“What If Procrastination Is an Essential Part of Our Writing Process?”

From a post on lithub.com by Amy Sackville headlined “What If Procrastination Is an Essential Part of Our Writing Process?”:

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. Reading about books you ought to read and then buying them….

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….

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….

From 1978 to 1980, Roland Barthes gave a series of lectures on “The Preparation of the Novel.”… 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….

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….

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.

Amy Sackville’s most recent novel is Painter to the King (Granta, 2018). She writes fiction and prose, and teaches Creative Writing at the University of Kent, UK.

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