Anna Hogeland on the Rewards of Procrastination
"The answer lies in the need to inquire."
The following first appeared in Lit Hub’s The Craft of Writing newsletter—sign up here.
This summer, I didn’t want to write. When I happened to have childcare and all pressing domestic matters were satisfied enough, I’d open my novel-in-progress, stare at it, scroll around, and add nothing.
One day in July, it was beautiful and cool, the writing again wasn’t coming, and I felt inspired, instead, to go on a walk with an old friend who was having a hard time. I called her up and we walked the trails of a nearby nature preserve. She told me about her life, and I didn’t think about writing at all. Soon after this, during another stunted attempt at the page, I kept thinking about a Louise Bourgeois sculpture at Mass MoCA I loved and hadn’t seen in years (“The Couple”), pictured on an artist’s Instagram. I left the writing room, I drove to the museum, and when I came home, I told my husband I’d had a lovely time, but it was all just another day of fancy procrastination acrobatics. I hadn’t done any work at all.
But the next time I came to the writing desk, I wrote a scene in which two women were having a conversation like the one I’d had with my old friend. The scene took place not in a nature preserve, but at Mass MoCA, as the women walked through the exhibits and, at the scene’s end, admired “The Couple.”
Before I ever dared to call myself a writer, I followed the rules that other, “real” writers had set for themselves, hoping the ways in which they wrote their brilliant novels might help me to write a serviceable one of my own. Many had strict waking hours, location and sound and beverage specifications, and quotas for word count, page count, or hours at the desk. They had advice for aspiring writers like myself:
“Work on one thing at a time until finished” (Henry Miller); “Turn off your cell phone…No texting, no email, no Facebook, no Instagram” (Nathan Englander); “You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not” (Khaled Hosseini); “Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards” (Henry Miller, again); and, this one with a moralizing hue, from W. H. Auden: “routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.”
I wrote four novels following these kinds of rules; none of them will ever be published, and thank goodness. I’m not proud of them, but I’m glad I wrote them—I learned an immense amount, about writing and about myself as a writer, and I truly believe no writing is wasted writing—but I’m saddened by how little I enjoyed writing them.the intensity I was clinging to, thinking it was how I’d achieved anything I’d achieved, was actually an impediment to achieving more, better work.
The problem wasn’t the rules themselves: it was my misplacement of trust. These writers had found a process that worked for them; I didn’t trust myself to find one of my own, which is to say, I didn’t trust my intuition—and what is the source of true, original, meaningful art, the kind of art all artists dream of creating, if not an allegiance to one’s own intuition above all else?
I didn’t change my approach until after I’d left the MFA program, lived through pregnancy and pregnancy losses and childbirth, moved across the country from California to Vermont, and raised a baby in a pandemic with little childcare. Life was hard enough; the idea of forcing prose and making myself sit for however many hours a day, writing until however many words were on the page, held no appeal and was no longer possible, anyway—and, I knew by then, the work I’d made under this kind of pressure was not very good work.
I began writing the way I’d written as a child. I sat at the desk when I could, when I wanted to. When I wanted to be elsewhere, elsewhere is where I went.
I’ve never procrastinated more; I’ve never written more.
There is a crucial distinction to be made between the two forces that can take you away from the desk: inspiration and avoidance. When I walked with my old friend at the nature preserve, when I went to view the Louise Bourgeois, I was pulled by desire, energy, interest—there was psychic libido at play, a musing force—and this was why those activities were enjoyable in the moment, but also fruitful creatively.
Avoidance can look the same—cleaning while listening to a podcast; going on a run on a beautiful morning—but it is not the same. I know I am avoiding my writing when I never want to return to it. I flee from the page without a destination in mind; I just want to be anywhere else. I watch YouTube clips I’ve seen before, I putz, I lose many of my finite hours to social media and celebrity news. I am bored by my mind and my writing; frustrated when I open the document. If these feelings are pervasive, if they have become the dominant feelings with relation to my work, then I’ve come to know that even inspired procrastinating won’t solve this issue. It means it is time to ask the painful, yet crucial question: is this what I should be writing?
The answer lies in the need to inquire.
I’ve found that the intensity I was clinging to, thinking it was how I’d achieved anything I’d achieved, was actually an impediment to achieving more, better work—not to mention, it was making life much less enjoyable.
For my fourth novel, I wrote in this new way, embracing inspired procrastination. My “debut” novel, The Long Answer, I followed my instincts wherever they took me, even when it looked as though they were taking me away from the work I “should” be doing. The writing was hard work, yes, emotionally and intellectually, but it was hard work that I wanted to do, that I needed to do. It would’ve been far more difficult not to do it. I’d somehow forgotten, in the years between childhood and motherhood, that I loved writing because it wasn’t a job, but a joy; as painter Gertrude Abercrombie puts it, “My work comes directly from my inner consciousness, and it must come easily.”
Since becoming a mother in pandemic times, I’ve been imperfectly trying to adopt this approach to all parts of my day. There is much beyond our control, much work we must do that we do not want to do. But there might be small pockets of time when we can become lazy again about effort, and feel rewarded rather than punished. If I am on a run and I feel like walking, I walk; if I’m feeling like watching Seinfeld instead of reading a smart book, I watch Seinfeld; if I feel like finding treasures at Goodwill instead of writing, I leave the room and I go.
I trust, now, that I will return to the desk when it calls me, and it will always call me, in time. And when I arrive, I will have words to break the blank page.
The Long Answer by Anna Hogeland is available via Riverhead Books.