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What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Aaron Pogue

Courtney Cantrell's weekly writing advice.

Courtney Cantrell's weekly writing advice.

Last week, Aaron posted an article on writing and procrastination and the benefits of not procrastinating on your writing. On Monday, he followed up with a writing exercise designed to help us writers write without procrastination. In keeping with that theme, I am going to share with you my story of How I Beat The System And Gave Myself A Migraine. I shall also attempt to refrain from starting every sentence with an adverbial phrase.

Once upon a time, I was a university senior in my very last semester of school. I had spent weeks upon months writing papers, taking exams, doing my homework, working at the campus security office, and discovering what it meant to be a newlywed. My big final project was to complete the first draft of the epic fantasy novel I had been working on for six years. The Vice President of Academic Affairs had asked me to speak at baccalaureate. I was stressed, nervous, elated, excited, and overwhelmed by it all. One wintry Thursday evening before finals, I was not amused to realize that I had a paper due the next day–one which I hadn’t started researching yet.

I hadn’t forgotten the paper. I hadn’t had time for the paper. I was writing an epic and gearing myself up to speak in front of a hundred students and their parents, for goodness’ sake! (And thank that same Goodness it was a December graduation; had it been the entire graduating class of Spring commencement, I think I might have had a nervous breakdown.) Completing a paper for Topics in Philosophy, a general education requirement, was not at the top of my priorities list.

Be that as it may or april, the perfectionist and academic snob in me would not be satisfied with anything less than my last-ditch, pedal-to-the-metal, ultimate procrastinator best effort. Therefore, I hied myself to the library at 7 p.m. on Thursday evening, spent three hours frantically researching and photocopying, and fled to my apartment and my longsuffering husband in order to begin writing a twenty-page thesis paper over the course of the next nine hours.

I did it.

The process was not pretty.

Around 4 a.m. or thereabouts, I began to get very, very sleepy. Now, back in the dark ages when I was this hapless, hopeless, helpless soon-to-be graduate, I was not an imbiber of coffee. I know, I know, most college students walk around with coffee practically flowing into their veins through an IV line. But not I. I despised the taste of coffee. Loathed it, even. To my senses, the smell of coffee was heavenly, and the taste of coffee was hellish. When I needed a caffeine jolt, I turned to chocolate or, in rarer cases, to Coca-Cola (though to this day, you won’t get me to endorse that stuff, either). But tonight, as the words poured from my sleep-deprived brain through my weary fingers and into my computer in ever-increasing incoherency, I knew that neither chocolate nor Coke were going to see me through to the bitter end. I knew I needed coffee.

I’d never made a pot of coffee before in my life. I knew that coffee, the coffee pot, and water were involved, but I knew nothing of amounts. I put some water in, I put a LOT of coffee in, I pushed the “on” button, and hoped for the best. What resulted was a brew that looked capable of writing my paper for me, if only I would set it in front of the computer and let nature take its course. Instead, I dumped a goodly quantity of hazelnut creamer into it so my tastebuds wouldn’t be quite as offended, settled back at my keyboard, and proceeded to guzzle more than half the pot.

Around 6:30 on Friday morning, I clicked “save” for the last time, printed out my caffeine-laden opus, and shut down my computer. The deed was done, and I was so tired and wired, I wanted to die. So I did–for about an hour. Then I got up and started getting ready to go to class and deliver my paper at 8:00.

In the meantime, my husband had gotten up and gone into the kitchen. “Hey!” he thought. “She made coffee!” And the poor man, is his sleep-befuddled elation, poured himself a cup of that mess and tried to drink it. This endeavor was not entirely successful and necessitated adding several gallons of water to the coffee. (Yes, I’m exaggerating–but not by much.)

Back to me, in the bathroom. I’m standing in front of the mirror, trying to put my contacts in, when a shimmery gray splotch appears in the upper right quadrant of my vision. Immediately, my heartrate accelerates, my blood pressure rises, and a cold, crawly sensation invades my stomach. Gamely, I toil on, trying to make myself look presentable, but to no avail. The shimmery splotch grows and curves until it forms a ring, and then it spreads outward until a pinprick speck of normal vision is all I have left. Everything else is gray shimmer. I imagine this is what blindness is like, and it terrifies me.

I knew exactly what it was; this had happened before. Occular migraine. The only cure for it was sleep and a very dark room. I gave the thesis paper to my husband, explained when and where to deliver it for me, collapsed into bed, and stayed there pretty much until it was time to deliver my baccalaureate speech eight days later. I ventured out for finals (I think I had two), but the rest of the time, I pretended the world didn’t exist and that I didn’t, either.

I made an A+ on the paper.

The End.

Great story, eh? Yeah, it’s fun to tell, and it makes for an entertaining anecdote at parties when the subject is either migraines or college life. But why am I telling it now? Well, as I stated above, it’s in response to Aaron’s writing assignment. I wanted to do the assignment, and this seemed like a good place to share it. Also, the story makes for an entertaining anecdote when the subject is procrastination.

Yes, I had my reasons and excuses for leaving that paper until the literal last minute–but the nitty-gritty of it all is that I am a procrastinator at heart. Especially when it comes to writing. There are many reasons why this is part of my personality, but those, my inklings, are another post for another time. For now, I’ll leave you with this: Aaron’s post about procrastination vs. “writing ahead” reminded me that Putting It Off ‘Til The Last Minute has gotten me into some serious discomfort, if not outright trouble. That paper could just as easily have turned out to be D-worthy. At this point in my life, neither my success nor my financial comfort depend on my meeting a writing deadline…but if I don’t get into the habit of writing ahead now, eventually my procrastinative habits are going to garner me something a lot less comfortable than an occular migraine. It would behoove me, methinks, to develop better writing habits now, so that they’ll be in place and I won’t have to expend extra effort to acquire them when the pressure’s on and the coffee runs out.

And that’s WILAWriTWe.

Photo credit Courtney Cantrell.

4 Responses to “What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Aaron Pogue”

  1. Great Story! I think all of us have put off the “big” paper and rushed through for a good grade. Not recommended but sometimes you just over think yourself. and then going to turn it is and getting a migraine attack…I have been there so many times. Migraine is an insidious, ill timed beast!

  2. Courtney Cantrell says:

    That it is indeed, Justin! Especially when you have family staying at your house over the weekend, which is what I had going on when a migraine hit this past Sunday. Insidious is the perfect word for it. Thanks for stopping by and commiserating!

  3. Carlos Velez says:

    wow…I got a little scared there. Great story. I’m glad you didn’t go blind.

  4. Courtney Cantrell says:

    @Carlos: Thanks, me too! :o) It used to scare me a lot, actually. First time it happened, I was 15 and a hypochondriac. The blank spots in my vision pretty much sent me into a panic attack. Now that I’m older and oh-so-much wiser *snort*, I’m over the panic part–I just make the room dark, gulp Excedrin like mad, and lie down until it’s over. ;o)