The Artful Procrastinator

I have always been a bit of a daydreamer. At least that's how I have always seen myself. I didn’t do particularly well in school. It wasn’t that I lacked intelligence or interest in my studies. I would attend class and attentively listen to my teachers and try my best to understand what was taught. But when it came time to demonstrate my newly acquired knowledge or complete a carefully constructed assignment. I would put off completion until the very last moment, choosing instead to get lost in my own world. I would read only books that truly interested me.

I was a poet from the onset, obedient and observant to the outside world, but willfully determined to create my own inner landscape, filling myself in with words, literature, artistic sensibilities, art, friendship, favorite movies nature, travel, and not a lot else. I wholeheartedly indulged in my own fantasies and was often willfully ignorant of what my teachers and parents thought I should be learning.

As I grew into a teenager, and my inner world began to be bombarded by increased adult responsibilities and increased emotional anxiety. Like many American children of the 80’s and 90’s, my parents' divorce was the impetus of many of my childhood grievances. Growing up in a broken home, while there was plenty of love and togetherness, and my parents absolutely did the best they could with what they had; there were many times when I felt lost in the dramatic episodes of split family life. I was a lonely kid and I felt like I had to hide my pain and sadness. I used writing as an outlet for my heartache, mostly through journaling, art, and poetry.

When I was a teen, there was a huge chasm between the way I articulated myself to others, and the thoughts and ideas I wrote down in my diary. I began to withdraw from the pains of family life and put more of myself onto paper. My artistry became an avoidance technique. I used writing to protect myself from the harsh pains of growing up. I was a sensitive and empathetic child growing into a sensitive adult. I was easily overwhelmed with the heated emotions of others and took those techniques out into the world with me when I left home for college.

My infatuation for poetry and literature and my propensity to procrastinate grew up hand in hand. Reading and writing poetry led me to a deeply romanticized sense of reality. I could be easily enchanted by ideas, philosophies, people, and places. I was also easily distracted and found it difficult completing tasks or work I felt was too hard or uninteresting. I avoided uncomfortable social situations and found myself easily overwhelmed by large crowds or events. I even found myself giving up close relationships and friendships when they became too hard or complicated. I was the type of person that could walk away and withdraw into my sad made up the world.  

In my 20s I had intense visions of myself in an idealistic future. I was optimistic I was going to be a great writer, a world traveler. A well-versed performance poet, a scholar, a theologian, a women's’ rights activist, painter and spiritual intuitive, and everyone was going to like me. I was going to plow through obstacles and inhibitions that stood in my way. I was surging with overconfidence and crippling self-doubt at the same time. I was also the type of person that would crumble at the first sign of rejection. I boldly sent my poems to a long list of paying literary magazines and then folded at the canned rejections. I sweat over some MFA applications and artist residences and relished in my horror as the world refused to catch onto my cool eloquence. I was gleeful and dismayed at the same time. Essentially, I had no idea that I had no idea who I was.

I marched into my MFA graduate program with my head held high and graduated four years later, with barely a dream and a song to count for. I had stacks of poems and a memoir manuscript that were strong in words but weak in ambition and courage. During graduate school, I began to cave under the shoddy walls of my romantic idealism. I caved at the criticism of my peers and the high standards of my professors. I shied away from big opportunities on the notion that they would probably be emotionally overwhelming and I would probably be shitty at them anyway. I secretly envied my colleagues and cowered in front of high caliber authors, whom I occasionally met on book tours. I also faltered in my mediocre teaching position. I resented most of my students (save for a few) and balked at the pointlessness of teaching the art of writing to unwilling and uncaring undergraduates.

I left graduate school in a shell of depression and confusion and mistrust for the whole collegiate academic system. I felt unprepared for the pressures of adulthood, balancing financial independence, career, practicality, hard work, motivation, self-care, relationships, ideas about the future. I felt dismayed and blameful of the world that had raised me. How could I have been seduced into the romantic notions of getting an expensive degree in Poetry, how and why did I think that was a viable idea that would make me a successful person at work and in life. I ended graduate school with these feelings and thus, let self-doubt slip into my daily routine, and went forth allowing myself to be filled in by anything other than the painful truth of the artwork I had once passionately wanted to create. I felt burnt out and disappointed by the fallibility poetry, and I put away my dreams into an unknown future.

There is a very specific type of anxiety that comes with trying to write well. Writing requires me to understand myself and the nature of my own feelings before I can march forward with my career and my productive hours of penning and typing. I needed a lull in my enthusiasm for writing to understand how the mind was getting get caught in the trap of self-sabotage. I had let the emotional wear and tear overwhelm me to the point of no return. I had managed to emotionally separate myself from writing, the thing I loved most, the thing I used to be the best at. I had to see and know how my own thinking was killing my inspiration. I had to feel not good enough or I had to feel failure, in order to begin the process of healing. The process of re-alignment with the true self can take a whole lifetime to undertake. I was caught in a perpetual depressive state and I let it steer me far away from what I truly wanted. I had to put precious creative seeds, poems, journals, rough drafts away in storage. In order to reconnect again with myself and my ambitions. Writing had become associated with the emotional challenge, and I wasn’t yet willing to encounter the deep sadness that had discouraged me.

After graduate school, I did very little writing turned my attention to the people and things around me. I got a job working with teens and children. I adopted a dog, I got married, I spent lots of time with family and friends, I spent time traveling and enjoying the outdoors. I learned how to meditate, I learned to cook, I read lots of books, I went to therapy and I also spent a lot of time feeling guilty about not writing.

It took a lot of rapidly changing life circumstances to come back around into a place where I was ready to be productive again. The slide started with some personal health crisis, a stint in the hospital for kidney stones, followed closely by a knee injury requiring major surgery and a long recovery time. Soon after my surgery, I lost my beloved dog to bone cancer, and not long after that, my husband took a work opportunity and I gave up my beloved nanny job. My husband and packed up our entire life, said goodbye to everything we once knew, and I moved to a new continent. While I welcomed my new situation, I was still recovering from the radical changes my life had gone through over the previous year’s time. I was having a crisis of physical body, putting on extra weight, and sinking into a depression over what next steps to take with my life. I didn’t embrace orienting myself in a new culture, I felt overwhelmed by learning a new language, making new friends and meeting new people. I sunk into myself. I rode the wave of procrastination all the way to the rocky cliffs. I distracted myself with visiting friends, weekend trips to Italy and Helsinki and Prague and spent long lonely weekdays in sad self-loathing, tiredness, depression, TV, tears, self-misery. I was terrified of trying to find work I longed to see myself in a position of professionalism and success, but I was also convinced that I had already missed out, I was convinced that potential employers would see me as a failed artist and immediately dismiss me for a better, more qualified candidate. I grieved over missing my friends, the little boys I took care of and beat myself up over thinking that I abandoned them. I even picked fights with my mother over e-mail and itched with contempt when I could feel my far away family worry about me, and wonder how I was getting on. I even at this low point, I wasn’t yet ready to forge ahead into my new writing self. I tried, I scratched a few stories here and there, but it was hard. I dug into my self-blame, I beat myself up for wasting a lot of beautiful time feeling scared and lonely and depressed. I hid away my blues and spent a lot of time not wanting to wake up in the morning.

After a few months of hovering around my self-doubt, I got pregnant and miscarried at 8 weeks, got pregnant again a month later and miscarried a second time again at 8 weeks. The roller coaster of joy, sadness, stress, depression and hormonal free fall all within that 5 month period was completely unbearable. I was already on shaky ground emotionally, and when the second miscarriage hit, I hated myself and my life in a way I never had before. I found myself in a state of intense depression, and barely saw a day where I couldn’t cry or totally detach. I had come so far and in a beautiful apartment in the city center of Amsterdam, I could barely make it out of bed. My brain was a mix of rollercoastering hormones, grief, self-doubt, confusion, heartache, and longing for the simplicity and confidence of a me that I thought had never and would never exist. I was saddened by the thought that the idealistic and expectant dreamer I was in my 20s would be disappointed with the confused, depressed, and now, failing to sustain life in my body. Who was this self-loathing person I saw in the mirror before me at 35? My 35-year-old self, in turn, hated my 20-year-old self for getting wrapped up in the romanticism of life and allowing herself to be seduced by the notions of beauty and poetry as a good career choice.

As I laid on the couch, hating myself binging on everything that my poor mind and soul could find, I wallowed in anger and sorrow and bitterness and for the first time, I truly didn’t care. I stood face to face with the pointlessness of life and genuinely asked myself if it was worth it. “What do you want Hannah?” My therapist asked me. I didn’t know and hated myself for not knowing. The question burned into me. The not knowing myself and what I want had burned into me because it seemed to represent my failure as an artist and as a person. I was angry at the world that I was trying to help and understand, I was angry at myself for not having it all together. In society, we praise and envy the people that seem to be winning at life. We envy the people who have the right words and ways to power through life with resilient ease, grace and gusto, and self-honesty. We hate ourselves for falling short, for not living up to the beautiful standards, that perfect cream and sugar added to bitter, black coffee. It’s that perfect Instagram filter that takes away the harsh blemishes and weird lighting and double chin.

So what now? Now comes the arduous task of rolling back into the state of the living. My procrastination has become a device which no longer serves me. The full on half of all creative writing activity is over, and I have to turn back to it as a form of survival.  Now comes the weeks of therapy and ripping off the band aid of self-delusion. Now comes the drilling in of what my life will be about, the figuring out of what I want for myself, the halting of temptation and ease that comes with taking care of everyone else ahead of myself. Now comes the work of tuning out distractions, and tuning into the radical truth of who I am and what I want. As I have found, climbing out of the whole is easy when you are ready. It takes being able to sit with the uncomfortable feelings for long enough to just let them taper out. It takes a little bit of self-awareness, a little bit of exposure in the form of honesty, to own up to those dark feelings, to face the critics inside and out and not be defeated by them. When the feelings are out in the open, they begin to dissipate.

Now is the time where I start making a passionate investment of time and emotional energy into creating something beautiful, regardless of its emotional weight or potential rejection.  Now is the time to follow the cheesy motto “Do It Anyway, even though it’s scary, even though it hurts.” My inner critic is sly, sophisticated, mean, tricky, self-deprecating. She is always looking for a line of reasoning to stop me in my tracks. She wears me out daily by moving the goal post, turning on the TV, telling me that I am too tired, or that I really should do the dishes instead of writing poetry. My inner critic maintains the baseline of fear, regret, comparison, jealousy, overwhelmedness, failure, dissatisfaction, blame and worst of all, self-pity. My inner critic plays the procrastination game hard core. My inner critic is not my enemy, she is also protecting me, keeping me alive, questioning my judgment, editing my work, and checking me on my runaway romantic delusions. She is also forgivable, and without her, I cannot be a whole thinking imperfect human being.

Originally setup to protect us from predators and bad weather and starvation, anxiety is now in the business of distracting us from putting our hearts on the line. Modern society gives us all the beautiful conveniences like food, shelter and love and social validation. When we feel secure, we begin to imagine ourselves as being more creative, letting our hearts sing, writing down our thoughts, and putting our ideas and experiences into shareable formats. Humans have an amazing capacity to create their environment into art. To self-reflect on their past and visualize a romantic future. We have a unique ability to create and portray fictional characters that we can love or hate just as readily as any human being. We do a lot with our minds and bodies. Creativity is an emotional act. Procrastination is one way for our own brain to protect itself from emotional vulnerability.

Since many of us sensitive folks have discovered the art of art making as a way to process our feelings, we are also deeply susceptible to rejection or limitless self-criticism. When we are afraid, our built in mechanism is to rationalize away our fear with excuses, distractions, unconscious habits, avoidance tactics, irrational comparisons, tv, computer and phone screens and worse, our own negative logic. The brain tricks us out of creative output by latching on to easy distractions like conversations with our partner, meals, chores, sunshine.

We invent excuses and tell ourselves we aren't good enough, not creative enough, not eloquent enough, not young enough, don't have the time, energy, productive spirit, knowledge, wisdom, experience, legal right, motivation, plot points, character development or life experience to complete the project that we’ve been dreaming about our whole lives.

The truth is, that we're mostly right about ourselves. That is to say. Once we start down the path of self-sabotage, the things we fear most about ourselves begin to manifest in our habits. Self-criticism and wounded self-esteem lead us to abandon hope and become depressed and become the very thing that we are afraid of becoming. Amid all of the silly invented excuses, we sometimes hit on nerves so deep that they will stop us in our tracks for weeks, months or even years, like an abandoned factory that has been sitting for years, collecting dust and ghosts.

The other truth is, that most master craftsmen (and women) of any trade, don't really have their shit together either. The one difference might be their level of commitment and focus. Just like an Olympic athlete, we need a sharp schedule, a sense of motivation, a strong stomach and a good coach, and a willingness to produce shitty work until it starts to smell like gold.

Be willing to write it all down, be willing to fill pages of crap in your journal or onto your word processor. The best writing comes when there is no expectation that it will ever be the best or even see the light of day. Write until you get to the end. Show it to anyone who is willing to read it, listen to their reactions and be willing to start it all again if you need to. Don't throw it away, just keep moving through it until it becomes something special to you.