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Better Late Than Never?

Why putting things off can be good for writers

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Purely in the interests of research (honest), I asked Christina Koning, the esteemed editor of Collected, if I could have a few more days to finish this article on procrastination. Many writers have a last-minute personality that thrives on the urgent kick of adrenalin you get as deadlines approach. Fear of missing them certainly focuses the mind – so long as it doesn’t send you into a rabbit-in-the-headlights panic – and it can stimulate you into producing your best work. But there’s a difference between being on time and being late, which can provoke a feeling so horrible that you swear to yourself you’ll never be late again. Until the next time.

Habits involving attitudes to time can be complex and deeply ingrained. Years of exasperated parental exhortations, for instance, to jolly well hurry up if you know what’s good for you, can backfire. It can produce a child who stubbornly slows down and takes their time no matter what awaits them downstairs. At the other end of the spectrum, I have a friend who must arrive at least half an hour early for everything, needing, I suppose, to feel in control of the social situation. I’ve been with her when we arrived only a little early and stress levels built to a shrieking red alert. No point in saying better late than never to her.

For those who write for a living, procrastination can seem part of the creative process: all those countless cups of coffee, the powerful urge to clean the cooker for the first time in six months, the inexplicable but compelling need to keep abreast of Donald Trump’s tweets, the intriguing clatter of the letterbox, even when it’s ten to one that the missive is going to be the council’s latest recycling timetable. And then, once you do manage to settle at your desk and start to type, you’ve still got to get though all the tedious ‘throat-clearing’ sentences before you hopefully hit your stride and, oh, joy, the writing finally flows. The problem comes, of course, when, like bad bacteria in the gut, avoidance strategies threaten to totally overwhelm the creative flora.

If only it were merely a question of discipline, or rather the lack of it. True laziness, the insouciant, lightly worn kind is actually rather appealing. The narrator of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat is a case in point. ‘I like work,’ he says. ‘It fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. I love to keep it by me: the idea of getting rid of it nearly breaks my heart.’

Rare is the writer who exhibits this type of amiable idleness. Angst, guilt, and desperation are far more common. But then, what writer doesn’t empathise with Dorothy Parker’s stance on the art of getting something down on paper: ‘I hate writing. I love having written.’ Setting down a first draft can be agonising and avoiding pain is surely a sane response to it. I’m reminded of my favourite TV comic moment in which Bernard Black (of Black Books) sorts a mountain of socks, makes an (unheard of) call to his mother and befriends some bemused Jehovah’s Witnesses rather than complete his tax return.

There have been some truly champion literary procrastinators. The late, great, Douglas Adams famously had to be holed up in a hotel room to finish his novels while editors gnashed their teeth outside. ‘I love deadlines,’ Adams wrote. ‘I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’ But he was by no means alone. Victor Hugo’s wife, Adèle, described how, in order to finish The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the French novelist had all his formal clothes removed so that he would be unable to gad about town and would be forced, instead, to remain in the house and write his blessed book. Happily, Hugo finished his novel and we have a Disney cartoon to prove it. In this century, Zadie Smith acknowledged that while writing NW, she used software apps that temporarily blocked the siren calls of the internet.Jonathan Franzen went further: while writing Freedom, he superglued the Ethernet port of his computer. Even the formidable Margaret Atwood is not immune. In a recent interview she described her work routine in terms of spending ‘the morning procrastinating and worrying, and then plung[ing] into the manuscript in a frenzy of anxiety around 3:00 p.m.’

So, fellow procrastinators, we are in good company. Which brings me to the point of this small piece: procrastination may not entirely deserve its bad press. Or, at any rate, it may be the lesser of two evils. A few years ago, I was hurtling towards a publishing deadline and waking up several times a night worrying about the impossible daily word-counts I would have to achieve to fulfil my contract. Despite this, I couldn’t get into writing and was beset by avoidance strategies, one of which was to take time out to attend my literary agency’s Christmas party, where I was greeted by my own agent. I blurted out my fears and he, having seen it all before, gave me a timely piece of advice. He told me that the reading public would never know if I was a little late handing in my manuscript, but everyone would know if I published a terrible book in order to meet the deadline. What was more, I’d have to live with the knowledge that I’d never be able to go back and put it right. On that occasion I heeded his advice. With my next novel I did not and, oh, how I wish I could go back and rewrite the ending.

Sometimes displacement activities are provoked by a fear of the blank page, in which case Jack London’s counsel to go after inspiration with a club might be apposite, but sometimes procrastination is a sign that you’re not yet ready to tackle a project. I think you’ve just got to know yourself well enough to tell the difference. Ideas need to be composted down over a long period and – in my experience, at least – things tend to go wrong if you start too soon or too late. Haste and procrastination are two sides of the same coin: one is acting when it would have been better to wait, the other is waiting when it would have been better to act. It comes down to self-knowledge and judgement, both of which are hard won.

If your subconscious hasn’t finished mulling over the complexities of your plot or the arguments of your thesis, you’ll struggle. Of course you can stop and start and go back but, arguably, it might be better to wait. During a discussion about the labour pains of delivering one’s novel, a writer friend quipped: ‘Pregnancy is not procrastination, it’s gestation.’ Two key skills a writer must learn are knowing how to make your subconscious work for you and, crucially, recognising when the job is done.

Procrastination is also justified when something unexpected lands on your desk and hijacks your time. As it happens, the days I had set aside to write this article coincided with an entirely serendipitous and one-off opportunity to talk about my work on television. I reasoned that I could not turn it down, even though it entailed considerable preparation. As a result, I am writing this essay with a guilty ‘the-dog-ate-my-homework’ mist hanging over my head. Managing conflicting priorities is hard: the empty in-tray that you strive for is fated to remain a cruel mirage. Or, to strike a more positive note, let me quote the composer Leonard Bernstein: ‘To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.’

Procrastination is not necessarily a bad thing: it’s a question of knowing one’s enemy and learning to read the symptoms. Perhaps it would be better to put off your project and allow it to gestate a little longer. Perhaps the truth is that you’re coping badly because you have actually taken on too much. Or perhaps this is, indeed, a case of not wanting to face up to the pain of seeing the gaping chasm between the perfection you glimpsed in your head and the reality of your flawed first draft. If the latter strain of procrastination is your diagnosis, may I suggest that you type into your header a line from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. I’m sure you know the scene: Peter O’Toole holds up a blazing match and, without flinching, snuffs it out with his bare fingers. ‘The trick,’ he says, ‘is not minding that it hurts.’

Linda Buckley-Archer is a journalist, scriptwriter and novelist. She is an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London and is currently running a RLF Reading Round group in Richmond, Surrey. Her latest novel is The Many Lives of John Stone.

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