Beyond the valley of procrastination
Whenever I think about the virtues of procrastination, and how misunderstood a part of the creative process it is, I remember a story that Roger Ebert tells of the late director Russ Meyer. When they were working on the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—and yes, I’m aware that we aren’t exactly talking The King’s Speech here—Ebert writes:
Working with Meyer was exhilarating but demanding. He equated writing with typing. He kept his office door open, and whenever he couldn’t hear my typewriter keys, he’d shout, “What’s the matter?”
Meyer, in other words, felt that when a writer wasn’t physically typing, he was just wasting time. (I imagine that a lot of editors and studio executives feel the same way.) Yet every professional writer knows that maybe ten percent of his or her workday—at most—is spent actually typing. The rest is spent pacing, staring into space, or, most likely, goofing off on the Internet. And yet, with the possible exception of that last example, these are the times when the real writing occurs. In most cases, typing is only the working out of a conception that has already arisen from a much less expected place.
As I’ve mentioned before, Woody Allen sets himself plot problems to solve while he’s taking a walk or in the shower. I can testify from my own experience that when I assign myself a problem before I go to the grocery store, by the time I get home again, I’ve almost invariably solved it. Why? It might be that a change of scene puts my brain to work. It may even be a case of Faculty X, in which the left brain slows down long enough to let the right brain catch up. Whatever the reason, it’s fair to say that an act of procrastination can be creatively liberating in ways that discipline alone never can.
This might be the final, most mysterious secret of good writing: that it takes place at the most unexpected times. It can happen on walks, in the shower, or, in Nicholas Meyer’s case, in the bathtub. And when procrastination calls, it’s important to let it do its work. Without the structure of a daily routine, procrastination can easily turn into an excuse to avoid the hard work of writing; within that structure, though, it’s an indispensable part of the process. That’s why it’s important to build breaks into your schedule, to use downtime judiciously, and to be brave enough, when necessary, to be lazy.