Bad Advice Wednesday: Don’t Write in THE FUTURE

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Everyone can imagine a time in the future when circumstances will be better, more ideal, for tackling that big book, that perfect poem, that masterpiece.  Right now you are too stressed, too busy, involved in a family squabble, and money’s tight.  But in that imagined future life is stress-free, everyone gets along, your bank account’s flush, and of course you have plenty of spare time.   No wonder you want to write the book then.   If you did it now, with all this other stuff going on, you couldn’t do justice to the work of genius that is in embryo in your brain. If you did it now it would come in fits and starts; you would make mistakes; it wouldn’t be pure.

But start now.  Yes, there are plenty of projects that require brooding and gestation.  And yes, there is that rare time when delaying is just what a project needs.   But most writers err on the side of dilly-dallying, of procrastination, and, being writers, and therefore equipped with imaginative minds, they come up with some whoppers for why it’s right not to write.  They tell themselves that if only they get to the end of the term, the end of the season, the end of the marriage, then it will be time to start.  But they are usually wrong.  The thing is that, in theory, life looks easier without the burden of a book on top of everything else.  But in practice it doesn’t work that way.  Why?  I think that it has to do with the fact that creative people are creative and therefore happier when they are engaged in creating. We think it will make life more crowded.  Often it makes life better and more vibrant.

But let’s face it.  No matter when you start it’s going to be painful.  Beginning is terrifying business (a line I’ve written more than once in these pages).  Even if you were plopped down on that paradisical island—stress-free and money-full—the first few days would be, if you are anything like me, brutal.  Words would come slowly and sentences would go wrong and you would start to wonder what the hell you were doing.  You might even wonder if you’d picked the wrong island, and start to think that what it would take to really write a book was some better island, some future island, where the writing would come easy.  But push ahead, trudge on, do some mediocre work and something better will come, and you might actually have some easy days on the island you’re already on.

There’s a kind of corollary to the “future writing” theorem: there’s not enough time in the day.  It’s true sometimes; it’s true.  But again we too often err on the side of not writing.  The fact is that if you can learn to carve an hour or two a day for writing, out of the 24, it will not make the day more hectic, more stressful, more rushed.  Usually, the effect will be exactly the opposite: energy will be created, stress released, by spending some time concentrating each day on your art.  (If your goal, however, is to create stress, then spend more time checking e-mail.)  I think it works a lot like going for a run does.  You would think it would waste time but instead it creates it.

So that’s today’s bad advice. Short and sweet.  Take all the reasons not to write, reasons that future writing will be better, and bury them in a time capsule on a desert island.  Then get to work.



  1. Susan Pearsall writes:

    For me, writing is the answer, not the problem. Why do I forget that over and over again? Procrastinating is the problem. Thanks for the kick in the pants.

  2. Jason Frye writes:

    Dave, you’re right on. I have several projects that I’m always “getting ready to work on” but never do. It’s the paralysis of potential. In my head they’re all perfectly written and I know that in the act of getting them on the page I’ll lose something in translation. I have to remind myself, “That’s what revisions are for.” Your post may be the push I needed to get on the right side of momentum and start (and then complete) some things that I’ve kept in my head for too long.

  3. Kate Sweeney writes:

    Psychic David Gessner strikes again. Thank you so much.

  4. John Jack writes:

    Regrettably, I started the next great global novel eons ago, decades anyway. In the process, I learned I didn’t know enough about writing to do the subject justice. I kept on writing it, rewriting it, revising it, tossing out thousands of pages of meandering streams seeking tributaries, rivers, deltas, oceans, the one crystalizing direction. It’s on the test bench yet for testing out newly learned craft and voice skills. I know the storyline inside and out. Again, regrettably, it’s set in a more modern yet still historical epoch similar to the Homeric cycle, except the protagonist first wanders the seas of empires looking for an edge up, spying, then returns home to the epic battle.

    Thus another, to me, again, regrettably, exceptionally valid reason for procrastination: Until I reach the point where I can do a thematic subject justice. Meanwhile, I’m able to apply what I learn to less challenging projects and break the one must write project down into manageable smaller parts and first principles so it might progress to satori.

  5. Kyle Mustain writes:

    Great advice again! Special props for the island analogy: “You might even wonder if you’d picked the wrong island, and start to think that what it would take to really write a book was some better island, some future island, where the writing would come easy.”

    Coming from someone who’s always been good a rationalizing not writing, it’s good to read someone else’s perspective on the lesson I’m learning right now. Cheesily, I also like to think of the Nike slogan “Just Do It.”

  6. john lane writes:

    Good stuff, Dave. “Work, work, build your house, and die,” Donald Hall liked to say, quoting someone. William Stafford is the best poet for this sort of present tense work.