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do what i say, not what i do
advice from the queen of all things procrastination
by michelle von euw

“Dear Professor,” the email reads. “I started to write my poetry collection, but after 2 poems, I came up with a bad case of writer’s block. I really love this class, and I’m really excited about this assignment, but I have to let you know that the ten page poetry assignment that’s due in five minutes will only be a page and a half. I hope you understand.”

One part of me – the one that meticulously creates assignment sheets and spends entire class periods explaining exactly how writing is work, and writer’s block, by definition, is a myth, introduced by those too cowardly or lazy or drunk to actually sit down and put the effort into it – is not swayed. I feel my stern expression quickly shift across my face, and my mind begins prepping the familiar effort/outcome lecture.

But there’s a part of me, the part that’s gazing at the wide empty screen of an empty Word document as the minutes past my own deadline tick solidly away, who knows too well what writer’s block feels like, who understands what it’s like to have all of one’s good ideas abandon one in the moment they are most needed, that sympathizes just a little too closely with what my students experience.

I used to think that once you know a fault, once you acknowledge it, it no longer holds power over you. I used to think faults were like fears in this aspect: if you understand the mechanics behind the blood gushing out of the body on the screen, if you know that it took five grown men just beyond the scope of the camera to yank the actor backwards, if you know that wardrobe provided seven identical grey shirts for each separate take, if you know the actor is, indeed, not engorged on a hook but happily sipping tequila with his publicist and counting box office points, a scary movie scene is no longer scary.

Logically, I know this. Just like logically I know that everything I keep myself from doing, everything that’s stacked upon my theoretical to do list which is so damn terrifying I cannot even physically write the tasks down, is not nearly as bad or as hard or as painful as actually doing most of those things.

But even though I know horror movies aren't real, I'm still the one scared out of her mind, hands over ears, eyes squeezed shut, when all that "fake" stuff happens on the screen.

I teach my students this, again and again. Don’t wait until the last week of the semester to conduct your interviews, to write your stories, to line up the research, to revisit the comments your classmates have given you. The great lie of college is the all-nighter; all-nighters, in theory, suck. The best stories and papers and poems I’ve read have come from the ones who get this, the ones who have learned that revision is a key step, that the longer you are immersed in a subject, whether it’s a collection of vampire-based poems or a proposal to bring used laptops to inner city schools, the better your paper will be, the more likely it’ll earn the grade of an A.

It’s a good lesson, yet one I still struggle to learn, even from this side of the classroom.

What’s especially funny about my procrastination streak is that in most cases, I tend to over-prepare. My lesson plans are immaculate, completely detailed. I have backup plans for my backup plans. In big chunks of my life, I am organized and on top of things and prepared.

But then, when I slip, I bring banquet tables down with me.

Take this space. For about two weeks, I thought you were going to be reading my very articulate and erudite thoughts on why liberals suck as badly as conservatives, why politics are such a disaster in this country because people cannot get away from their tiny, narrow world views long enough to do anything else but sling names at each other. How the left-leaning have become just as petty and small-minded as the very freaks on the right who’ve shoved their hatred and oppression down our collective throats for years. I would have begun with the horribly bad and thankfully now cancelled show “Cupid,” which in its last episode proved how embarrassingly out of touch its writing staff was with anything south of Soho. I would have continued into a rant about how People on the Internet managed to turn “American Idol” into some sort of political referendum, causing all sorts of other People on the Internet to get all bristled and feel the need to defend their vote despite the fact that their race/gender/political views/sexual preference didn’t fit whatever label someone slapped on a singer.

I did a lot of research for that column – and by research, I mean I watched a lot of video of a rather attractive guy with a soulful voice play his guitar and sing one of my all-time favorite songs. This is the type of sacrifices writers make.

As you may have guessed by now, that column went nowhere (and not just because I got distracted by Kris Allen singing “Falling Slowly”). I tried, but the broader point just wouldn’t hold together for me. So I turned to column idea number two – why this summer television lineup will suck. It’s like someone took all the bad ideas from 2003 (let’s put D-list celebrities somewhere awkward! Let’s make people get married!) and sapped all the energy from them, and that’s what we’ve got. Plus, “What Would Brian Boitano Make?”

Really? Brian Boitano?

When your show is a parody of a South Park parody, I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of desperate.

Unfortunately, I soon remembered that summer television traditionally sucks, and that the last few years have been an anomaly, and besides, we’ve got both “Mad Men” and “Leverage” returning to cable this summer, so it can’t be all bad.

Those were the most cohesive topics I pondered for this space – there were about 37 others, some too sappy, some too personal (my mom’s still sniffling over last month’s column – sorry, mom!), some too played (wow, that Twitter is really something), some already destined to be untimely (the Celtics are going to ruin the LeBron/Kobe lovefest), some just too boring (anyone else sick of watching the Nats lose again?)

As much as I am queen of all things procrastination, I have this unerring faith that I’m going to stumble into something, a topic that will resonate with a wide audience, that I’ll be able to approach with both wit and grace. Every month for almost ten years, this faith has led me to something, anything, that in retrospect, I was right to tackle, giving it my own spin.

This month, though? This month, I turn, like I often do, to my students for inspiration.

“Dear Joe and Jael, I started to write my column, but after two paragraphs…”


Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw

more about michelle von euw


my michelle
a true story?
by michelle von euw
topic: writing
published: 11.7.05

writing (and editing) my own ticket
a novel approach to the writers' workshop
by michelle von euw
topic: writing
published: 7.10.02


lucy lediaev
6.5.09 @ 1:22p

I think it is interesting that we can compartmentalize our lives sufficiently to be highly efficient in some areas of life and to let other areas sink into the messy morass of procrastination. I'm very organized at work; I'm organized in the kitchen; but I'm not organized when it comes to handling personal paperwork and clearance of un-needed items.


tracey kelley
6.5.09 @ 1:48p

Oh gosh, Lucy, I'm the same way. I think once I get home, I need to unplug that organizational wire and chill out. So then, I end up procrastinating on EVERYTHING - putting away laundry, writing Intrepid stuff, entering money receipts into the computer - all of it.

But, eventually, the clutter gets to be too much, and I tackle it. Usually it takes weeks.

lucy lediaev
6.8.09 @ 2:14p

I too reach a threshold where the clutter gets to me. I'm living with a "collector," also known as a high-end pack rat and some days I come close to strangling him as more things come into the house.

adam kraemer
6.9.09 @ 6:20p

For the record, in regard to paragraph 2, being drunk actually tends to be a cure for writer's block, not a cause of it. At least it was in college.

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