Creative Procrastination

What if, in some measurable sense, those tasks and duties we describe as soul-destroying actually did degrade our spirit? Of course they do, you might respond – though there’s no such thing as the soul, you might then continue. Hold onto that metaphysical scepticism – you may need it later.

Writers, and what the supposedly non-creative corner of the world likes to call ‘Creatives’, like to complain about the damage done to the imagination by the 9 to 5. But we all know that some aspects of our day-job can be deeply fulfilling, and some just aren’t. Some tasks are part of the vocation, and some part of the vexation.

We also know that, in every day, at every moment, there is an opportunity to slack off, to browse emails or whatever social network you belong to, to open a book and ‘check’ that ‘reference’, to swing past that shop with the thing – you know, the thing you’re definitely going to buy one day, but for now it’s sufficient just to look. 

We all know we can just sit on a bench staring up at the sky/out to sea/at nothing in particular. We can call up our pal or partner or parent or kid and pester them about something they secretly don’t mind us rattling on about. We can do the washing up that doesn’t need washing up now, the tidying that we would tackle more efficiently at the weekend. We can ‘just look’ at the garden. We can ‘just see’ if there’s a mediocre Western on the telly. 

It’s called procrastination, of course, and thought of as a minor sin of omission, so we try to keep it to a minimum – we are equally aware we should be doing our work, solidly, for eight specified hours of the five day week. Except, of course, apart from a few unfortunate souls, long since lost down the howling corridors of ceaseless reports – Terminators built from paperclips who absolutely will not stop filing – nobody actually does. 

Here’s where the metaphysics comes back in. A workplace, a world, based around ‘should’ never needs to examine the merits or otherwise of what actually happens. In a very basic sense, ‘should’-based thinking ignores the reality of our psychologies while trying nevertheless to work with real people. You can see the problem – but a ‘should’-based thinker won’t.

However, the writer has had as a matter of course to come to terms with what they really do, because that’s where their creativity is located. You just can’t write a novel or play or poem that’s any good because you’re supposed to. You need a more engaging motive, like obsession or starvation.

This need is based on a fundamental difference between attitude and sensibility, between ‘should’ and ‘may’. You can have all sorts of trenchant opinions about what writing or creativity should or shouldn’t be – many do – but a sensibility requires us to test those opinions, that attitude, against the senses and the instincts, to achieve acuity through practice, to acquire skill through repetition, to find out what we may actually accomplish. It takes years to train the self to compose regularly, to express and communicate meaningfully, and even then it may just prefer to do so at odd times of day or night. 

Those backed into an absolute corner by their other duties may have to put up with the inefficiencies of not practising their craft enough: hesitant, substandard work, or even insecure logorrhoea – just as messy as it sounds. (Of course, for many, particularly for many women, this is not merely a matter of balancing the job with the need for self-expression, but, for the moment, let’s stick with our professional rather than our domestic responsibilities.)

The writer trying to maintain both craft and career is always already defending the ‘real work’ against the ‘work work’ – even or especially when they think of that other work as a parallel or contiguous vocation. The resourceful writer therefore soon comes to terms with the inevitable realities of their position, understanding the need for both a more relaxed form of discipline, and a less punitive attitude toward apparent indiscipline. 

After all, if you’re writing all the hours God gives and the Devil doesn’t demand, you can’t get too fixated on that old 9 to 5. And if you understand the circuitous routes along which good ideas like to take their own sweet time to come, then you also know there’s such a thing as creative procrastination.

Sometimes you just have to let nothing much occur, to fail to achieve anything in particular. Something is working something out and, even though it’s neither maths nor rocket science, you will distract it by trying to help. We recognise this by a variety of symptoms including guilt. A shiftless shiftiness comes over us, an inability to get going at anything, to tick things off the Good Dog List, and we understand we have to ignore the deadlines, to drift for a while, be rudderless regardless of where the rocks are and where the current is taking us.

Stupid, almost mindless tasks demand our attention; hours or days pass – sometimes, at a still-deeper level of do-nothing, months and years are sliding by. An instinct takes over – something we may struggle to explain to those people who call us ‘Creative’, who are most likely to be intolerant of this fecklessness. Then we know we must fritter and wait, engines idle, in the hope that the work will come, and in the faith that it will justify what may appear to everyone else, and sometimes especially to us, to have been a complete waste of time.

Getting the balance right between duty and irresponsibility may mean you can attempt a meaningful, peculiarly pragmatic life. Getting it wrong leads to guilt, stasis, and a very particular uptight despair. Which is pretty much the expression you see throughout the non-creative workplace, the Office of Should Trading. 

So you must defend yourself on a daily basis, like those ads which advise women to defend their skin or take their vits, because we know advertising is really about papering over the cracks caused by just such frustrations of the spirit. 

For every duty there needs to be an equal and opposite game. For every piece of jargon a joke. For every tedious task a pleasurable period of actual creation. For every check-list a childishness. ‘Play’ is the operative term here. It’s the equivalent of a pocket sketchbook (in fact, buy yourself a pocket sketchbook, download an artist app). It’s like having a guitar in the corner of your office plugged into an amplifier in your head. It’s like having a grand piano in the corner of your head: you must practise your scales and your ar-pegg-i-os. 

It’s about imposing an equals sign where the work environment sees none. The necessary task equals space to draft – make time for both, without staying up all night, or working every weekend. Make the more tedious chore kick its heels for a bit; replace what the system is taking out of you with what you need to resist it. Procrastinate, but procrastinate creatively, efficiently, with subtlety. Procrastinate to feed your head (this does not mean take hallucinogens at work).  

On average, in order to do what I think of as both my jobs, I work 10 hour days, 6 day weeks, and, saving the Daft Days and birthdays or afternoons at the beach, pretty much through the holidays. And I know of plenty like me, who may therefore have earned the right to push a few deadlines and not to get too jumpy about other people’s punctuality fixations.

So if you are ever in a position to discuss the terms of your employ and it’s not for disciplinary reasons – writers sometimes find in residency work, for instance, that their employers don’t actually know what to do with them, and a few are humble enough to ask – suggest that a clear creative goal for you, and time to accomplish it, could be part of the project. 

Suggest that you may advance the creativity of others better if there’s dedicated space to nurture and develop your own. Suggest that by doing so you’ll all be contributing toward a sense of community, rather than continuing the ‘should’ hegemony by which a Creative may know a little but Teacher knows best, while our bosses somehow know better still. Integrate creative procrastination into the workplace.

Do this because otherwise you may be giving up a working knowledge of what either creativity or the community could mean, and that really would be inefficient.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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5 Responses to Creative Procrastination

  1. Thank you for this blog.
    I could finally deal with all my misery and guilt
    about not writing, not being able to write, not
    being able to write in the time I create to write,
    not being able to create the time to write, and
    other obsessions. Finally, some peace.

  2. Frank says:

    a film that came out of that same process

  3. Pingback: Soutar’s Watchful Octet of Eyes « Website and blog of the Scottish poet Andrew Philip

  4. Jane Stemp says:

    Thank you Bill, I needed that… fighting the good fight of creativity against administratium

  5. Pingback: Origami Posada | gairnet provides: press of blll

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