There is a classroom two floors above the office where I am now sitting that used to be an office suite. When I was an undergraduate English/Education major I worked in that office suite for G, a professor who is now a good friend and colleague of mine. I’m kind of glad that office isn’t there any longer, that someone saw fit to tear down the walls and convert the space, because one of my worst college experiences took place in G’s office. It was my junior year, the end of the fall semester, and paper deadlines were pouring down like rain. I was not handling the flood very well. I’ve always had the reputation of being one who puts things off, who is motivated and inspired by deadlines, and I suppose there is some truth to that perception, but there are far more layers involved, and it’s way more complicated than mere procrastination. It was thanks to a class I was taking during the aforementioned fall semester that I learned to identify and process those layers. The lesson did not come easily.
One of my courses that semester was a writing theory course. The instructor, presently one of my closest friends, was one of my most influential writing mentors, SB. Throughout the semester we explored a number of writing theorists and their philosophies on writing. I can’t remember any of their names, and I don’t even remember much about the theories themselves, but discovering the single/multi-draft writer theory* was literally life-changing for me. Suddenly I wasn’t a mere procrastinator, I was a single-drafter, which means that all the planning, outlining, creative thinking, arranging, and tweaking takes place in my head. I could crank out a 25-page literary analysis on William Faulkner in an afternoon, but not without thinking about it, turning it around and around in my mind, sometimes even mentally constructing actual sentences in the days and weeks leading up to the actual act of writing. To have a name for my process was huge, because believe me, I got a lot of flack from classmates who multi-drafted and who assumed I was having idle recreational thoughts while they penned outlines and scribbled notes in the margins of their many drafts. Knowing that my style had a name that was not procrastination was both empowering and liberating for me, and I talked about it a lot. All the time. I might has well have had it tattooed on my forehead. SB gave me a hard time, but I knew he understood me, and it felt good to be understood.
With a new found understanding of my writing process in mind, I started reflecting on other parts of my life, and I realized that the single-draft theory also applied to how I cleaned, how I created art, even how I shopped for gifts at Christmas. And then the end of the semester rolled around. I was taking a full load of upper level courses, and there was a final written product due for every single one. I was mentally crafting four papers in my head–four huge, important papers, the contents of which were starting to churn and boil like lava in a pre-explosive volcano. Except I didn’t explode. I shut down. I froze solid. I remember sitting in G’s office trying to work on one of my papers and feeling completely immobilized. Quite suddenly, quite unconsciously, and quite literally, I shut down. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t talk. My brain was like the blue screen on a computer that’s just crashed. I can remember making eye contact with G, but I couldn’t speak. With a look of panic on her face she left and was back almost instantly with SB.
SB put his hands on my shoulders and physically turned my chair so I was facing him, and he turned my head so he could look me in the eye, and he shook me gently and said quietly, “Don’t go away. Listen to me. Come back. We can manage this,” and I’d love to tell you something clicked and I came back to life, but I just started crying, because I felt like this newly discovered understanding I had about writing process was going to kill me.
It didn’t, of course. SB walked me to his office, and we sat in complete silence for what felt like days and weeks but was probably an hour, and his eyes never left mine; and I suppose when he perceived life in my blank stare he walked me across campus and bought me dinner, which I mechanically ate; and then he walked me back to his office and made me a writing schedule. I am not sure if SB would remember this occasion as momentous, or if he even remembers the occasion at all, but I am, to this day, convinced that he prevented me from having a nervous breakdown with the simple act of creating plan I could follow.
I hadn’t thought about that day in years, but a few weeks ago when I felt myself spazzing out and had what I believe to be a panic attack, the memory of that near-breakdown bubbled up and lodged itself in my mind. I was driving in circles in the parking lot of the local shopping center, trying to talk myself down, and I heard SB’s voice: “Don’t go away. Listen to me. Come back. We can manage this.” And I drove back to my office and made myself a schedule. And not just a writing schedule–a daily time management plan that happens to include writing. True, I’m not always following it to the letter, but seeing everything in its place, with its own time allotment, is centering somehow, because I can only “draft” one thing at a time. This is not to say there aren’t often a hundred things crammed into my brain at any given moment, but I’m not likely to multi-task all 100, or even two. I might appear to be multi-tasking, but really I am just ticking them off of my mental schedule.
So if you ever see me driving in circles or staring blankly into space, you can bet I have a long list of topics to process, and I’m trying to process them all at once, so give me a little shake and tell me it’s time to make another schedule.
*To clarify: a multi-draft writer works her way through multiple plans and versions of a product before she creates the product’s final form, or works toward the final product in multiple sessions; a single-draft writer manifests the final product in its entirety in one session, the planning having taken place entirely in her head.