…Procrastinating (and Not Feeling Guilty Because You’re Doing it on a Computer)

Posted on June 2, 2008. Filed under: The Writing Life | Tags: , , , |

Writers by the dozen have complained online that blogging and social networking have prevented many a project from getting started, let alone finished; it seems to be part of our lament these days. But isn’t procrastination an inevitable, valuable, and much maligned part of the writing process? Didn’t writers long before the dawn of the computer age hem and haw just as much as we do now before finally getting on with it? Did James Joyce ever stall? Did Baudelaire? Or are previous writers of previous ages so great that they never went down to their favorite cafe to have a glass of absinthe and daydream instead of putting the pen to the page. 

The tools of procrastination have changed, true; but the fact of the habit has not. Today, we have Facebook, YouTube, Second Life, and our beloved WordPress. Back in the 19th century writers had letters written by hand, and instead of popping onto Skype to see long-lost friends in other lands they had to get on steam ships and travel for days or weeks at a time. While on those steamships they had to write postcards about the journey to all their friends back home—no doubt wonderful sources of procrastination from the work of writing one’s books!    

I’m not going to pretend that the computer doesn’t present us with the most colossal time-wasting opportunities ever known. But I do want to point out that time-wasting is an oft-forgotten part of the writers’ arsenal. If you didn’t procrastinate and avoid your writing work, think how many projects you might leap into wholeheartedly before you’re truly ready for them? If you jump on every single project bandwagon that comes along, and didn’t ever take the time to look away and gauge how you genuinely feel about it, how would you really know if it’s worth the umpteen drafts it will take to finish it? Would your completion rate for projects would be any higher if you didn’t procrastinate?

I’m not sure it would. I suspect that it would remain about the same, and that the completion rate for serious writers across the board has probably been about the same in modern times. I suspect that the percentage of writing that is pure crap has remained about the same, too. Steinbeck wrote crap. Austen wrote crap, although I revere her too much to admit that I just said so. Hemingway started things he didn’t finish. It’s the nature of the craft for us to throw away projects that aren’t working, and it’s the nature of the craft for us to avoid projects until we either find the right angle to enter into them (for that particular draft, at least) or absolutely have to write them because keeping our souls together depends on it. 

Yes, avoidance behaviors are bad if taken too far. But when you indulge in them, are you truly different from writers before the computer age who went to bullfights, cried in their rented rooms listening to opera, had public dalliances with the most disreputable elements of their society, etc.?—and who did it all in the name of procrastination?

We can’t pretend that there was some Golden Age when writers didn’t stall, because  every writer (save for the most saintly of us) does, has, and always will. I’d like to acknowledge that procrastination has a creative purpose we should understand and value. We need procrastination like would-be lovers need time between a first and second date, like runners need a break between marathons. The question is not whether we stall, but whether—when we declare an end to our stalling—we have the tenacity to get the words on the page right, one sentence at a time. 

And if we do, then who cares whether we stalled writing postcards on a 19th century steamship or in front of our computers, trying to learn Finnish in Second Life? The proof is in our work, not in the tools we use to procrastinate until we’re ready to do that work. 

Nobody, when you finally win that Nobel Prize, is going to give a rat’s bottom about how much time you spent on eBay. 

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