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February 14, 2014 1:34 PM Writers as Procrastinators

By Ed Kilgore

I missed Megan McArdle’s post the other day at The Atlantic on why so many writers procrastinate, but it’s certainly a topic close to my own heart. I am a terrible procrastinator by nature (or at least long habit). In fact, one of the reasons I was drawn to blogging is that I need very frequent deadlines to keep myself from dawdling. I once ghost-wrote an entire book in my spare time to prove to myself I could complete a large writing project on schedule, but while I succeeded, it didn’t eliminate my distaste for slow steady work since every deadline remained a crisis.

McArdle’s theory is that most writers procrastinate because they are under the illusion that writing skill is purely a matter of natural talent, making them disparage the value of “working” on a piece while also inculcating fear that an unsuccessful piece reveals they don’t “have it.” Maybe that’s true for her and some other writers, but my own experience is that thinking and writing are similar enough that it’s easy to indulge in the former at the expense of the latter.

As for the “fear factor” that is associated with both procrastination and those bursts of frenetic activity, McArdle doesn’t mention the more primal fear that motivates and paralyzes many writers: the fear of not being able to earn a living. In an essay that roams across psychology and generational differences and then lurches fatally into parenting theories, McArdle oddly doesn’t mention the fact that writing (or at least non-corporate writing) is presently among the most insecure professional paths in the country—a pretty cruel development for those of us who remember all the talk twenty years ago about those with elevated verbal skills inheriting the earth from the inarticulate people who make and trade things.

So I don’t know if it’s the horrific microeconomics of the writing biz, a buyer’s market in which only a tiny elite earn a middle-class salary (much less benefits considered standard elsewhere), or just hardened habit. But I still wake up more often than not on Saturday mornings at the slothful hour of 7:00 or so, panicked that I’ve missed a deadline before remembering that Kathleen or Martin is at the controls of Political Animal. I sometimes envy contemporaries who seem to be on the glide path to a retirement I cannot foresee even over a distant horizon. But the dirty little secret of deadline-driven writers is that we thrive on those jolts of adrenaline mixed with fear that move us from day-dreaming to production. There is almost literally never a dull moment, even when you’re writing about the dreadful kabuki theater of politics.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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