a journal of observations, obsessions and inspirations

musings on the artist's life

Posted in: Writing

The art of delay – procrastination as a means to an end

In our hurry-up, gotta-have-it, don’t-waste-a-minute world where productivity is the holy grail and idleness is the biggest loser, missing a deadline looms larger than original sin. All the excuses in the world cannot expiate the offender. It doesn’t matter how clever, intriguing, original, bizarre or, even in the end, true the excuse may be, the offense is never fully forgiven.

The offendee can righteously shrug a shoulder, wave a hand and dismiss, but the offender is unable to let it go. Perhaps unwilling to let go, the offender is driven to tell the story again and again, seeking absolution more from the self than from any external source. Redoubled efforts to atone only guarantee the cycle will be repeated.

Whatever the reasons, we channel an enormous amount of energy into the activities surrounding the doing. Why don’t we just do it instead? All excuses aside, there may be a wiser rationale at work here. The subconscious might be trying to get a message through our thick skulls. Not the platitudinous “slow down” (on an anemic par with “hang in there”) but a reminder that the most direct path from A to B may not be the best waye to get where we want to go.

Compelled to complete the to-do list, we rush down that path—eyes fixed, head down, distraction-proofed. We can easily miss the pleasant sights along the way. We might ignore danger signs, we may fail to see an alternate route that could turn out better, and we ultimately miss the point.

Perhaps it has more to do with discovery than with implementing an already conceived notion. Perhaps Exhibit A: The Perfect Outline isn’t really necessary. Maybe we should think about meandering along the creative path rather than attacking it like we would the Autobahn.

What if…? What if the point, the raison d’etre, of being on a path in the first place is to wander off it? This is especially true for artists. Getting lost—or at least taking a really long look around—allows us to stumble upon treasures, to be surprised by the treasures—a new direction, a clarification, a level of detail, other things too many to list because really, it’d be everything. Without discoveries like these, the work might never be completed. Maybe never attempted. It certainly wouldn’t be welded together in the same form without these hidden pieces. I think what if just might be the whole point.

What if…? what a great question. Without some kind of detour, no one would ever ask “what if” and there would be no exploration of the possible answers to that question. Curiosity dampened, discoveries wouldn’t get made and stories wouldn’t be written. What if Mr. K. had gotten a speedy trial? or even an actual trial instead of a mysterious procedure. What if he didn’t need to control every detail of his life, and instead, surrendered to the legal jujitsu going on. Perhaps his enemies would trip over themselves and K. could slip away unnoticed. (Well, that didn’t happen, but what if it had?) But then if K. were that human, he wouldn’t have gone to accounting school and become the Chief Financial Officer at the bank and then where would we be? waking up like an insect, most likely.

What if Anna Karenina had been happy? or Rhett Butler had turned around and walked back in the door, or Hamlet had been able to make up his mind? (Years later, Lord Olivier confessed to an interviewer that he came up with that in desperation, knowing the publicity people wanted a short, marketable statement. Thus, “Hamlet is the story of a man who couldn’t make up his mind.” He professed disdain that anyone would ever have taken that as a serious statement about the play. But who knows? The ever-coy Olivier may have been playing the role of toying with the interviewer.)

What ifs are the basis for James Burke’s Connections series and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and without them, we would be deprived of some mind-blowing mind stimulation, not to mention several hours’ worth of “wasted” time along the path to a significantly richer multi-layered life, vicariously satisfying our desire to be rocket scientists.

“Not all those who wander are lost…” – J.R.R. Tolkein

Digging deeper, I find a world without the phrase “what if” blocks my curiosity (best-case) or feeds my anxiety (typical) about the research paper prompt for this class. With it, I can explore a what-if scenario about “Inspiring Speeches, comparison of,” as a valid topic based partly on that time-wasting activity of watching a twenty-year-old documentary about Martin Luther King. With it in place, passion fuels the curiosity, and I can follow a path that might lead to a better product, while enjoying a far better experience along the way.

Enjoyment of the experience is not something that usually resonates within the confessional, even if passion is often the subtext. Creativity feeds off the schizophrenic equation of passion plus discipline. Seriously, how is one supposed to get a complex project off the ground without the power of white-hot ignition?

In my world, writing a book qualifies as complex, and it requires heat to launch itself to the next stage. In alternate worlds, I’m sure robo-authors exist who tamely write 500 words a day between 8:05 and 9:30, then go on with their Stepford lives. I’m equally sure their words are predictable as instant oatmeal and as devoid of passion. My continued validation as a writer requires I hold to that certainty, for my own writing exists in a far-away galaxy, far away from that circle of hell.

“Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. – Joseph Campbell

I don’t produce things, written or otherwise, on schedule. I do meet deadlines, most of the time. Cast-in-stone ones. Life/death, really important ones. How I get there is my business, and if my straying off the path makes it all about the reward of the journey itself, then the inevitable occasional stumble is a viable risk. An important part of finding one’s way as a writer is the stumbling. We stumble upon… something else. Something we wouldn’t have noticed, discovered, picked up and turned over to examine and gaze at in wonder. Somewhere we wouldn’t have thought to go without the misstep, somewhere we didn’t know there even was, to go to. How? Simple, really: keep your eyes open, mind everyone’s business, speak up, give yourself permission to wander and be awestruck when you get lost.

Some days, all this distraction and procrastinating feels like play; other days it yields great results.

And some days, it’s just a way to avoid keeping your butt in the chair and figuratively putting one foot in front of the other, doing time at the keyboard. Dizzy, dazed, we stagger to the kitchen on an urgent mission to rearrange the spice cabinet, having finally determined to alphabetize them instead of sorting them by cooking-versus-baking spices or bottles-versus-tins. What a relief to have figured that out, after years of procrastination.

This is how the transition goes, from the kiln of creating to the workbench of the craft. And craft is work, not casual or carefree when it gets to this stage. Bloody hard work, too, or everyone would do it. Instead, they’re in awe of authors. “They” again. There’s something compelling about knowing someone who’s “written a book.” Is it magical, shamanistic, Walter-Mitty-escapist envy? Doesn’t matter, because they, the admirers, want to believe the author waits for inspiration from the sky, twitches her nose, and poof! it’s a book! They don’t want to know that it’s not, to paraphrase Thomas Edison, in fancy dress.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it comes dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Who can predict exactly what sparks the push that gets us to do the work and ignore the siren call of the spice bottles? A huge amount of prep work precedes the rush. In reviewing the questionnaire responses, diving into research (which means, with any luck, getting sidetracked), and working out book details—the structure, the layout, the placement of page numbers, the constructs of appendices, the color scheme for headers and sub-heads—I’ve been setting the stage for the writing of the essay itself.

“But where’s the narrative?” my book mentor asks. “I want to know how you’re going to tie it all together!” Hey, me too! But writing isn’t only about putting words on paper. It’s about having (nearly) everything in place so I can have a jumping-off point. As I know what words to use, I find what I want to say. It’s trying them on, rearranging the furniture, doing it again—and having the patience to know when the time is right.

There’s a lesson learned from the first book, though one needs to be wary of taking that waiting sort of sentiment too far lest it veer into the dreaded procrastination. A delicate balance.

The tipping point on the author’s progress from inspiration to daily grind took about four weeks. This time the transition was precise, which is hardly usual. I write the acknowledgments page as I go, making sure I don’t forget anyone. I polish and tweak and delete and play many times along the way. I thought I’d ease into the list of thank-yous with an introductory sentence that “just growed” a bit too much into a paragraph and then turned into a big whine. It will get cut, severely pruned or tossed out completely. But an hour after writing it, I realized I’d made the transition—some sort of bulimia vocabularia.

Work on the book has slowed now. It’s not stalled, it’s not even diverted. It’s just in the slogging-through part of the journey now, freeing my mind to turn to cabbages and kings, spices—and Kafka.

The tradeoff for procrastinating at a calculated-risk level in the one class yielded off-the-chart benefits in something new for the other class. Response Paper #1 here was pushed aside by the driving force of a creative tsunami that carved out the structure and layout for that book. Too bad it wasn’t for this class, but that’s the luck of the draw. At least I read the book, even if I didn’t do the assignment.

The rewards are worth the risk, the drawbacks offset by the value, and not just in terms of a grade for that other class—this is personal gain that just happened to merge with a graded-project structure. Truth is, I would’ve done it anyway because when that countdown sequence gets to 3… 2… 1… it doesn’t matter if a dozen syllabi are lined up in front of me—I’m taking the next step to blast off.

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