The “Extraneous Things” Approach to Writing & Life

When I feel like writing, I sit down and… drink coffee, cruise Facebook/Twitter, read (or reread) something by one of my favorite authors, draw, write out lists of deadlines I’ll have to hit to publish my (unwritten) book by my (unrealistic) timeline, cruise Facebook some more, make a playlist of good writing music, try to determine if soccer is giving me a blood blister under my big toenail, work on a list of ideal pseudonyms …

Basically, I do everything but write.

If my writer friends (and by writer friends I mean people whose blogs and twitter feeds I read consistently who I think are both awesome and hilarious but who, technically, I’ve never actually interacted with) and I are a representative sample, this appears to be a common practice among writers. Except for maybe that toenail part. That’s just kind of gross.

What I’m getting at here is this: we focus on the extraneous. As if by thinking about coffee and doodling, we can approach the finicky beast of actual writing from the side, avoiding eye contact and making little crooning noises so as not to spook it. Or get mauled by it. Depends on how violent writing is for you.

This behavior on its own is strange. But wait, it gets more ridiculous.

If I’ve settled into my groove of “writing” and some other commitment comes up, my resentment towards this interruption is hilariously disproportionate to the activity that’s being interrupted. For example, right now I’m closing in on two solid hours of “writing” during which I’ve written zero words (well, fictional words at least) but successfully managed to reopen my Facebook account (which I’d arbitrarily closed a couple months ago).

If all goes according to plan, my friend Theresa will be arriving in about ten minutes to pick me up so we can go to Feed My Starving Children and pack food for starving kids. And until about five minutes ago I was considering flaking out because I didn’t want to interrupt my writing time. Because I was in the groove. Really I’d finally spent enough time doing things that were writing-related that I could feel the words just around the corner (yes, yes I did just mix those metaphors; deal with it).

This seems ludicrous at first–both the inefficiency of this round-about approach and my frustration when it’s interrupted, but I think this “extraneous things approach” is actually a valid (and widespread) technique. I myself am a fan of the extraneous because I like the details and rituals of things. The way good coffee smells is one of the things I love about writing. Maybe I could put the same words together without it, but why would I want to? Or maybe the extraneous is like stretching before you work out. You give yourself a chance to slip into things, to loosen up.

I bet if you think about it, you’ll realize you do this in other areas of life. I’m an accountant and I certainly do it at work. There are all these little administrative rituals of scheduling and calendar stalking and coffee drinking that I go through before I get down to the real work. Maybe the key is not to discount the extraneous, not to always take the most direct route, but to allow for some meandering along the way. Maybe it’s the extraneous details that make writing (and life) an enjoyable rather than inherently repetitive journey.

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