A few weeks ago, I received the galley of Superstar, my first novel. (A galley is basically a bunch of printed pages that show what a book will look like between the covers. It means the book is almost done. It also means that this would be my final opportunity to make changes to the text.)
“You got something from your publisher,” Tony said when he brought in the mail that evening. “And it’s really thick. Think it’s the ARC?”
I knew it couldn’t be the Advanced Reader Copy. Not yet. There were still galley pages to review.
Oh crap. It’s the galley.
It was Wednesday evening, two days before Labor Day weekend, when Tony brought the giant cardboard envelope into the kitchen and opened it. I pulled out the stack of papers just long enough to confirm that it was, indeed, the galley. I couldn’t work on it right then, though. I was about to make dinner. And the next morning I had an appointment to go to. Plus, Tony was taking Thursday and Friday off and I wanted to spend time with him, so, you know, basically it was pretty much already Labor Day weekend. (And everyone knows you don’t work on holiday weekends.) I’d get to it first thing next week. No problem. I put the giant envelope in my bottom desk drawer and floated through a weekend of light yard work, cookouts, and a Minnesota State Fair outing.
Labor Day came and passed, leaving behind a familiar twinge in my stomach—the physical manifestation of my procrastination. But not to worry. Just like antacids had relieved my overindulgence in state fair corndogs a few days ago, my procrastination stomach could be soothed by simply doing other work.
So, Tuesday morning, I dove head-first into a complete website redesign. Now felt like the perfect time to define who I was as an author (and a person) and to figure out what I wanted to share with the world and how I wanted to share it. So, for the next few days, that’s what I did. Writing. Design. Photography. Reflection. Editing. More editing. This was important work. Very important work. And it couldn’t wait.
But as soon as I finished defining and designing, the twinge returned. I knew what was still in the drawer. I knew what needed done. So, I did what any self-respecting procrastinator would do—I logged into Twitter. And Facebook. I mean, that’s just as important as a website, right? I needed to manage my newly-defined self in the social media realm as well.
A couple days later, the social media was all updated, the website was updated some more, and the day lay wide open before me. What to do? What to do? The house was also clean and the laundry was done so I couldn’t even hide in domesticity.
Apparently, I couldn’t hide my galley anymore either. When I walked by my office, I noticed the bottom desk drawer was open and one of my cats was lounging on the large white envelope. In our house, cats opening drawers isn’t anything new, but cats opening drawers containing things I was deliberately trying to avoid was. It’s easy not to face something when it’s out of sight, but not so much when the cat is using it as a cushion.
So, I moved the cat, took the envelope out of the drawer, and…played a game on my phone.
I know. I know! If you want to shake me, yell at me, give me a swift kick in the posterior, I don’t blame you. I felt the exact same way. The problem is, I just couldn’t do it. Fear and anxiety, when left unchecked, lead to paralysis. And I was beyond paralyzed.
Eventually, I got too anxious for even my game and sent Tony this text: I’m trying to start working on my galley but I’m terrified, like shaking scared. I don’t even know why exactly. It just feels unfaceable and I don’t know what to do. I feel so stupid. Thinking about looking at it feels like facing failure…why?
Almost as if it were magic, that little, three-letter word unlocked a door. I stopped reacting to my fear and started trying to understand it.
I’d been working on this book since 2008. That’s eight years of drafting and redrafting and revising and editing. And while part of me wanted to be done long before now, it just always seemed like there would be another draft I could make better, another version I could perfect. But somehow, enough people (including me) said it was ready to go pretty much like it is now. So this galley read was all about making “last minute” changes. A word here. A punctuation mark there. But I know myself and how I operate. How could I possibly read this book and only make small changes? What would happen when I found awkward wording or flat dialogue or other problems that would require much more work? If I just let them go, I’d have to send an imperfect book into the world. There’s the failure I was talking about in my text. And the root of my fear.
About that time, Tony finally texted back to ask how I was doing. I was feeling a little better, but I still wasn’t ready to face it. Then, I had an idea. Maybe all I needed was another set of eyes, someone sitting beside me who had not been working on this book for almost a decade, someone to tell me the big, giant problems weren’t so big or giant or that they weren’t even problems at all. So, I asked Tony if he’d read it with me. He said yes, of course he would. He also sent me this video to help cheer me up even more, which it did.
Later, that night, we started reading Superstar. A few evenings later, we finished, and the next day I sent the small changes off to my editor feeling pretty darn good.
Easy, right? I should have started it way earlier, right? Except I couldn’t, not without the understanding or the help.
I think we assume there’s something wrong with us when we can’t face things, an assumption which leaves us feeling angry at ourselves (as evidenced in my text above). But anger and harsh self-judgment are the last things we need when we’re scared. They shut us down even more. Instead, we need softness and understanding and the courage to seek out support.
In my education classes, we learned about a thing called scaffolding, which is sort of a bridge you build for students to help them grasp new concepts. Scaffolding allows a classroom full of diverse learners to all learn long division at the same time. Some kids will need a written set of steps. Other kids will need graph paper to keep the columns straight. Other kids may need to watch the teacher solve problem after problem before they’re ready to try it on their own. But with the right support, they all can be successful.
Just because we’ve grown up doesn’t mean we stop needing scaffolding. It just means there’s not going to be a teacher around to build it for us. We have to build it ourselves. Like me asking Tony to read the galley with me.
I’m not cured of my procrastination. I wanted to write and publish this post a week ago. But I’m getting better at using fear as a signal rather than a roadblock. The more I try to understand what the fear is telling me, the more I understand what I need to do to mitigate its effects. And at the end of the day, that means that my projects can spend less time hiding in a drawer and more time out on my desk where they belong.