Don’t tell the SPCA, but writers have the oddest relationships with their pet cats (even pet cats they don’t have).
When a writer is struggling with a piece of work, she’ll tell you she was vacuuming the cat, or he’ll say he was bathing the cat, or… I prefer to say I’m rotating the cat, because it’s an activity no sane person would find necessary. It doesn’t accomplish anything and it annoys the cat. A perfect image for writerly procrastination
I once read an article by Terry Pratchett lamenting the demise of the typewriter as a tool of the trade, because it took away one of his favorite ways of wasting time before getting down to writing proper. He apparently used to take a Q-tip and alcohol and clean the little metal raised letters to make sure the impression was really sharp.
Being of a different generation I could tell him that we young whippersnappers can find just as many ways to waste our time.
For instance, I’ve been known to remove all the keys from my keyboard and wipe both keys and base with bleach wipes, an activity good for consuming an hour or two and giving you an impression you accomplished something.
What drives this is a fear of the blank screen. Facing that screen is hard, even for — particularly for — a novel you have outlined, researched, but not started yet.
There is an undefinable sense that once you save that first paragraph, the fate of the novel will be sealed for good or ill. Before that you don’t know if the voice will be tender, poetic, funny, or brisk, but once that first paragraph or page is saved, some of those options will have vanished. You can no longer think of this novel as the best ever to grace the world. Choices will have been made, and you are stuck with them.
This is not exactly true. I usually revise my beginnings after finishing the book. But it does limit some possibilities anyway. If you write your beginning as a comedy, then in the next scene have your character stumble on a serial killer’s lair and describe it seriously and graphically, you’re going to have people run screaming. (And not just because it’s a serial killer.)
So writers will try to find “legitimate activities” to put off the moment of typing in words.
The thing is, most pro writers don’t have to look around for silly activities. When pros – particularly these days – say they’ve been rotating the cat, what they actually mean is that they’ve spent their day with a dozen “little” activities and failed to write.
This is because the writing life is much like herding cats.