What If Procrastination Is an Essential Part of Our Writing Process?
Amy Sackville on an Aesthetics of Deferral
I‘ve been meaning for some time to write on the subject of writing and procrastination, but there’s always a few other things I just need to get done first. Reading, research, annotating. Following up interesting links. Finding images. Looking up word origins (such as: “crastinus” is “belonging to tomorrow”). Reading about books you ought to read and then buying them. Not reading those books properly, feeling worried about the other ones you haven’t read and distracted by the fact that there’s some other thing you should be doing (like writing).
For as long as I am involved in those tasks, the thing that I am supposed to be writing remains in glorious, perfectible potentia. As Annie Dillard puts it in The Writing Life: “It is a glowing thing, a blurred thing of beauty. Its structure is at once luminous and translucent: you can see the world through it.” It remains on the cusp of realization; it belongs to tomorrow.
E.L. Doctorow has been quoted as saying, “Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” But now it’s 4 pm already and what have I actually done? This is the hour at which, left to my own devices, I might finally sit down to write something.
This isn’t a habit I’ve deliberately adopted; I mean to start earlier, I really do. Every one of my “writing days” is spent like this: not quite concentrating on the various activities that I convince myself might “count” until the flittering sense of guilt has tipped close enough to panic. The effort of evasion often manifests as a thick, crowding tension headache or an overwhelming desire to nap (which I don’t). Which is why I prefer not to be left to my own devices at all, unless and until I’m not; when there are other material demands on my time—doing my full-time university teaching job, for example—I long for a day to myself and imagine that the next time one comes around, it will be different. I am so fortunate to have these days, these empty days. And yet, here I am and it’s 4 pm again.
Kafka, after his morning shift at the office, napped through the afternoons and typically got around to writing by the time I go to bed. Often, sitting at his desk after 10:30 pm, he wrote letters or diary entries instead of the thing he was supposed to be writing. Then sometimes the diary-sketches turned out to be stories after all.
One of the tasks that I need to get around to before I can get around to writing the novel I’m meaning to write is the re-reading of all of the notes that I’ve made in my journals, which have to be re-thought, recaptured, before the novel can be written. A writing journal is the sine qua non of writerly procrastination: so close to doing the thing, without actually doing the thing! These tasks are self-perpetuating and feed on themselves, a huge compost bin growing denser and richer and transforming into something dark.
The 19th-century poet and scholar Giacomo Leopardi kept a notebook in which he recorded and tested his ideas about a fantastically broad range of literature, philosophy, religion, philology, and really everything that he encountered. He obsessively cross-referenced and catalogued his own notes, returned to them, re-ordered them, expanded upon or disputed them. The notebook, over 4,500 pages long by his death at 38, was published as Zibaldone di pensieri at the turn of the 20th century, and by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in English in 2013. The task of publishing (never mind translating) such a work is a baffling one. I have always been interested in these texts, these unfinished and unfinishable projects, which are striving towards some impossible completion; which can’t be left alone, which are always in the process of becoming. Benjamin’s Arcades Project; Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. They invite a dilatory form of reading, a dipping in and putting aside; one is haunted, when reading, by the knowledge of their incompleteness. They belong to tomorrow.
From 1978 to 1980, Roland Barthes gave a series of lectures on “The Preparation of the Novel”; his assembled notes were translated by Kate Briggs and published by Columbia University Press in 2011. He explores what it means to “want-to-write.” The first half of this lecture series, which is ostensibly about thinking about writing a novel, is, in a beautifully idiosyncratic maneuver, actually about haiku. The final lecture was given two days before Barthes was struck by a laundry van, sustaining injuries that would eventually kill him. This book-length text was not intended for publication, although the lectures are carefully structured and fully articulated; we are reading Barthes’ notation. There is a warmth and curiosity to the writing, a thinking-on-the-page that’s visible in the faithfully transcribed arrows and parentheses that indicate a moment where he might, one imagines, break off to extemporize briefly. The “Novel” itself exists only in the form of eight plans that are appended to the volume, rehearsing the same schema before seeming to lose faith with it. Barthes’ novel has to do with Dante; with a moment, mid-life, in an obscure woods; with love and grieving.
Barthes’ late works, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975), A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977), and Camera Lucida (1980)—written in crots, vignettes—might belong to the same incomplete trajectory, the preparing towards a novel that never materialized. “It’s possible,” he wrote, “that the Novel will remain at the level of—or be exhausted and accomplished by—its Preparation.”
I love all of these books. I’m glad they exist in all their exploratory inexhaustible restlessness. I love them just as they are. The connection between these quite different texts and authors is more feeling than thesis; I have considered substantiating that feeling, over the years, and making something of it, but… well, guess what.
I don’t know if I completely agree with Doctorow, if that is what he said. To some extent, I do actually believe in this as a process. I can’t write out of repose. I need a state of susceptibility, of charge; the procrastination is a way to cultivate or induce that state. In such a state—restless, antsy—sometimes I stand up and go to my laptop, or turn to a different notebook, a new page, and write something on the sly; it’s done like a trick while I’m not looking, a note in the margins. The writing is done in these snatches—the beginnings of something new appear this way. I think this bears some investigation because it is doing the thing, at least some part of it. The hidden part.
Or I might be kidding myself. Or else there’s a balance to be struck and I can’t strike it. Because a lot of 4 pm’s have come and gone. These activities—reading, looking, thinking—are fraught with anxiety, with guilt. Shakespeare, Sonnet 29: “With what I most enjoy contented least.” None of these things are without worth or meaning. It’s just not what I’m supposed to be doing. The tipping point hasn’t tipped, and I remain wobbling there until I climb, exhausted, back down into the compost.
Is this unusual, this inability to start? Is this a symptom of lockdown conditions, of the dearth of creative inspiration or outlet? Yes, perhaps, but also no, not really. Of course, lockdown doesn’t help; the kind of meandering dilatory activity that might stimulate inspiration becomes fretful and bounded when both time and space are bounded, fraught; it has been difficult to even conceive of what a text belonging to tomorrow might look like. There is a difference between the introverted content-seeking distraction of lockdown and the kind of loose and open-ended attention that allows for unexpected inspiration, accident, the possibility of the right kind of porous boredom that is “the dream egg from which experience hatches,” as Walter Benjamin put it. But it would be just another form of deferral and displacement to pretend that when lockdown lifts, so will my pen, or my mood. Last year I wrote an article on the subject of (not) writing and lockdown, and while the substance of the article is true, to say that my “not writing” is “not normal” might not be.
4 pm. I know I have one more day on the deadline and that’s one more day that this article exists in a state of preparation. I can’t find a structure. I want to say that this is an affliction and it causes pain; I also want to think that the mulch might be generative. That this activity does, in itself, have value and meaning; that it is a way to resist the tyranny of “productivity,” because an end product is not the point, and I think writing is made that way.
Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage is a book about the author’s failed attempts to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, which culminates in a recognition of his own depression and an investigation into the literature of that condition. Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy might be another of those unwieldy, incompletable texts to add to my collection—published, but obsessively revised and expanded in every edition, never satisfactorily concluded, a symptom of the condition it describes.
I pitched this article in the hope that a similar, if slight, act of self-analysis would compel me to compose something that will now have to exist, today if not tomorrow. Such an undertaking legitimises so many of these activities—looking back over old journals, seeking out the source of a half-remembered quotation, idling through articles on the psychology of procrastination. So now this is the thing I am supposed to be doing that I am not doing. But also, it is still not the thing I am supposed to be doing. It is still not the perfect novel that I might start tomorrow. It’s one more thing I’m leaving behind me that is not the thing I was supposed to have done.