, loafing, is part of the deal. Actually, it's an important part of the deal. Show
me someone who can't squander time sitting in a graveyard, drinking MD 20/20, or engage in a contest against a kid to see
who has the truer aim with a dart pistol, training your sights on a wind-up penguin, or teach a dog how to sing Jingle Bells,
and I'll show you a potential failure at the writing game. When my wife catches me on the couch, napping, I tell
her, "Hey, baby, I'm the hardest working man in town."
Then there are writers like Bill Crider. One of the more prolific authors around, Crider has produced numerous quality
mysteries, westerns, horror, and young adult novels and short stories. He is a former college English teacher. Since his
retirement from teaching a few years back, Professor Crider's productivity has slackened. He sharpens pencils and plays
Free Cell and Spider Solitaire to avoid work. He makes no apologies, though he blames Microsoft.
Even legendary wordsmiths like Gene Wolfe indulge in excuses. Answering email and needing more sleep are among his
favorites. But he has this unusual justification of creating new work for himself.
I'll just make holiday for myself by starting a new story today instead of working on the old, and I'll write as soon
as I decide what the new one will be about. I've got it! Saint Fursey's flying clock. Should I tell it from the standpoint
of the clock? What about making it a grandfather clock, and telling it from the standpoint of one of its
grandchildren? Like Little Women. Jo would be a time clock, timid Meg an alarm clock, dying Beth a tolling
bell. Should I have a preface explaining that the word clock once meant "bell?" Beautiful, selfish Amy could be a lady's
diamond-studded watch -- they won't tell anybody the time. Let's see... "The workmen slump as they punch in, and it
reminded me today of Grandpa Clock, who always stood so straight. 'It was an angel brought me to Saint Fursey, Jo,' he'd
say, 'and I've no time to lose.'"
Novelist and Robert E. Howard scholar Mark Finn needs no such diversions. He just can't say "no." Finn tends to
over-commit. Thankfully, like many of us, Finn works better under deadline.
When Finn does need an alibi, there is always the chaos of his workspace.
There's an ebb and flow to the state of my office; a sort of lunar tide cycle that crowds my desk with all manner of
pieces of paper (all of them vitally important to world security), books I am in the process of deciding to read, notes
to and from my wife, to-do lists written on the back of a paper towel from Stucky's, and so on and so forth. Periodically,
things will stack up to the point that I am unable to think for all of the clutter, and I will have to clean out the mental
bilge pump. A thorough weekend of cleaning, sorting, and straightening will usually put things right for me to write
again. I don't know of any creative people who aren't mildly obsessive and/or slightly compulsive. We truly are a
superstitious, cowardly lot.
When you are the creator of the unusual, surreal worlds like those in Things That Never Were, your song and
dance tends to be strange. Matthew Rossi uses the common "research" as a defense, but I suppose the day he decided to
scour Seattle looking for a Green Lantern pin for his leather jacket instead of writing might be excessive. Rossi also
gets the honesty award for work avoidance with the lame excuse "I can't write now, I'm too horny."
Ironically, unbeknownst to me at the time I conceived this column (thanks, Paul), The New York Times Book Review
ran an article about famous cases of writer pochkey (the article "20 Years and 5 Editors Later..." has nary a mention
of pochkey) with profiles of authors whose subsequent books have been delayed. Literary heavyweights such as Neil
Sheehan (Bright Shinning Lie, 1988), Katherine Dunne (Geek Love, 1989), John Berendt (Midnight in the
Garden of Good and Evil, 1994), and Jonathan Harr (A Civil Action, 1995) are all years and some even decades
late on their new books. The article doesn't mention what they are doing instead of writing, but I bet it's got something
to do with research and paper clips.