Monday, March 3, 2014

THE UPSIDE TO PROCRASTINATION

Recently, I read an interesting article that a friend had recommended in The Atlantic Monthly. It was by Megan McArdle and was called “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators”. McArdle began her article by saying, “Like most writers, I am an inveterate procrastinator. In the course of writing this one article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists, conducted a lengthy Twitter battle over whether the gold standard is actually the worst economic policy ever proposed, written Facebook messages to schoolmates I haven’t seen in at least a decade, invented a delicious new recipe for chocolate berry protein smoothies, and googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read.”
Except for her bent for shopping lists and inventing gourmet desserts (I just grab a scone or a piece of the vanilla pound cake my wife has kindly bought at the grocery), I couldn’t have identified more. McArdle goes on to say that she has, over the years, “developed a theory about why writers are such procrastinators: We were too good in English class.” She then adds, as a kind of caveat, “This sounds crazy, but hear me out.”
And her explanation makes sense. She holds that while English was one of the hardest classes for a lot of the other more “left-brained” kids, writerly types like us who spent hours reading literature because we liked to, were fond of how words went together, couldn’t resist a good story and didn’t mind getting down and dirty with sentence diagramming, were always ahead of the game in that department and could easily ace it.
He looked at me as if observing something uncommon but
not exceptional--say, an albino dung beetle...
This may have been truer in my case than in most since I couldn’t have been more “right-brained”. I recall after graduating high school driving down to Columbus to take the entry exams for the Ohio State University. After the grueling hours of examination and orientation, I was called off to the side by one of the scholarly-looking gents who was acting as a monitor and grader for the tests. He’d evidently had his eye out to discover who I was when the test results were put up.  I must have fractured some test curve because he asked my name, looked at me as if he were observing something uncommon but not exceptional—say, an albino dung beetle—and asked (rhetorically, as it turned out), “Do you realize that you are in the upper ninety-eight percentile in the United States in Language...” I beamed but he held up a staying hand, “...the upper ninety-five percentile in social sciences...” I continued to smile and blush, “the upper ninety percentile in history and current affairs...” at this point I was shuffling and somewhat nervously awaiting the punch line, “and the lower ten percentile in exact sciences?” (He clearly said this last with a question mark but it deserved a whole slew of exclamation points behind it as well). Then he said, with the cautious restraint and tense grimace of someone opening the lid of a box in which he or she might expect to find a time-bomb, “Tell me, what do you plan to study in college...” again he held up his hand to stop me from answering too quickly, “and please...please!...don’t tell me architecture or engineering?”

When I said my plan was to study music and literature, he almost swooned with relief, shook hands with me and said, “Good luck then, son!”
But back to Ms. McArdle’s theory: She says that after acing English throughout our school days without its ever being particularly hard for us, we suddenly find ourselves out in the world competing with all the other language nerds who are now professional writers. And suddenly, inevitably, we’re scared to death that we might not be up to the challenge. We are no longer even albino dung beetles, but part of an international guild with a top, a middle and a bottom. More than writer’s block, what attacks us when we sit down before the blank page or screen is the question of whether we’ll be up to the challenge of writing something worthy.  The fear, in other words, is that what we’ll write might simply not be very good. And that thought is a veritable nightmare. So, says McArdle, we stall...and stall...and stall...until the last minute, until we’re hot on a deadline and the fear of writing nothing at all overcomes the fear of writing something not so hot.

In some of the most commercially effective writers, this constant fear of failure to create the perfect story manifests itself merely as a mildly neurotic nature. In others, like, say, Hemingway or Bukowski, it seems to lead to hard work with brilliant results juxtaposed with unbridled alcoholism and self-destructive behavior. In still others, gentle, private souls like, say, the great Harper Lee, it spells a single brilliant coming-of-age novel and then a lifetime of silence.
I think one of the first five-syllable words I ever learned was “pro-cras-ti-na-tion”. The thing is, it was written on many of my grade-school report cards—in the space reserved for teachers’ comments—pretty much from first grade on. Sometimes it was accompanied by other descriptive qualifiers such as lazy, indolent, day-dreamer, excuse-maker, inattentive, under-achiever, etc. Teachers were often mildly or sometimes even very actively and vocally irritated with me for this. I wish I had a dollar for every time one of them told my mother, “Dan is so intelligent, but also so very lazy. It’s a shame! He doesn’t even try!” If he did, he’d be brilliant!
One teacher disagreed. She figured I was just a dunce.
There was one teacher who disagreed. She figured I was just a dunce. She told me as much once. I had her for a teacher two years in grade school—with one year off for good behavior in between. At the start of the second year, I wanted to make a commitment from the outset. I went to her on the first day and said, “Mrs. X, I just want you to know that you won’t have any trouble with me this year. I plan to buckle down and not get behind. In fact, I plan to get straight-A’s.”
She laughed a bitter, cynical laugh and said, “Well, you might as well not even bother trying for that, Dan. You’ll never be a straight-A student. It’s not in you to be one. Some pupils are no better than average. You aren’t cut out to be top of your class. Besides, you’re left-handed and lefties are at a disadvantage from the outset. They’re under-achievers and usually just not as smart as right-handed people.

A few years later when my interest in art, music, writing and the biographies of famous people became more acute, I wanted to go back to her and ask—politely, mind you—if she’d been dropped on her head during teacher-training, since, obsessed as I was about being a southpaw after that (and even before because teachers were always clucking their tongues over my “messy handwriting”), I was always interested to know which hand the famous people I read about favored.  Artists Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael, famed humanist and missionary Dr. Albert Schweitzer, award-winning radio and television journalist Edward R. Murrow (although in the fashion of the time he had been broken of writing with his left hand), writers H.G. Wells, Franz Kafka and Eudora Welty, as well as a multitude of other renowned over-achievers...all left-handed.
However, about my tendency to put off until tomorrow...and tomorrow...and tomorrow...what I should be doing today, she and other frustrated educators through whose hands I passed during those twelve years of grade school, junior high and high school had a definite point. But it wouldn’t surprise any of them to hear that I have an excuse for that too. For the first five of those years I was handicapped by poor eyesight, which, oddly enough, nobody seemed to notice—least of all myself because I’d never known any other way of seeing and thought everybody saw that way. That would tend to explain what teachers referred to as my “inattentiveness”. Any normally sighted person who has reached forty or forty-five and suddenly felt increasing disinterest in reading the newspaper or looking up telephone numbers or reading a book instead of watching something they’ve seen a hundred times already on TV, only to discover that they need reading glasses because, as part of the aging process, they are becoming far-sighted will understand what I’m talking about. The tendency isn’t to say, “Boy! I’ve simply got to go get some specs because I can’t see for crap!” It is, instead, to “lose interest” in anything that you need perfect vision for, to put off whatever it is for as long as you can, or to duck it completely until it finally becomes impossible to ignore the problem any longer.
That’s what happened to me in the first five years of grade school, while I unwittingly struggled with my impaired eyesight. I had a great deal of trouble seeing what the teacher wrote on the blackboard. It was like hieroglyphics to me, even when I sat up front. And that never lasted long because I would get bored to death from the strain of trying to see the teacher’s hen-scratchings on the slate at the front of the room and would start whispering or passing notes to my neighbors and distracting them as well, until I was ultimately asked to sit at the back of the class for the rest of the year. From that vantage point, the effort of making out what the teacher was writing on the board was rendered futile, which meant that while I was still trying to figure out what the words on the board said, the teacher was erasing them and moving on to the next point.
In all that time, however, I never lost my avid interest in reading. Left to my own devices, I could take as long as I wished to read a book and could adjust the distance at which I read it so as to accommodate my sight as best I could often closing one eye to compensate for a double astigmatism. And also left to my own devices, it got so that I read what I wanted to read more than what was assigned, or even in addition to what was assigned, but without sticking to any lesson plan whatsoever.
It was the summer after fifth grade that my vision problem was finally diagnosed. That summer—the last one in which I didn’t have a job of one kind or another—I spent either hanging out at the public swimming pool or reading books. I read in the morning, spent the afternoon at the pool then read some more. And since it was summer and there was no school to worry about, I would also stay up late at night reading as well. By mid-summer I had developed a condition known as “granulated eyelids”—a series of tiny blisters on the underside of the lid that makes it feel as if a pinch of coarse sand has been tossed into each eye with every blink.
My mother figured it was from the chlorine in the pool water (no red-blooded American boy back then would have been caught dead wearing goggles in the pool) but when, for the first time in my life, she took me to the eye doctor, he declared the cause to be severe eye-strain, said my vision was clearly impaired, and immediately prescribed corrective lenses. And when I went back for the fitting some days later, the doctor said, “You need to wear these all the time, okay, not just for reading.”

Glasses opened up a whole new world of visual perception for me and made learning a much less exhausting process. But by then, my unusual study habits were formed, and I’d been getting away with their results for years. I would gallop through the textbooks on my own in the first part of the year, take notes in class and listen carefully to what the teacher had to say and that was enough to get a passing grade. That meant I seldom did any but written homework and that I spent a lot more time on my own reading and writing than I did on schoolwork. Since I’d been convinced from the outset that I was incapable of straight-A’s, I never strived for them and lived perfectly well with B’s and C’s, giving all of my real effort, instead, to learning to play music and write stories.  
When I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, while still in my twenties, I decided I was going to find a way to write for a living. After banging my head against the wall for a while trying to land a job with one of the major international agencies or publications, I ended up badgering the managing editor of the local English-language newspaper (which was already building a worldwide name for itself as a paladin of human rights) until he finally, reluctantly, gave me a thirty-day trial. I ended up working for the daily for the next 13 years and eventually became its managing editor, before deciding to go free lance. Let me just state, for the record, that nowhere can a writer learn more about getting busy and getting done with things than in a daily newspaper.
When I first started there, however, I found myself going through all of my "writerly" procrastination processes, because I knew no other way to work. The editor, a procrastinator himself, knew precisely what was going on and said, "For chrissake, Dan! You have got to come right in and get down to it! Just dig in and get it done! We've got about six or seven hours a night to write a paper. There's no time for messing about!"
So I learned to work fast, really fast, sometimes as much as three thousand or three thousand five hundred words a night between writing and translation (and still found time to procrastinate a little). The night desk editor had a rule of his own, a sort of news quality rule of thumb, which posited that “what is utterly unacceptable at 6 p.m. may be deemed sublime at 11:30.”
But some years later, when I moved up and became an editorial writer and columnist, I learned to handle my editorial executive duties early on in the afternoon and evening, and leave the writing for later. Soon, I was right back to my same old writer's game, while, of course, jumping all over the younger writers for not getting the lead out. In this position, I was no longer expected to put out such a heavy load of wordage and in the meantime, I had learned to put word to page with lightning speed. One well-written piece a night was all anyone could expect of a good writer. But real writing time was, perhaps, two hours. The rest was spent reading up, drinking coffee, talking to colleagues about unrelated topics, going out for a quick drink and a quick sandwich with a friend, coming back and catching up on correspondence, and finally, under the gun like nobody's business, knocking out what I'd been writing in my head all day and all night and editing it to fit the hole that had been left for me to fill.
Still, clear through my middle years, I felt guilty about procrastination. It was my dirty little secret, sort of like being a secret morphine addict or wearing lifts to look taller might be for somebody else. I thought it diminished me as a person and a writer, that it made me damaged goods somehow. In very recent years, however (almost too late for it to make any real difference), I've come to terms with procrastination and accepted it as part of an inevitable process. It’s the first time I’ve said that out loud and in public, mainly because it sounds so vain and lame and "artistic" that it makes me want to puke (which as some of us know is also sometimes part of the writing process) that I really never wanted to own up to the fact that there even was a process. But there is...and for most writers, systematically “wasting” time seems to be a big part of it.

While I tend to agree that the fear of writing nothing at all has to surpass the fear of writing something horrible before many of us can write (another reason writers ask for criticism but are then crushed when it's not what they wanted to hear), I don't believe that this means good writers will always write something less worthy by procrastinating until a few scant hours before the deadline. On the contrary, I think that if many of us didn't play the waiting game and dashed something off as soon as it was assigned, it might very well...er...suck. For while we're fretting, writing unnecessary and inconsequential posts about Atlantic Monthly articles, complaining about not being understood and crying about how much more recognition we should have had than we've been given, we are also—even if subconsciously—running phrases over in our heads, finding a stance on our subject, flirting with research sources, finding a point of view and voice for what we're about to write, and convincing ourselves that we might actually be something like qualified to write on the subject assigned (despite our constant self-doubt) and it's only once we've done all this that we are anywhere near ready to put word to page or screen.

The trick, then, is to turn procrastination from a fault into a craft. And I plan to get started on that first thing tomorrow...or the next day...

10 comments:

Joe Ballweg said...

Really enjoyed this one Dan! Since you probably started writing it months ago, it has procrastinated into an excellent piece. My special expertise in procrastination is in making decisions. I'm sure I belong to the upper percentile in waiting till the last minute to make the right decision.

Dan Newland said...

Thanks Joe! Geez, I know what you mean. And sometimes my decisions end up being no decision at all, which on some occasions can save you, but on others can fill you with regret.

Haydee said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this one!!

Dan Newland said...

Thanks so much for reading it Haydee.

Jane Maley said...

Your link between your vision (eyesight) and your vision (inner direction) are wonderful and so true. Looking back, there are so many children (hey you, Fog Boy, said Mr. O'Black to a certain minister's son) who are dreaming and thinking and having that private life of a thinker. My brother-in-law is a writer and a first class procrastinator and I can't wait for him to write a book. He is raising two little kids right now but he will get there eventually. Hugs to you and Virginia.

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for a wonderful comment, Jane. You're right, I think, about the paradox between a writer's being someone who, on the one hand, is always dying for recognition, but on the other is an intensely private and cerebral person who needs a great deal of time to him or herself, a lot of time just to sit and think. From the outside, to a lot of others, that comes off as distraction,as lack of attention, as "living in a fog", as the ever witty but less than sensitive Mr. O'Black surmised.
Thanks as always for reading what I write, Jane, and for your ever-insightful comments. A big hug back.

paul toth said...

This was such a timely read for me. As Dan knows, I've been digging for niches when apparently I would have been better digging ditches. Now at 49, and with no self-care that would suggest an even average lifespan, I feel nearly torn to shreds, like a bird blowing apart in the wind of its own wings, as I race in this direction, then that, selling out for three days, going back to my more artistic sensibility for a day, needing money but wasting day after day chasing it. I happened to have read the same Atlantic article not long ago and generally agree. "Oh, I'm not the only one who can score A's on essays about books I never bothered reading?" I think one also reaches a certain tough and cynical core that demands to be heard: "There may be many more of us than I imagine, but I'm going to write myself right out of your league, and I'll kill myself doing it, if necessary." Now that drive is doubled. "I'll kill myself trying to make a decent living if it kills me!" But despite all the rejections and lack of audience, whenever I slowly stop spinning in circles, I know I will land in Birdland, with just a little of the spirit of Coltrane, reinventing jazz and himself right out of existence. Because that's where the bird image I described originated. I was listening to some of Coltrane's late period works, and the image of a bird shredding apart in the speed of its own trajectory simply appeared, short of a hallucination but much more than a daydream. For me, procrastination is a sense of torn and ripped up priorities and possibilities, of trying to wear so many hats that they all fall off my head, and knowing that if in the end I choose art over commerce, it's going to cost me everything. I'm procrastinating because death is demanding more, more, more and faster, faster, faster. How does one slow down when the sense of time running out become a major part of one's consciousness? Something in me tells me there's at least one more novel, but to write it, I'm gonna have to dig ditches and bleed everywhere, spitting up my own organs like oversized seeds with no growth left in them. But still the wind distributes them. I am procrastinating the work that will kill me in favor of another kinds that threatens the same. "So what do you want to die for?" Answer that, I tell myself, and this civil war of the self will end in time to pay my right to a piece of peace of mind. Great piece, Dan.

Dan Newland said...

Paul said: "For me, procrastination is a sense of torn and ripped up priorities and possibilities, of trying to wear so many hats that they all fall off my head, and knowing that if in the end I choose art over commerce, it's going to cost me everything."

Paul, my friend, I get this. I get it where it counts and bleed for and with you.

Murr Brewster said...

I'm interested in and curious about this, because I am a person who essentially procrastinated about writing anything at all until I was in my mid-fifties. All the while I was turning phrases in my head and writing doggerel for office parties and retirements and colonoscopies and what-have-you...and now, possibly because my twice-a-week self-imposed blog schedule has released the hounds, I can't stop writing. I have no block at all. In fact, I wrote what I consider a pretty cool novel and barely tried to get representation for it before quitting that and starting another novel, because that process interested me more. I do remember back when I was actively trying to write (poetry) as a very young adult I ran into a cliff with it. Soothed myself with alcohol, took up a decent career that left my mind free whenever I punched out for the day, and now I'm a machine. Everyone's different, that's what I know for sure. Salut Sweetheart!

Dan Newland said...

Salut back, Murr! And thanks so much for commenting.
I can really identify with your process as a writer. I've often wondered if my creative writing process might have been a lot quicker had I stayed in the Army after the three-year hitch I did in the early '70s. (At least I wouldn't still to be concerned about how to continue to make a living in my mid-sixties). And never have I had a more relaxed schedule than in the service. I've often said that the most "bohemian lifestyle" I ever had was during my last two years in the Army--particularly the last 14 months, which I spent in Europe.
That said, despite having made my living, one way or another, by writing for the last 40 years, it's only now, in my mid-sixties that I'm getting down to fiction and creative non-fiction in any real sense, and like you, I have no idea what writer's block is. I've been formulating ideas and phrases and outlines and stories for so long that I could write 12 hours a day from now until my shadow sets me free and barely scratch the surface.
People like us are, then, the kings and queens of procrastination, which, in the end, isn't so much "putting off" as it getting ready to rock our socks off.