The Power of Procrastination

The Power of Procrastination

Procrastination. The scoundrel’s got a rather sullied rep, wouldn’t you agree? His very name is synonymous in most minds with laziness and lethargy. We heap blame upon his head while simultaneously medaling The Muse, but ... what if Procrastination is in fact our friend, and an ally in her absence (essentially the lack of that all-important drug, inspiration)?

There are several schools of thought on managing one’s work ethic as an artist, but for the most part, we can bottleneck this conundrum into the following binary:

  1. An artist should be diligent and approach their creative endeavors as crafts in which one lunch-pails their way to completion. Put your ass in the chair and fucking write, for example. Or—
  2. Create only when one feels the urge, staying true to one's instincts and communing with The Muse all the while. If you’re not feeling that creative lightning strike—fuck it! Go make a margarita, or re-string that tennis racket, or taxidermy that Jackalope, or, heaven forbid, spend some time with a person you love.

A great many professional writers are and were fans of the former tactic. Raymond Chandler famously gave us his own twist on it: “Write, or do nothing else.” He meant it, literally allowing himself to do nothing else should he have chosen to not write during his allotted hours. In his day, this was surely easier to accomplish, as he didn’t wallow in the deep sea of digital distractions we do—but the point was that he was only offering himself those two options: to create, or to be bored in the truest sense. He could look out the window at the same staid scenery, or he could pace the floorboards of his writing space—but he was not to leave the room, go on a walk, take a nap, converse with friends, engage in coitus or heavy petting, read a newspaper, take in a movie or a ballgame, or listen to the transistor radio or any of the other pastimes people in simpler times occupied themselves with.

A reasonable enough way for the disciplined writer to approach his craft, I suppose—but many writers don’t even give themselves the daily “out” of boredom. They are sticklers, highly-disciplined keyboarder Keystoners who commit themselves to mandatory word or page counts.

Maybe this is you. If so: Godspeed.

While I have tried like hell to work in such a manner, I must admit I find myself a welcome practitioner of the latter of the above-offered binaries—and not simply because it requires less perceived effort. I'm joined by a great many others who often decry the ritualistic yeoman page count approach to writing (or any other creative pursuit in which inspiration is a factor, of course) as wasted energy that risks producing pale, lifeless work. As Billy Wilder brilliantly deadpanned to Jack Warner when the tyrannical studio magnate—who, at hearing no trademark ticking of Underwood keys burst into Wilder’s bungalow only to find Wilder asleep on the couch with a folded newspaper over his face to blot out the penetrating sunlight—bellowed, “What are you doing, I’m paying you ten grand a week to be writing!”

“I am writing. Later, I’ll be typing.”

Isaac Asimov coined the term “The Eureka Phenomenon” to encapsulate his own method for ameliorating brain blockage—if his mind was stuck on something, blocked, or a thought dangled on the tip of his tongue, only to retreat, he would set about doing other menial, unrelated tasks like washing the dishes or taking a bath or what have you, and only then in the emptiness of the mindless act would his subconscious be clear to do the lifting and zap back into his stilted cortex that which he was earlier grasping for. Eureka!

At times, the same can be surely be said with writing, in the Wilder sense (meaning not the mere act of typing but creative construction, the type of which takes place in our minds before etching a word in stone) … if you are stuck on a plot point, a story turn, a character motivation or whatever it is, you can sit like Chandler, dared by the damned keys, or you might ought to get up and go mow the lawn or walk the dog. In doing so, be struck with the Bolt of Eureka, and hence become unstuck before running to jot down whatever it was that occurred to you (and get some chores out of the way while you’re at it—a great irony being that such nagging “real world” tasks and responsibilities going undone is so often the very source of our creative resistance in the first place). Though, I must admit, I make it a point to make my thoughtful procrastination solitary tasks for the most part—it's hard to ruminate while someone fills your ear with talk, small or big, and you do your companions a disservice by not really being present for them as well. A walk of my dog Kubrick with my seven year-old son in tow will not bear the same creative fruit as a walk with the mutt alone.

Then, of course, there is the matter of the dreaded Deadline.

While interviewing Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society) on the podcast Hard Out that I run with my brother Chris, we asked him which camp he falls into: is he a “pantser,” who lurks like Chandler at his desk until the work is done, or more prone to let things gestate for days/weeks/months on end until they erupt? His answer: though he aspires to be the former, he is in fact the latter—even when it comes to a contractual gig with a hard deadline. He described idealistic notions of landing an assignment and thinking he will get to work on it immediately, chiseling away at it so he’s comfortably within closing distance when the big day approaches. Invariably, he finds himself in a state of extended, thoughtful procrastination followed by mad, inspirational cramming at the keyboard until the zero hour—but alluded that the adrenaline rush from being in such a state carries him through the harried process and brings an inspirational energy impossible to replicate in the daily grinding.

Been there, done that.

Countless powerhouse screenwriters and novelists have talked about this, idling for months at a time, fucking off (to the eye of the uninitiated) until one day peering at the calendar’s red-circled deadline looming and a panic sets in, lighting a fire under their asses to the point that they rip out a script or novel in a matter of mere weeks (if not days) or months.

Now, dear reader, you and the Camp One lunch-pailers who put in routine mandatory time on your tomes might wonder: does this slipshod method not result in an inferior level of quality?

It’s a valid concern, but not necessarily ... and one could even argue the counter. Again, it depends on what you’ve been procrastinating on—the writing, or the typing? Make no mistake, when Tom Schulman talks about waiting until the last minute to write a commissioned screenplay, he is talking for the most part about assembling it and typing it. There might be a few things to still figure out on the fly, but he’s been living with the idea, percolating, constantly thinking about it in both his conscious and subconscious minds. The Deadline (or rather—the embarrassment of not delivering on the job, the want of that next step payment, etc.) has incentivized him to finally sit down and pound it all out.

I myself have found that a similar approach can lead to some inspired writing and literary wordsmithing. Once all of the heavy lifting has been done—the thinking, the plotting, the construction of character and story, the ruminating on theme, the choice of a tonal railway you’d like to adhere to—it can be much easier to achieve a true flowstate in the actual typing of the work than if you’re constantly having to stop mid-sentence or paragraph or dialogue exchange to acquaint yourself with your own intentions.

You have game-planned extensively for the fight, and now you can express yourself artistically in the cage when the bell rings, to use a martial metaphor.

To this end, even Chandler’s method probably allows for some amount of thoughtful procrastination. After all, all he’s really advocating for is mandatory time dedicated to the work—a window in which to focus your mind and body to the story at hand. He never insists you write, or type—only that you don’t do anything else if you elect not to.

But if you’re the type of writer who prefers to bottle up all of these intentions and well-honed thoughts in order to later explode and commit them all to paper or clay or canvas in an inspired artistic fit … feel free to “anything else” your ass off, so long as you find yourself still doing the dirty work in your head away from the keyboard or kiln or easel. Walk that critter (and use it as an opportunity to think on your glaring plot hole in Act Two). Do those dirty dishes (and make your spouse happy while simultaneously coming up with a compelling backstory for your co-lead). Fuck … smoke a bowl, go on a bender, play "Call of Duty" until the sun comes up, binge-watch "Murder She Wrote" reruns, take a hot bath, help an old lady with her groceries, pick your nose—do whatever the hell you want, so long as you’re letting your mind work on that story.

If you find yourself never thinking of this story or project or piece while doing these other things the non-creative would scold as laziness-induced procrastination from the task at hand, remind them that procrastination is only a dirty word when you’re putting off utilitarian work that requires no rumination. You don’t need to think deeply and play out a thousand chess matches in your head to rake the leaves—but you do to conceive the spine of a novel.

And don't forget to remind yourself that if you’re not obsessed with it and finding yourself thinking of it often (if not almost always) while away from the keyboard, you’re probably telling the wrong tale in the first place!

As we pull into port on this, as much as I would caution my fellow creatives against looking at procrastination (or what appears to be procrastination to non-creatives) in creative endeavors as a bad thing, I would caution mightily against its counter: what we might call PRE-crastination. Sitting down and hammering away at some underdeveloped idea that you’re not all-in on, for example. Half-baked concepts with rushed, sloppy, underdeveloped execution that was compromised by adherence to some arbitrary, self-imposed word or page count. We’ve all read those scripts or books. Hell, many of us have written them! Again, this isn’t vacuuming or cleaning blinds we're talking about. It's creating Art* (even commerce-corrupted art, like a screenplay).

Just because you’re not typing or hitting your page count or it doesn't appear you’re “working” to the uninitiated (or yourself, if you’re the self-flagellating type)—to hell with them(/you)! It doesn’t mean you’re not making legitimate progress, assuming you’re steeped in thought and mentally exploring it ... it just means that you’ll get to the typing later.

*An Afterthought: While I am obviously an advocate of thoughtful procrastination, if being prolific is of utmost import in your creative aspirations (which, realistically, is often essential if one wants to make a living at their art), you may want to balance the ruminate/action scales more in the favor of typing (action). If that is the case, perhaps consider adopting a more formula-based style which lessens the creative burden by way of demanding less rumination and hence creative procrastination. Or ... perhaps I'm full of shit and this entire piece has been a semi-creative procrastination of my own to avoid the challenge of creating another original story from scratch because the Muse hasn't been around lately, and I should shut up and fuck off for wasting both your time and mine.

Not that you're not procrastinating by reading this, hypocrite. ;)

*Feature photo by Engin Akyurt (Pexels)

As one half of The Thornton Brothers—along with his bro Chris—Jay's a filmmaker (Cactus Jack), writer, podcaster (Hard Out), binge eater, gadfly, and non-practicing humanist. Repped at Rosa and UTA.
More posts by Jay Thornton.
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