Advice to Writers

When I was in grad school, I had this habit to clean the house to avoid the act of studying. I would study with some amount of focus for 20 minutes, and then go scrub the tub and so on.

Someone could have created a barometer of sorts for how near it was to Test Day, based on witnessing what had been scrubbed.

If the bathroom was scoured, and the bed was made, it was 5 days to the test. However if the bathroom was scoured, the bed made, the closets tidied, the laundry done, and the kitchen fridge cleaned out……then, the test was surely the next day. The place was never so clean as when a big report was due.

Now, I do the same with writing. I will struggle to capture an idea from deep within, and then remember that there was some dust on some light fixture. And, off I go.

So, it was with delight and relish that I read this poem aloud to the family. Entitled, “Advice to Writers”, By Billy Collins, the first two stanzas:

Even if it keeps you up all night,

wash down the walls and scrub the floor

of your study before composing a syllable.

Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.

Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

And he goes onto write that we writers shouldn’t just clean the house, we should go out into nature and even scrub the undersides of trees, and scour the nests. It’s worth a giggle or two, and so captures that moment of deception we writers and other creative types create for ourselves. We would rather scrub the toilet than face into the abyss of not knowing what we will create next.

Yet, I know that if I gave into every fear and situation like this, I would never ever write. As in: Never. Ever. Focus. Hard work is often best tacked by actually just getting to the work, and not allowing oneself to be distracted. I’ll have PLENTY of temptations in the next few weeks as I’ve signed up to produce a new book (my 2nd title) and the deadline will sneak up before I know it. So, hopefully, I will remember this. (Yet given my own history of “scrubbing the toilets” instead of studying, I recognize that I might need others to remind me.)

Billy Collins is a two-term US Poet Laureate. His gift is in capturing every day moments, and he recently spoke at TED2012. This poem is from The Apple That Astonished Paris, by Billy Collins (The University of Arkansas Press); 1988.

Video of his funny self, here, may just convince you to give poetry another chance:

Gifted, isn’t he?  (And probably not by scrubbing the underside of trees, or of toilets but rather by doing the work that needs to be done.)

8 Replies

  1. Love this! Strangely though, I do less cleaning of the house and more production of work that isn’t on the todo list. It is still of the formula: if I need to work on x, instead I will complete y. Only for me, the “y” activity is some other presentation, essay, or framework development. I also socialize as a “y” factor, which explains why people think I am so extroverted when I am not. 🙁

    Is there an art to procrastinating your way to productivity?

    1. There’s actually research that Pink and others have been sharing that says procrastination is part of the creative process, to a point. I think my point is passed somewhere around part I of the cleaning.

  2. Beautiful lines and there is an element of truth to it. I find that whenever I am trying to learn something new or am stumped at the starting point of inspiration, there is nothing like stepping away from it and doing something else.

    Now, I have never gone on a cleaning spree but I imagine that you have a spotless house when you are trying to push the pen to paper….

  3. Good luck on your new book Nilofer. Any other details you can share about it in the weeks and months to come would be great to read about.

    As far as inspiration/creative thinking goes, it’s the early hours in the morning when I’m working out when it comes to me because while doing something physical I can concentrate intensely on something creative (pain avoidance?).

    1. Hey Charlie –
      The book is based on work you’ve already seen. The 5-part series on business models of the social era. A book will let me fill out key pieces that I had to rush or squish in…

  4. Wonder if it’s just me who finds sleeping at odd-hours a productive procrastination tool. I often find a short siesta helping random thoughts and creative analogies settling down into a comfortable flow, ready for articulation. The story shows up, almost as a dream!

  5. Kudos for putting this in words. Since this morning I have reviewed and edited two papers that others have written (work that isn’t due until a month later), graded 42 assignments (that students submitted just yesterday and that they will not be seeing until next week), and, yes, have cleaned my office. All of it to put off writing a difficult introduction for a paper due in two days. And of course this happens ever so often. So recently I started a procrastination-to-do list. Things I can do when I am staring at the screen but actually should be typing on the keyboard. I’ve been surprised by how much gets crossed off from this list when I don’t want to write. Gives me more time for when I do.

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