Susan Sontag once said, “I read too much – as an escape from writing.” That’s how reading becomes a god-damned good excuse, something so addictive it can turn everything into ruin (my urge-to-write included).
|Source: Work. Progress. Life.|
I don’t want to protest my innocence. On the contrary. Coz let’s face it, procrastination kills. Worse than traffic accidents. Putting some creative task aside for later is like allowing the grim reaper to hack through the best stash of would-be beauties.
Like Sontag, I too read convinced that reading is the closest thing to writing you can imagine; its best bedfellow. And also like Sontag, I know I’m wrong. Because reading understood under these circumstances is not unlike doing dishes when you have a cake to finish for a better party.
So yes, I am embarrassed every time I dare to procrastinate, because when I’m doing it I’m doing it to myself. There’s no other addressee to my delay and no other victim of it.
But here’s another one, from Erica Jong:
“We are so scared of being judged that we look for every excuse to procrastinate.”
Now that puts procrastination in a different light, doesn’t it. The dread that we might be falling short of whatever anticipations others have of us and our conduct? Everyone who’s ever been terrified to speak in public or to raise their voice when they knew they were right – they know what this means.
But with me there’s yet another aspect to procrastination that merits discussion. It’s not the fear to be judged. It’s not the laziness of a good summer’s day. It’s a different fear and a different comfort. To me, it is the fear of reaching back into that area where everything becomes a struggle. Because writing is – it’s always been – a struggle to me. Don’t get me wrong. I do enjoy writing. I do write the hell out of myself and with an enjoyment that I can only heartily recommend to others. But there’s this point where I put myself at a risk I hate to revisit. The risk of getting into a dead end. The risk of reaching the point where I start going in circles upon circles upon circles, no advancement in sight, no hope for a good outcome. That’s the thing that gives me the fright. And staying away from it is what I consider an act of personal comfort.
|Source: Men's Health|
Often, I resolve this yucky feeling by giving myself the easy ride of reading.
I tell myself, whenever I try to appease this sentiment of guilt, that, at the end of the day, someone who writes needs to read too. Someone who writes needs to read more than he/she writes – to be more precise. This promise, alone, provides me with that damned place where I can hide.
I’m reading this or this because it must be read. The urge becomes suddenly clear, it becomes unavoidable.
Another reason why procrastination works is the opposite of the fear I mentioned a little earlier: the certainty of things that went well earlier. That day all words came out like they were being milked out of an abundant cow’s udder. That day it was so easy. That day I was a champion. But with time this certainty too becomes, alas, a pain I’m left to live with. Because what can I say when, damn if I know why, nothing seems to coagulate in my brain or under the tips of my fingers hovering over the keyboard?
“What is deferred is not avoided.” (Thomas More)
That would have sounded almost psychoanalytically correct had More lived in the nineteenth century. The thought of having avoided a task doesn’t mean the thought of the task has disappeared. That’s why procrastination is so painful. It comes with this certitude that, no matter what, there’s no escape: the demon will be back. He’ll have a shower and return fresh as ever, ready as ever to bite into our resistance to chorological pressures. So a cycle of postponements is inevitable. It can only be stopped by the act of doing the damned thing. And although it sounds easy, we all know it’s not.
The best attempt at describing procrastination I found in Poe’s story, “The Imp of the Perverse” (itself an exercise in long procrastination):
“We have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action. We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work, with the anticipation of whose glorious result our whole souls are on fire. It must, it shall be undertaken today, and yet we put it off until tomorrow, and why? There is no answer, except that we feel perverse, using the word with no comprehension of the principle. Tomorrow arrives, and with it a more impatient anxiety to do our duty, but with this very increase of anxiety arrives, also, a nameless, a positively fearful, because unfathomable, craving for delay. This craving gathers strength as the moments fly. The last hour for action is at hand. We tremble with the violence of the conflict within us, – of the definite with the indefinite – of the substance with the shadow. But, if the contest have proceeded thus far, it is the shadow which prevails, – we struggle in vain. The clock strikes, and is the knell of our welfare. At the same time, it is the chanticleer – note to the ghost that has so long overawed us. It flies – it disappears – we are free. The old energy returns. We will labor now. Alas, it is too late!”
This perversity that keeps our hands tied, our voices shut. We crave delay the way we crave a word that must be said but for which we cannot find the right energy to form an utterance.
But procrastination cannot be all bad, can it?
Perhaps not. Just think of all the things we do instead of the things we should. They get done! And that’s good.
What’s more, they’re done with aplomb. I’m never more intent on doing something than I am when I procrastinate. All my surrogate actions are performed to perfection. I’m such a keen and attentive reader when I read in order to postpone writing. I become so aware of subtleties. The pores of my intellect are wide open to receive the blessing of a good text. I do – I swear – enjoy my put-off reading more than the reading done as a task (research, etc.) Somehow, my avoidance makes me better at performing the alternatives. I would never – never – treat the alternative with disdain. All guns blazing, I do them like there’s no tomorrow. That’s why I write so much every time I am supposed to be reading. Funny, right, how things turn on their own heads. But it’s true. When I need to research, when it’s urgent, when it’s supposed to happen – like right now – I embrace procrastination once more, my friend in times of distress, my way of fleeing responsibility.
|Source: The Australian|
When I read instead of writing I defend myself against a disappointment. (See all of the above for clarification.) This type of reading is a safeguard against injury. It is a way of helping me be well and sane. And, no doubt, the act of preserving my soul thus is a way of doing myself a favor. I spare myself the unpleasant feeling, usually associated with danger, that I’m on the verge of causing a personal catastrophe. Delay postpones calamity, and that’s all I need for self-defense.