I've been trying to get round to doing a blog post all day. I've been terribly busy. Well, sort of. Well, you know - my PhD can't drag on forever. Well, once I got into it, yes, I did get some done. A bit. I didn't really spend all that much time playing Solitaire. Only while I was waiting for the kettle to boil. Each time. Yes, it's my fifteenth cup. And the phone kept ringing. Well, a couple of times. Then the children came back from school. They both vanished into their rooms, but well, you know, I like to be around...
I don't suppose there's a writer on the planet who hasn't found themselves procrastinating at some point. Journalists are famous for turning in copy at the last possible minute, and it's not always because they're chasing up some hot story which would make Ed Murrow jealous. The annals of book publishing are full of the great novels whose deadlines came and went, over and over again. At Goldsmiths the Counselling Service even run procrastination workshops, which look awfully like a lovely way to put off writing your essay.
But it's not really a joke, it's deadly serious. Contracts have been cancelled, exams failed and livelihoods lost because of it. Books have been less good and sold less well because they were written in a desperate scramble. It's not as if the procrastinator even enjoys the time they're not Getting On With It, because finding something really fun to do instead would be admitting that they're not writing. And what's most difficult to understand, for the writer themself and the people on whose shoulder they cry, is that writing is something they chose to do. Goodness knows there are easier ways of trying to earn part of a living, so get on with it. It's not that hard, just sit down and get on with it. (Maybe that's one reason we so hate the fellow guest who'd love to write a novel if they could only find the time to sit down) You just lack moral fibre, pull your socks up and get on with it. Well you can't really be a writer, can you? Or you'd be writing.
Paul Schrader, who wrote among other things the script of Taxi Driver, once said of human behaviour, 'Causes are particular, symptoms are universal.' It's counter-intuitive, but I think it's often true: there are a million different things which make different people lose their temper, but what their anger looks and sounds like is much the same. And so it is with procrastination. Across the nation there are a million writers, published and unpublished, scrubbing out dustbins and re-cataloguing their CDs, because of something that's churning away on the borders of their conscious and their unconcious. It could be a million different somethings. Here are some:
I don't think it's working but I don't know what to do about it.
My first novel was so easy. It just poured out of me. What's wrong with this one?
If I write it this way it'll be just like all the ones in the shops.
If I write it that way no one will buy it.
This agent woman said the market's bored with light historical.
That writing tutor said long sentences are old fashioned.
This is hard. I'll just play some solitaire till I know what to do.
I don't deserve to do something which doesn't earn money/care for the children/make the house better/make the world better/interest my spouse.
They wouldn't have given me a contract if they'd known I can't really write: now they're going to find out.
My father didn't pay for all that education just so I could sit upstairs scribbling things that'll never get published.
My mother re-washes every plate and mug before she uses them, because she says she can see I don't have time to do it properly any more.
All my friends are so great, they're just dying for the next chapter.
None of my friends understood the last chapter.
She says she doesn't like books with letters in them.
My friends think I'm showing off by not coming to the pub instead.
My friends will hate me if I get published.
My friends will despise me if I don't get published.
Now I've got to do it, I'm being paid. Just like homework.
I'll never pull it off again. That was fluke. I'm a useless writer really.
My father's so proud of me: what if he really guessed?
But what if my mother ever reads it?
The other thing is that using your brain for real, hard thinking uses up surprising amounts of energy. I'm not talking metaphorically: as Daniel Kahneman describes in Thinking Fast and Slow, people who have done extended mental work have very depleted blood sugar at the end. Writing is hard work. And we're evolutionarily adapted to avoid hard work if it's possible.