Advice

Accepting the Way You Work

Brian Taylor

January 29, 2012

I want to be a grasshopper. At least I want to be seen as a grasshopper—a blithe spirit who sings and plays all day, creating beautiful ephemera. I want to be free from worrying about a less-than-comfortable future. I want to carpe that diem.

Being an ant, by contrast, is about as sexy as wearing white leather sneakers.

No ambitious person wants to look in the mirror and see a plodder—a toiling, plotting, planning laborer. It just doesn't fit with a self-image that is artistic, creative, and muse-worthy. Ants are the factory workers of the critter world. Most of us don't dream about doing time on an assembly line.

But I have come to understand that I am more antlike than grasshopperesque. While that realization is bad for a romantic sense of my own life, it's good for getting things done. Or, perhaps, it's the only way I am able to live and work.

Many people can produce only when they're up against a deadline. One of my more talented and successful academic friends has, for the 20 years I've known him, never finished something more than a couple of hours before it was due. That meant, in the old days, lots of long drives to the airport to get a package on the last Federal Express plane.

For years I watched him pull all-nighters, fueling himself with green tea and the kind of energy that comes from delving into a project that you've long put off and are now panicky about finishing. He would get engaged with the ideas in a consuming frenzy, blocking out everything else and focusing—really focusing—until he got the work done. He always said, after he'd shipped it off, he was surprised at how interesting he'd found the project.

It helped that most of those insane late nights were to complete tasks he'd taken on because he thought they would be fun, but that other things had gotten in the way. His work life was always about triage. I couldn't understand why he didn't just start earlier, especially since he clearly enjoyed doing the projects once he got into them. Why not give himself more of a cushion? Why scramble all the time?

Because, I've come to see, like Jessica Rabbit, he wasn't bad, he was just drawn that way. He never missed deadlines. No one suffered from his procrastination, including him. This was his process. Over the years, he'd come to understand and accept it, and while, from the outside, it looked nutty and stressful, it was simply the way he worked.

That is not my way. That will never be my way.

From the moment I know something is due, I start working. Because I am constitutionally incapable of withstanding the force of a deadline, because I know that my first drafts are often embarrassing and need time to sit, and because I can revise until the cows come home, the idea of leaving something until just before it is due is just not possible for me.

As soon as I get an assignment, or an idea, or find out I have to submit something, I open a document and give it a title. Sometimes I start writing or just list points I think I will want to make. Then I close the file and go on to whatever's more pressing (and there's always something). But that document sits on my computer, and I look at it each time I go to work on other things. Eventually it starts nagging at me until I open it again and do a little more work.

I take the same approach with syllabi for new courses and with book projects. I do it for essays I'm working on and for reports and memos. My flavor of obsessive-compulsive disorder is not strong enough to get me to make lists; I use the "my documents" folder on my computer as a constant and irritating reminder of what I have to do. When something is finished, I move it out of the active area and archive the little sucker. That way, everything I see is stuff that needs to be finished. It's always a huge relief to clear things off that screen.

What always surprises me is that the work seems to get done with less effort than I expect. Because I am continually chipping away at the big pile, and at the same time building each project in small increments, things get finished. Note that passive construction. At times it doesn't feel like I'm accomplishing much, but then I open a document I've long neglected and am amazed by how far along it is. How did that happen?

Now, don't get me wrong. Sometimes the initial work I've done stinks, and often I'll have to start all over to get something usable, but when I reread the original draft, it reminds me where I wanted to go and helps me get there. For me, that is easier than starting with nothing.

Some of my friends find my ability to finish projects well before they're due laudable. They even seem to think it gives me a kind of moral superiority as they struggle and pull all-nighters to meet their own deadlines. Ah, yes, everyone should want to be like me. Cue the hysterical laughter.

What I've learned about writing and intellectual work is that there's no right way to get things done, no ritual or routine that is effective unless it's effective for you. Just as we make sandwiches and mow the lawn in our own image (quick and dirty or slow and orderly), so, too, do we do the important labor. If the products are coming out in ways that you're not happy with, by all means, try to make a change in your work style. But, as with my successful procrastinating friend, if you need the guillotine hanging over you to get that paper done, let it dangle. There's no "right" way.

It can take a long time to figure that out. When I look back on my work process, and those of my friends, we seem to keep doing whatever we did in college. I was that person who always had her papers done days before they were due—typed, proofread, and ready to hand in before my peers even began theirs. My papers weren't necessarily better, and I'm not sure it did me much good to have idle time when there were fewer friends to play with. But I didn't feel like I had a choice.

Some of my academic colleagues, the pullers of all-nighters, claim that they don't like the way they work. I used to believe them, mostly because I couldn't imagine how they could stand the pressure, but I no longer see it that way. These people are grown-ups, successful professionals, and they make choices all the time. They are clearly choosing to put off finishing things, though sometimes that's because they have kids to make sandwiches for and classes to teach. But that's always going to be the case, and I think if they were truly bothered by the last-minute rush, they would try harder to carve out the space in their schedules earlier on. It's still going to take the time it takes; it's just a question of when and what gets you to plant your butt in the chair.

Graduate school may be the time to break old habits from college. It's a chance to be deliberate about how you want to work, to try on different styles, ask others about their process. You may tell yourself things like, "I can work only after the sun goes down," but you won't know unless you attempt to write in the mornings for a while.

If you are unhappy with your writing process, sure, go ahead, make an effort to change it. Give yourself intermittent deadlines and take them seriously. Do whatever you need to do to meet them, whether it's by having a friend check up on you or by rewarding yourself with a tasty treat when you finish something. Try it for three months. See if it makes your life better. If it doesn't, then I would say there isn't a problem. Accept that you are a last-minute person and realize this: Writing is hard, no matter when you do it. Thinking that there's a better, easier way is just silly.

As long as your rushed effort is not hurting anyone else—if you can get papers to co-authors on time, submit manuscripts to publishers when they're due, manage not to make the folks you live with homicidal—and the work you're producing is good, why change? There's no need to resolve to be different in the new year, unless it's to eat more vegetables or take the dog for longer walks.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University's writing program, in Spokane. Her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.