Procrastination: A Sin or an Art Form?

A friend, Nancy, came over for dinner the other night and talk came around to writing. She said she had heard that procrastination was a major thing for writers. I told her about a famous writer who used to go into his study, lock the door, and lie down on his couch with the typewriter on the floor nearby. Whenever he would hear his wife coming down the hall, he would reach down and type nonsense furiously until her footsteps passed on by. Then he would return to contemplating the cosmos or whatever he was doing, until a deadline forced him to produce. Nancy asked who it was and for the life of me I couldn’t remember.

This morning I decided to see if I could Google it and find out. But what do you Google? I tried “writer who lay on couch and pretended to type when wife passed.” I got some very interesting results, but nothing that pertained to writer procrastination.

So I tried “writers and procrastination.” Did you know that Graham Greene, the English playwright and novelist, waited for a sign from above before he would start working on a piece? He needed to see a certain combination of numbers by accident in order to write the first word. It is said he would stay by the side of the road looking at license plates and waiting for the number to appear.

I also found a list of 50 things a writer can do to avoid getting started ( I have listed here my personal favorites:

  • Check your email
  • Answer your email
  • Moderate your blog comments.
  • Re-organize your documents folder
  • Read up on debut author advances
  • List things to buy when your $100,000,000,000,000 advance comes through
  • Browse famous writing rejection letters
  • Research headshot photographers
  • Research latest hairstyles for your headshot
  • Practice poses in the mirror for your headshot
  • Comment on agent/editor/author blogs hoping to get noticed
  • Write a blog post on procrastination techniques
  • Research potential agents for your novel (before it’s written)
  • Make a cup of coffee
  • Clean your coffee maker with vinegar (because your coffee is starting to taste funky)
  • While waiting for your coffee maker to air-out, test every cafe in a 20-block radius for which is the most writerly (Fairhope’s Latte Da for me)
  • Prepare a pre-writing snack
  • Eat the pre-writing snack whilst still in kitchen
  • Prepare a post-writing snack
  • Eat the post-writing snack early (it was looking a bit soggy)
  • Clean your keyboard–especially the crumbs in all those little grooves

While that was an inspiring diversion, I was still no closer to finding the elusive writer/procrastinator. So I Googled “elusive writer procrastinator.”

I found that one of my favorite writers, Charles Dickens, said, “Procrastination in the thief of time. Collar him.” Obviously he was not the culprit. Then I saw that another favorite writer, Mark Twain, said, “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.” A sentiment with which Oscar Wilde was in wholehearted agreement. Douglas Adams agreed, saying, “I love deadlines, I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

This is fascinating stuff. In an article from The Atlantic, entitled, “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators: The psychological origins of waiting (… and waiting, and waiting) to work,” Megan McArdle said it’s a fear of being “unmasked as the incompetent you ‘really’ are.” This actually has a clinical name: impostor syndrome. Apparently writers, as a group – there are always exceptions – think they are really, really good and their writing should be an instant success. Until it is time for the ink to meet the paper. Then they think they are hacks pretending to be writers and the moment someone reads something they’ve actually written, they will be found out. So they sharpen all the pencils instead. The only thing that supersedes the fear of being found out is the fear of doing nothing. McArdle puts it this way, “Most writers manage to get by because, as the deadline creeps closer, their fears of turning in nothing eventually surpasses (sic) their fears of turning in something terrible.” Thus we have the writer on the couch slapping random typewriter keys. . . until the deadline looms and he produces brilliant prose. Only I still don’t know who he was.

But I can’t spend any more time on this. What I am actually supposed to be doing is working on a chapter in a book on which I am collaborating. We have a deadline fast approaching. Oooh! Maybe I should Google deadline. Before I do that, I think I’ll build a fire. I write better in the rocking chair in front of the fire. But, first, the fireplace needs cleaning out.