Procrastination, guilt, and dread

Procrastination is weird. The more you put something off, the guiltier you feel and the more you dread it. It turns an ant hill into a mountain, every time.

And yet I still do procrastinate. Not always on purpose—sometimes I’m tired or my head hurts and my brain is fuzzy.

But that dread builds up just the same, no matter the reason something (usually writing) gets put off.

In almost every case, the dread and anxiety are worse than the thing itself. And the anxiety-induced migraine is much, much worse. The feeling of relief that comes from writing a chapter in my novel after not writing a word for a week is immense.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

But the whole cycle of dread-anxiety-relief is avoidable if only I could just do it. And I often wonder, “Why can’t I just do it? Why put myself through this, over and over again?”

Of course, part of the problem are the incredibly high expectations I set for myself, which basically amount to: DO ALL THE THINGS ALL THE TIME. Intellectually I recognize this is not possible, and I’m getting better at not equating the quantity of things I do with the quality of things I do.

Comparing myself to what others are doing is another culprit of my procrastination. I can’t possibly live up to what Person A did, so why even bother? Sometimes it absolutely is a competition, but most of the time, it’s really not, so comparing myself to others just causes unnecessary anxiety.

When I procrastinate, I often do “productive” things like search for freelance jobs or look on Craigslist for cheap garden stuff (you don’t even know how many free bricks I need to build my new patio!) or scroll endlessly through social media to find tweets by authors I love that I can respond to (networking, am I right?). Sometimes I even clean my house!

All these things are great and even necessary, but when I start doing them too much (read: all the time), I know it’s a sign I need to close Tumblr, put away the mop, and Do The Work.

Most of the time, The Work is writing. Sometimes it’s a freelance assignment or book review, sometimes it’s homework (or will be in a few weeks). It might even be making a doctor’s appointment—I am the worst at this (seriously, I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for over a decade and only this summer did I find a primary care doctor).

I try to pay attention when I start doing any of these activities, like when I get to the fourth page of “free” stuff on Craigslist, I ask myself, “Okay, what am I avoiding right now?” The answer is almost always readily apparent.

The solution, of course, is stop looking for free bricks, take a deep breath, and start The Work.

Metafiction defined

When I tell people I’m obsessed with metafiction, I often hear “What’s metafiction?”  So here you go: Metafiction defined.

According to the dictionary…

Metafiction is “fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions (esp. naturalism) and traditional narrative techniques.” (That’s from my computer’s built-in dictionary.)

Merriam-Webster’s definition: “fiction which refers to or takes as its subject fictional writing and its conventions.”

Wikipedia’s definition: “a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. It is the literary term describing fictional writing that self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually irony and self-reflection.”

Which definition is better?

They all are.  Personally, I take a very broad view of metafiction.  My “meta generosity,” if you want to call it that, stems from my background as a student of fiction, nonfiction, travel writing and journalism.  I like to think I’m a writer who takes risks in her work, whether structural or by mixing genres.

By necessity, structural experimentation dovetails with metafiction, as a work’s structure can often reveal the story’s “storiness” or “fictionaliy.”  In the same vein, I think genre-bending or juxtaposing two genres together (not blending them as in a sci-fi western, but using them side-by-side) also dovetails with metafiction. If you blend short story with memoir, you are by necessity going to have think about reality versus fictional reality.

Both structure and genre exist in a fuzzy area between metafiction and “normal” fiction, and depending on the interpretation and the context, I think works that walk that line can go either way, as metafiction relies heavily on structure and often on genre blending/genre juxtaposition to deliver its message.

The writing becomes metafictional (in my mind) when the reader is taken outside of the story and is forced to look in on it from the outside—normally to comment on the craft of writing, society at large, or some other issue, though commentary is not strictly necessary.

What about stories-within-stories?

The story-within-a-story is perhaps the most recognizable form of metafiction.  Don Quixote is an early and excellent example.  This form of story is inherently metafictional, because to tell a story about telling a story must in some way comment on the storytelling process.

Notice I used the word “tell” rather than “write” up there.  I do not restrict metafiction to writing, nor to fiction.  Because of that, the distinction between “write” and “tell” is important.  You can tell a story in an infinite number of ways.  Writing is only one of those ways, albeit an incredibly powerful one.

My “meta” definition

I think it’s necessary to define meta in terms of a broader context than fiction for this blog, since I discuss more than fiction.  That being said…

A work of any genre or style is “meta” if the author of the work purposefully and self-consciously draws attention to the work’s structure, genre or existence as fiction/nonfiction for any purpose, or if the author of the work unintentionally uses a structure or other technique that draws attention to the work’s structure, genre or existence as fiction/nonfiction.

Hopefully this brief discussion helps you put my articles and commentary (and fiction!) in context.  Please feel free to add your own definitions, thoughts, or reactions in the comments! I’m sure this is a topic I’ll return to, because metafiction can be such a shady area.  But that’s why I love it!

A version of this post appeared first in April 2010 on my now-defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog.

Women buy tools, too

My husband and I stand with our contractor neighbor in the house we’ve just purchased. Tack board from the carpet my husband removed the day before lines the perimeter of the dining room floor.

My husband says, “I got all the carpet pulled up, but the tack boards are nailed down, so I need to get a tool to pull them up.”

Our contractor replies, “Just get a cat’s paw and pop them out. They aren’t expensive. You just have to tell the boss, ‘Honey, we have a house now. I need to buy some tools.’”

I want to ask why he assumes I would oppose the purchase of useful tools, but I know the answer already: I’m a woman, and my husband is a man, and women don’t use tools, and we must be engaged in a battle between spending money on tools or a day at the spa because one of us has a penis and one has a vagina.

I want to say, “That’s not how our marriage works! We make decisions together!” but it would be awkward, semi-inappropriate. We’re here to get an estimate for some renovations, not discuss the philosophy of relationships.

But that isn’t how our marriage works. Generally speaking, I’m the one who wants to build or renovate things, so I’m the one suggesting the purchase of tools. I’ve had my own tool box since I was in high school, slowly assembled over a number of years as I bought the tools I needed for specific projects.

And I have never spent a penny on a spa, though I have had a total of three manicures in my lifetime (senior prom, my wedding, and once when my friend just really wanted to go–I had them paint my nails black).

If it were solely up to my husband, we would have only done the necessary repairs to get the house move-in ready, and we would have lived with the wood paneling, drop ceilings, and extra super dark kitchen cabinets, because those things aren’t important to him. I’m the one who wants to do all the work, and if I had enough time I’d learn how to do it all myself, because that kind of knowledge is useful.

So please stop assuming my sexual organs dictate the kind of purchases I want to make, or the kind of person I am. They don’t.