Al Kennedy gets round to the subeject of procrastination for The Guardian:
I have a small blackboard in my study. On it, I carefully chalk all of the writing-related tasks I have not yet completed: essays, scripts, treatments, rewrites, short stories, letters, novel-planning, crying in a corner, talking to my kettle … There are days when I love this blackboard and its anal-retentive attention to detail: its tiny chalk-holding flange, its even tinier rubbing-out cloth: and there are also days when it feels like having a debt-collector in the room with me, smelling of broken legs and hardened hearts.
Having pretty much lost two months to illness, I am currently ignoring the board completely. I haven’t allowed myself to approach it closely, never mind study its listed assignments, or consider how many others I am hiding from myself by simply keeping them in my head. Off the board and in my brain, I know they will come adrift from their deadlines and end up getting tangled in each other, but I don’t care – a visible inventory would simply drive me back to the kitchen where I would end up giving the kettle abuse. And actually my kettle’s very nice.
Why do I have such a deep and intimate relationship with my kettle? Because for 25 years, give or take, I have been a person who knows they have something to write. I have written when nobody wanted to hear from me, I have written when I could earn as much as £30 in year by my writing, I have written when I was tired from my day job, when I was filled with the terrifying elation of a new idea, when I was starting my first novel, when I was starting my sixth novel, when I was rewriting something apparently insoluble, when I was trying to prove myself employable and when I was just fooling about until I could see what might happen. In all of these circumstances and more, what was the common factor? The kettle. As soon it’s inevitable that a writer must begin their first word, it becomes (almost) equally and conflictingly inevitable that the writer must do something else really quickly before scribbling breaks out. Hence the kettle. Tell you what, I’ll just go and make a fresh beverage, then I’ll get down to things properly. Absolutely. Of course I will.
Writers can generate industrial quantities of procrastination before their first sonnet is rejected, or their first novel-outline-plus-sample-chapter is exorcised, burned and its ashes buried at sea. Are my pens facing north? Or magnetic north? What’s that funny noise? Oh look, it’s raining outside. My fingernails need cutting. I think my computer is going to break, better get it checked. Do I have toothache? Will I have toothache? The possibilities lend new meaning to the words eternity and purgatory.
When I began writing, distractions were all low-tech. I had to worry about typewriter ribbons and correction fluid, for God’s sake. There was no possibility of spending an apparently productive day making backup files, defragmenting already tidy hard drives, emailing, watching grainy online movies of cats falling over, or playing virtual patience. (I once tried a more sophisticated computer game and, after many months, managed to advance my character by one level and put him into a loop of crouching, rocking and saying, “Oh, no.”) Nevertheless, I could still burn away whole pre-Amstrad weekends in keeping busy, rather than writing. Ever re-hung and filed your clothing along a colour gradient, or cleaned all your grouting with a toothbrush? I have.
Robert Louis Stevenson once said that he didn’t like writing, he liked having written. And I think I know how he felt. The act of writing is delightful, once you’ve entered into the proceedings, it’s simply that – like many other intimate, involving and tiring activities – writing creates nervousness, fumbling and an intense desire to run away before it can really take a hold.
I do love to write and I worked out relatively quickly that I should preempt as much of my delay and dismay as possible by removing sources of distraction and rendering myself as comfy as a Calvinist can be, prior to embarking on my opening sentence for the day. I then reached the point where I had to earn my living by writing, rather than the less-profitable avoidingwriting option. This means that, over the years, I have developed, abandoned and refined various preparatory manoeuvres to ease things along – the typist’s equivalent of dinner and a tastefully naked European movie. Before I could afford a comfy chair, I propped myself up with pillows and cushions. I made myself a cuppa, all ready in advance. I eliminated noise with nice music. I conditioned myself to associate pieces of music with having already started to write and went through – as time passed – more and less complicated routines of exercise, or meditation, or horrified staring. And there are, naturally, the time-honoured favourite forms of self-deception – I’m not really starting, I’m just mucking about for a bit. I’m going to write this, even though it’s not what I’m really meant to be doing and therefore a bit of fun. If I finish another page I can have a treat.
Now, perhaps because I am old and tired, I may kick off by doing a bit of voice work to wake myself up, I may embark on a new project by having a thorough wash and brush-up, or I may just tell myself – Here we go, then.
I am aware that there are writers who successfully avoid ever having to write at all. Whatever creative energies they may possess have been completely absorbed by displacement activities. These activities often include dressing, sounding and standing (if not drinking – in fact, usually drinking) like an author and so these individuals can seem far more convincing as artists of the well-turned phrase than many people who actually have been published. When I was starting to write, I found this type very confusing. Indoors, I was bewildered by both writing and not writing. I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to, or if I really wanted me to, or if anyone else wanted me to. Out in the world, here were these amazing excuses to never bother about such things again. They were a temptation. But I did realise that they were also a horrible, horrible dead end.
I have, in my professional life, met numberless writers who seemed paralysed by their own desire to write, who had intelligent and reasonable excuses for not starting, not committing, not getting on with it, who could trump any arguments or suggestions I might make towards putting anything on paper. It is nice to win arguments, but not if it means you deny yourself the chance to do something beautiful and intensely alive. Win or lose, you have to be in the game to play it and writing is a game which can deepen and enrich any player’s experience, moment by moment. We can all feel we’re not really up to it on any given day – and sometimes we’re right, we should take a break. But not writing – that would be like not speaking, not touching, not kissing. Pauses are probably unavoidable, but perhaps use yours, enjoy them, shorten them until you can find their edge. We might look at it like this – kissing is good, but kissing after five or 10 seconds of well-informed waiting – that can be better. Onwards.