✍️ Are You Ready to Make Yourself Accountable to Your Writing?
or, How Procrastination Got One Author a Free Hotel Room in Devon and Why That Won’t Work for You
I am always and continually amazed when someone claims to have never heard of this particular author. It’s like being drunk – and if you’re wondering what’s so bad about that, just ask a glass of water.*
Aside from all the writing things he was famous for, he was also famous for not writing. (And no, this isn’t a callback to George R. R. Martin.) This man loved deadlines – he loved the whooshing noise they made as they flew by.** His editors, on the other hand, decidedly did not like his procrastinational approach. Seemed like anytime he was given a hard, no-inch-given due date, he’d quickly become distracted by life, the universe, and everything.***
So, for the fourth book in his trilogy, the publisher took extreme measures. They “famously” rented a hotel room in Devon and locked him in there with his editor. I say famously in quotation marks because, again, you may claim to never had heard of this man and therefore certainly not his story. But that event 40-odd years ago made such an impression that in 2017 another man actually wrote and mounted a whole play of the account featuring this author, the hotel room, and a duck.
In the real-life version though, time became an illusion. Lunch time, doubly so.**** For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.***** But eventually, he turned out So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish to great fanfare. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy six-book trilogy would not be complete without it.
And all it took was some accountability.
Back for More Fish
The impetus for this post first came from long-time reader Punit Thakkar who mentioned accountability in the comments – not coincidentally on that very post about Martin.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where does procrastination come from? Yes, laziness sometimes. Lack of energy? Lack of creative energy? Yes and yes. Lack of time? Sometimes. But here’s where it really comes from:
I know – when am I going to stop using fear as an excuse for everything? Well, never, because I think just about all of our problems writing can trace back to this one thing, whether that fear is conscious or subconscious. Procrastination doesn’t usually sneak in until later in your writing journey, often at a time that we feel we need to take our writing more “seriously”. Staying on the path can be just as hard – or sometimes harder – than finding the path to writing in the first place.
Think about some of the activities we normally put off. Asking for a raise. Going to the dentist. Confronting a co-worker about their troll dolls that stare at you all day. These are examples of things that make you uncomfortable, which is basically fear light. (Except that second one – dentists might trigger real fear.) You rarely hear someone say, “I wanted to go to the U2 concert today, but I never got ‘round to it...” The good things, we do. The uncomfortable things, we avoid.
And that’s the thing about fear-driven procrastination and fear in general: we, as social beings, have a natural instinct to seek out the safety of others. We want someone to hold our hand when we go to the dentist. We want someone to understand us, comfort us, and stand behind us to give us courage.
So what’s the solution? Strangely, accountability can be one of them. You’d think that accountability would be about obligation, and it definitely is. But that obligation – that social contract – is something that connects us with others and makes us feel like they’re with us, even if they’re not physically.
The Accountability Antidote
Here are a few ideas for creating accountability:
Join a writers’ group. Writing is a lonely business, goes the tired ol’ refrain. But it’s cliché because it’s true. If you connect with other writers, it can seem even less lonely. And, taking that one step further...
Write with other writers. I am writing these very words in a Zoom session with another Substack writer, Igor Ranc (Handpicked Berlin, Eighty-Four). We started a small writing group via Zoom about two years ago. Originally, there were five or six of us, but it’s dwindled to just us. That’s okay – it still keeps us motivated, scheduled, and writing. It also makes writing less lonely and more fun. What makes it really cool is that we’re 6,633km apart, yet we’re writing together. Technology! (PS – if you don’t have a ready-made group of writing friends to do this with, there are free and paid Zoom writing sessions online. Just search “Zoom writing groups”.)
Join a writing meet-up. This is like joining a writing group without the commitment and happen either in person or on Zoom. Many big cities have scheduled times and places where writers bring their laptops and write alone together. (Or is that write together alone?) Search for “writing meet-up near me” or see Substack’s event page to get a sense of what writing meet-ups are: https://substack.com/events
Start a blog. While writing my first novel, I wrote a blog in part to help me keep accountable. A Few Strong Words is still alive today – it’s just not that kicking anymore...
Start small, if you’re in a funk. Part of the problem can be that we feel accountable for too much – for a project that’s too big. So, commit to writing a poem or short story, not a novel. If you’re already writing a novel, commit to writing just a scene. Or, commit to writing for half an hour or five minutes rather than five hours. The idea is to get yourself comfortable and rolling again.
Use the Pomodoro Technique. Although this isn’t accountability to a person as much as it is to a small plastic tomato, it can work just as effectively.
Ask your editor to lock you in a hotel room in Devon. I mean, it’s a great life if you can get it...
Have fun! If it seems like my ultimate answer to addressing writing fears is to have fun with your writing, you’re absolutely right! Doodle, play with words, explore things you’ve never explored before. THIS is the real reason you’re sitting at your desk. Here’s the important part: tell others that you plan to have fun with your writing. So, if you start to baulk at the last second, your promise will help keep you accountable and on track.
Key Takeaway: Procrastination is just you getting in the way of you. Often, this stems from some sort of fear. Accountability helps us overcome procrastination and circumvent that fear because the social contract with your someone(s) makes you feel like you have the support you need to get through your fears together.
Over to You: Have You Used Accountability as a Writing Strategy?
We’ve all suffered from procrastination. What have you done in the past to overcome it? Do you find it creeps back in again anyway? Let us know in the comments below!
In the meantime, I leave you with a video of Douglas Adams on Letterman, hawking his then-new book, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, back in 1980-something.
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon!
*Stolen from Douglas Adams.
**Also stolen from Douglas Adams.
***That one was obviously stolen.
****And that one.
*****Okay, I think I have a problem now.
******Don’t look up this reference. It was decades ago that I read this, and if I got it wrong, I don’t want to find out that my memory is starting to falter...
email me if you get lost.