On Putting Things Off

Robert Hanks

Robert Hanks on the pleasures and pains of putting things off.

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.

For the Romantics inspiration was instantaneous: to put off writing a poem was not just to waste time but to lay waste to art. That’s the context for Coleridge’s complaint about the person from Porlock. I’m with Stevie Smith, though: ‘The truth is I think he was already stuck/With Kubla Khan.’ We may not now believe so confidently in genius, or in a carpe diem version of creativity. 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 – one of the things I liked about working in newspapers was that ideas rarely lasted that long. If poetry rests on spontaneity, that might explain the lack of poetry about procrastination; the only poem I can think of that deals explicitly with the theme is Edward Young’s ‘The Complaint’, better known as ‘Night-Thoughts’:

Be wise today, ’tis madness to defer;
Next day the fatal precedent will plead;
Thus on, till wisdom is pushed out of life:
Procrastination is the thief of time,
Year after year it steals, till all are fled.

But Tennyson too, an indefatigable revisitor of themes and redrafter of poems, often seems obsessed by the vis inertiae: ‘Mariana in the Moated Grange’, the Lady of Shalott pointlessly weaving, ‘The Lotos-Eaters’, ‘Tithonus’, the endlessly dozing kraken which self-destructs as soon as it tries to do anything. I can’t come up with a Tennyson poem that doesn’t seem to glance at procrastination, aside from ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, and even that could be said to be about not knowing when to stop.

Contemporary psychology gets many of its ideas on the subject from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, where it is listed as a symptom of ‘passive-aggressive disorder’, a diagnosis that is itself a hangover from US military training manuals of the Second World War. Some see procrastination as a rational preference: the procrastinator has chosen immediate over deferred gratification, pleasure over work. But generally the failure to work goes along with a failure of appetites: a lot of the time I’m chained to my desk as a ghost is chained to the spot they haunt. It doesn’t even have the glamour of writer’s block.

I don’t know why I do it (or don’t do it), or even if the language of action is more appropriate than the language of affliction: why it happens to me. One explanation, or characterisation, of procrastination is that you fail to identify sufficiently with your future self. A friend suggested that all this Oblomovism or Chilcotism is self-creative rather than self-destructive, creating space in which we can find out who we are. It’s true that a certain anxiety about identity goes with writing: is that how I sound? Is that what I think? Is that who I am? Or 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. The idea of procrastination as resistance is not new: slaves in Saint-Domingue disrupted work by shuffling their feet, even poisoning themselves. I distrust the heroic aspect this gives procrastination, strength of will rather than torturous weakness.

Bartleby is my hero, endlessly preferring not to, but though I find him sympathetic, he – along with all the ‘writers of the no’, writers who turned their backs on writing, Rimbaud and Walser among them – is not in the same game as me. Or if we are in the same game, I’m not playing it right. I don’t turn my back on writing. I don’t say no. I say yes and fail to follow through. I sit suspended between preferring not to and not preferring to enough – I’m hung on a peg. Writing that, I remember that I was once actually hung on a peg by a changing-room mob at school: the sensations of helplessness and humiliation were not that different from my life in deadlines. The broken promises, the unprofessionalism, the evasions and quasi-explanations you offer to others, the outright lies you tell yourself: better leave this till after the weekend; I’ll have it finished by the end of Tuesday; they won’t mind getting it on Wednesday … Achilles, never catching up with that fucking tortoise. Reading as a way of putting off thinking; thinking as a way of putting off feeling.