Robert Hanks has written beautifully about procrastination for the London Review of Books, though one may gather it took him rather long to do so. The piece was originally commissioned as a profile of Richard Hughes, which Hanks seems to have put off to the point of it being killed and reworked as a paean to procrastination. The piece is full of remarkably sensitive wisdom on the nature of writing, and making an enemy of oneself. He writes, “All I hear are admonitions to stick at your desk and keep sweating, but any writer can tell you that if you sit on an idea long enough the fun goes out of it,” and “Perhaps we indulge in the irrational, the self-harming, because we want to harm ourselves and we crave irrationality – it’s self-flagellation, or resistance to a reason or reasons we find oppressive.”
Hanks says his own procrastination is a manifestation of anxiety and depression–that, when it comes down to it, he’s too afraid or sad to do anything. But frightened of what? One’s future self seemingly working forever? Another fall season of endless work days and social obligations that are really also work obligations?
I was surprised (and slightly terrified) to hear that Hanks’s procrastination worsened in middle age. Writers, how do you deal with procrastination? Has it gotten better over the years?
Hanks’s piece is in partial below, the full version here.
When I hear other people talking about procrastination, I find myself getting proprietorial: surely their fleeting pauses are as nothing to mine. Procrastination is the main way I express anxiety and depression, if I can use these medicalised, dignifying terms. It’s franker to say that I put things off because much of the time I’m frightened and sad (too frightened and sad for procrastination to be enough of an outlet: I also have an array of psychosomatic symptoms: rashes, headaches and stomach disorders – not that the line between procrastination and illness is necessarily sharp, if it’s there at all). I can remember putting off projects at primary school – chronically illegible handwriting as much as anything, I think – and a reluctance to put things down on paper dogged me through school and university; learning to type didn’t stop it pursuing me into a career in newspapers, an industry helpfully rife with deadlines and consequences, which meant that I was always forced to produce something in the end. Still the procrastination persisted, and as I eased into middle age it got worse. Every task took longer than it should have, and felt less finished. Other things got pushed back; I failed to make phone calls, send letters and emails, do household chores, repair things, turn up for things, fulfil promises. The career drifted away around 2009. Against a background of falling circulations, vanishing revenues and global financial crisis, I can’t make out how far my difficulties with deadlines were a factor – a lot of newspaper careers were drifting away back then – but I remember a lot of uncomfortable conversations with editors.
Job gone, I sat around trying to write, managing bits and pieces, but earning very little. And then my marriage drifted away too, leaving me, in Alan Partridge’s phrase, clinically fed-up boo-hoo. My wife, having said she would leave, took two and a half years to find a way of doing it – there is a small consolation in not being the only procrastinator in the relationship. While this was going on the LRB commissioned me to write about Richard Hughes, who wrote A High Wind in Jamaica. I like Hughes and it seemed like a job I could get on with. I cheerfully settled to the research, reading the novels I hadn’t read, rereading the ones I had. Then I started writing, or that’s what I told myself: some paragraphs, some sentences, a sketch of a plan, then some rewriting, rearranging, scrubbing, more rewriting, more scrubbing, pauses to reconsider. Then I did some more research: the short stories, the children’s stories, the poems and plays, the journalism, Richard Perceval Graves’s biography, then back to the rewriting …
Hughes himself was notoriously unproductive – four novels of variously uneven brilliance over 45 years or so. After A High Wind in Jamaica, it took him nearly ten years to produce In Hazard; then a gap of 23 years before The Fox in the Attic (the nominal focus of my piece), which was conceived as a self-contained story but ended up as the first volume of a trilogy: getting started is half the problem; knowing when to stop is the other. The second volume, The Wooden Shepherdess, took another 12 years and, though it has its moments, feels messy and unresolved; 12 chapters into the third volume, ill-health forced him to give up writing for good. It seems to me that Hughes wanted to be a writer more than he wanted to write; the difference isn’t always obvious, even to the person doing the wanting, and talent, which you feel ought to be a clue, may be a red herring. During the war, he became an effective civil servant at the Admiralty, and turned down an offer to stay on – how dreadful to admit that bureaucracy is your true vocation. I’m tempted by the idea that Hughes set me a bad example, but it’s not as if I needed one. At any rate, I wasn’t writing anything else; and after a while I wasn’t writing this. I began to wonder whether it made any sense to think of myself as a writer at all, though I didn’t have anything else to offer people who asked me what I did. The Hughes piece became a rather uneasy joke between me and the LRB, eventually giving way to an admission of defeat.