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Dan Mackie: If You Want to Be a Writer, Learn to Procrastinate



For the Valley News
Friday, April 27, 2018

I have been typing for dollars for over 40 years, which means a lot of keystrokes have clattered their way into the dustbin of history. I wish I had an actual count. If each keystroke equaled a foot in distance, I bet I’d have typed myself to the moon and back, or at least one-way to Cleveland.

Some Upper Valley readers have taken notice. A few ask about my writing process. Honestly, it begins with procrastination.

There are at least six stages: denial, delusion, distraction, snacking, self-loathing and creative excuses. (I avoid the seventh, drinking, which is risky over the long haul, just like snake charming.) As a professional, I have honed my delaying tactics until I know with precision the last possible moment I can begin. This is called craft.

Writing seems like it should be easy, but for most it’s no walk in the park. Unless you’ve been visited by your muse, you are taking what may be a first draft of manure and trying to shape it into, if not gold, at least compost. I begin with slight nausea that may be related to a fear of humiliating failure. After all these years of putting words on paper and then computer screens, a blank slate makes me feel like a tourist in a foreign city, unsure of what to say or where to go. Will I know, in my moment of need, how to say “bathroom” in Bratislava?

I feel like I have cheated failure enough to offer a few writing tips, though the most essential might be from Ernest Hebert, the Dartmouth writing prof and respected author (and former West Lebanon neighbor). He told me he advises people who say they’d like to write but don’t know where to begin to sit in front of a computer for a couple of hours every day and start writing. No more talk: Settle it once and for all.

That’s all well and good for novelists. I worked for newspapers, where deadlines are whip-wielding sadists and the writers are galley slaves. You think you’ll never miss that guy when he’s gone, but in a way, you kind of do.

Writing Tips

Set a daily writing goal. If your first is to set a goal tomorrow, you are a born writer.

War and Peace has already been written. You should write War, or perhaps Peace, which will narrow the scope and make your book shorter, pleasing the reader, who may not have the endurance of an Arctic explorer, and the publisher, who will save on paper stock.

Write about what you know. If you think about this carefully and honestly, you may want to abandon writing to take up some other gainful pursuit, such as repairing outdoor folding chairs. But courage! A tourist’s guide to Route 12A (Behold the mega-puddles and the potholes of terror near the Weathervane!) is a niche topic, but it could be your niche. A guide for inattentive Dartmouth students on how to cross Hanover’s Main Street safely (Mindful Street Crossing?) would be a great public service. A memoir detailing 35 years of your lunchtime sandwiches is unorthodox, but what the world needs now are new voices — and perhaps olive loaf.

Your writing should meander only a little. If it becomes a beagle on a 10-mile chase after a scent that is eventually lost, you should stick to pugs.

Writing is work, not leisure. You should revise until you have nipped and tucked — and, if need be, steamrollered — your piece into shape. Publish the first thing that comes into your head only if you are OK with the slapdash, that is, you would let monkeys paint your house. (This is the folly of social media: It’s all simians and splatter.)

Don’t multitask. As you are typing away, do not attempt to simultaneously undertake chores such as lubricating internal watch gears or inspecting your dog for ticks. These deserve your full attention; failure to do so could lead to bad prose — or worse.

Never write about yoga pants. If you need to be told why, this goes double.

Most editors feel better about themselves if you leave a minor error or two for them to find and correct. Otherwise, they’re liable to poke their noses into places they shouldn’t, like dogs that become stuck under porches while searching for varmints.

Don’t be discouraged by failure. Dostoevsky’s first book, a collection of bawdy limericks, did not sell well, although he blamed the failure in the international market on his translator. Still, he kept at it. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Lake was rejected by 22 publishers; he tossed the manuscript into the sea, which inspired a successful rewrite. This is all documented on the internet.

If you become a columnist, which I strongly advise against since more competition benefits no one, you should hold something back for a desperate moment, when you cannot come up with any idea of any worth.

When all else fails — if you cannot muster enthusiasm even for the Red Sox or the Upper Valley’s cold puddles of spring — there’s one column topic left: writing tips.

Write it, file it and commence procrastinating until the next deadline looms.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.