Procrastination for writers – the urge to write and the high place phenomenon

To be a true writer you have to do just one thing.

Yep, you guessed it right.

You’ve got to write. You’ve got to write (almost) every day.

If you write, you are a writer. Even if you never publish anything, or your marketing efforts are practically non existent, like in my case — but I promise I’m going to change that.

The fact is, as a writer you should feel the urge to write. That almost physical necessity to give shape to your thoughts and feelings, arranging and rearranging words into ever new tapestries—no, I haven’t said travesties.

It doesn’t matter if you also experience resistance, and have to fight a daily battle with procrastination. Writers are known to be quite eccentric, to say the least.

So, if you have the desire to write, and your head is full of ideas, and yet you find yourself striving to sit down and actually write the words, there’s nothing to worry about. Of course, provided most of the days you do end up winning your personal battle with procrastination.

Some time ago, I wrote a post about this. A post based on first-hand experiences with procrastination and the tricks I use to defeat it (most of the days).

However, I must also admit that in many cases when it comes to procrastination what I need most isn’t a quick fix whose effectiveness tends to wear out over time. What I need most is a deeper understanding of my behavior.

In fact, in that way I can work on what lies at the root of my behavior and change it.

Of course, this approach requires more time and effort, especially at the beginning, but it is also the only approach to grant lasting results.

An upsetting phenomenon

A few days ago I was reading a research about the high place phenomenon . This is an urge some people experience. An urge to jump off a ledge when they find themselves in a high place.

I must admit I’m one of those people. And I experience such a phenomenon quite often. As a result it was only natural for me to be curious about the conclusions researchers had drawn about the causes of such a disquieting impulse.

To start with, it seems such an urge to jump from high places is quite common among the population, and it isn’t in any meaningful way correlated with suicidal thoughts.

According to Jennifer Hames, one of the researchers who carried out the study, it’s particularly anxious people those who tend to experience such upsetting urges more often.

The reason might be that exaggerated anxiety can distort the way we interpret the natural way our body reacts to height.

So, when we find ourselves in high places, instead of seconding the natural feelings coming in from our bodies, we misinterpret them. We experience what scientists calls a cognitive dissonance.

Schematically this is what happens:

We approach a ledge. Our body reacts defensively, in a perfectly natural way. Since we’re particularly anxious, we experience a sudden jolt of fear. We retreat from the ledge but then we immediately realize we were never really in danger. As a result, to solve such a cognitive dissonance between the fear we experienced and the lack of any real immediate danger our mind comes up with two possible explanations.

Either we experienced the urge to jump or hallucinate about someone pushing us.

To be precise another researcher proposed an alternative explanation. Adam Anderson says we humans, when faced with a difficult situation, tend to gamble.

So when we find in a high place our first impulse is to gamble. That’s to say, jump from where we are to get back to earth as fast as possible and so lessen our anxiety. But before we actually carry out the action another and stronger fear prevents us from jumping. The fear of dying.

I must say I like more the first explanation. In my humble opinion it’s more in line with Occam’s razor principle. That’s to say, it’s simpler and more elegant.

In fact, it only requires one feeling being misinterpreted, while the alternative explanation requires two different impulses. Besides, if the first impulse is never actually carried out, how is it that it still fires so forcefully? Evolution should have gotten rid of it. Or rather, it should have never even allowed it to emerge.

The urge to jump from high places and the urge to write

If the first explanation is right, maybe the desire to write a novel could be likened to the urge to jump off a high place.

Just compare the two scenarios:

1) You’re safe but you think you’re not. You hurriedly take a step back. Then you realize your mistake and make up an explanation for your behavior. You wanted to jump!

2) You don’t have to write any novel but you think you have to. You write a few pages. Then you realize your mistake and make up an explanation, I wanted to write it!

In reality you didn’t want to jump. You didn’t want to write either. So the best thing you could do would be never write another word.

But while the urge to jump is a matter of an instant, the urge to write might be a kind of cognitive dissonance that stretches over considerable lengths of time.

As a result much procrastination could be the natural result of the dissonance we experience between what we think we should do and what we really want to do.

Know thyself

Sure, the parallel between people jumping off a ledge and people writing a novel can look strained. But for a sizable part of aspiring writers, writing a novel can really be a daunting process, especially if they’re still in the first ideative stages.

Just stop a minute and think about all those words you need to put exactly one after the other, after the other, after the other and on and on for anywhere from fifty thousand to one hundred and fifty thousand words.

The number of words alone is intimidating.

But if you consider you also need to make sense at all times, to spell correctly even the most infamous and trickiest among the words, and punctuate in such a way meaning is enhanced instead of annihilated, it’s easy to understand why sitting down day after day to write can be likened to a slow-motioned version of jumping off a high place.

Really, each word can feel like a floor.

However, while jumping off a high place is a surefire way to get yourself as dead as roadkill on a country road during the summer, writing is a surefire way to get to know yourself better and better.

In the first case you hit the ground with a smack. In the second you crash through the ground exhilarated by the fall, and keep going.

But you can accomplish such a feat only if you are perfectly sure of what you’re doing and why.

A last word

Of course, I’ve been speculating wildly here. But even if the parallel between the urge to write and the high place phenomenon should be batshit crazy, the importance of knowing yourself as well as possible can hardly be overstated.

Pictures: Alexas_Fotos – luxstorm

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