big problems

30 April, 2010

Don’t worry, nothing bad’s happened. I’ve just been thinking a lot about procrastination this week, as that’s (mostly) what I’ve been doing. Actually to be fair to myself I’ve got some stuff done, and anyway everything feels a bit in between stages at the moment: I’m not yet ready to embark on the dissertation before we have our meeting about it next week, and can’t put the fiction to bed until I’ve handed in my coursework.

During a long procrastinatory online chat a quantum physicist friend (yes, really) suggested a few different ways of thinking about the art of putting things off. Is it possible, for example, that in some sense I might be working while I think  I’m procrastinating – letting my subconscious have a good go at whatever it is I’m currently writing while I’m messing about doing something else? Maybe. Definitely I find that things need time to mull and develop. Though as Sean himself said there’s every possibility one’s subconscious could just be thinking about football (though probably not specifically football in my case).

Anyway he sent me a couple of really interesting links about procrastination. This one, which is from a computer geek, suggests that the key to successful procrastination is to make sure you’re putting off the boring stuff no one wants to do (ie errands) in order to do other, more important stuff. So, finishing my book and writing poetry rather than tidying my room (all things I’m equally happy to put off for days on end). Easier said than done, of course, but good to think about.

And then we come to the big problems. I’ve copied out these questions and stuck them to the wall above my desk:

1.  What are the most important problems in your field?
2. Are you working on one of them?
3. Why not?

What’s the best thing you could be working on, and why aren’t you?

Obviously these are phrased for someone working in research, rather than creative writing, but to go beyond ‘important problems’ = ‘important stuff’ (ie the poetry, the book), it got me thinking a bit wider, about how I might be more ambitious in my writing itself. What are the most important ‘problems’ in poetry, right now? This feels sort of pertinent with the dissertation just about to kick off – the chance to explore something in detail, to really push at it with my writing. What should I be aiming for over the next couple of months? And if I were to do a creative-critical PhD (something I realised I haven’t yet posted about, but have been thinking about since February), what would my research element be?

Of course big problems are even harder to get down to than annoying errands. I love how he writes about them. This is pretty much exactly how I feel about writing poetry 90% of the time:

Big problems are terrifying. There’s an almost physical pain in facing them. It’s like having a vacuum cleaner hooked up to your imagination. All your initial ideas get sucked out immediately, and you don’t have any more, and yet the vacuum cleaner is still sucking.

And I love his advice, too:

You can’t look a big problem too directly in the eye. You have to approach it somewhat obliquely. But you have to adjust the angle just right: you have to be facing the big problem directly enough that you catch some of the excitement radiating from it, but not so much that it paralyzes you. You can tighten the angle once you get going, just as a sailboat can sail closer to the wind once it gets underway.

Now all I need to do is work out how that might look when I’m writing…

This post brought to you by the sound of the Bam Bam sound’s election special, home-made burgers, very long and very silly conversations with Sean, and the worrying realisation that most of this blog consists of me whining about writing. Poems (still) by Rilke.

7 Responses to “big problems”

  1. KB said

    “You can’t look a big problem too directly in the eye.”

    Or as Don Paterson puts it, ‘we turn from the light to see.’

    Some good thoughts here for the GB talk – theme this year on ‘the art of looking sideways.’ ?

    • kayvee said

      ‘we turn from the light to see’ – absolutely (bit of St John of the Cross in there too). And yes I was thinking about the GB/looking sideways thing too… have had a few thoughts on that, maybe we can have a quick chat at Apple if I make it up? (hoping to)

  2. pupski said

    I think there is a lot of truth in procrastination being part of the creative process. I do it a lot at the beginning of essays or projects but realised last semester that I am subconsciously processing during that time – the time I take varies according to the project but I will do it until I am suddenly freed up and able to write. Free-writing often helps kick start me when I feel stuck in the procrastination stage.

  3. Emma (B) said

    I love the vacuum cleaner quote and the way it describes that gap you cant quite breathe in after your first thoughts on big issues.

  4. […] The poems will emerge if I ‘trust my mind’ to keep on working at things subconsciously (Sean, you’re […]

  5. […] of an inspiring friend (whose advice on procrastination and creativity I’ve mentioned before) who delighted me with the statement last week that his office is his head, and that he does a lot […]

  6. […] as a starting point it’s similar to what Paul Graham talks about in the piece I linked to a while ago, where his first question is ‘What are the most important problems in your field?’  […]

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