Nothing Doing: On the Art of Procrastination

Procrastination crop

Those who call themselves procrastinators know that there is an art to procrastination. “Doing nothing, contrary to what people rather simplistically imagine, is a thing that requires method and discipline, concentration, an open mind,” Jean-Philippe Toussaint writes in his 1997 novel, Television. And writers usually make for excellent procrastinators. Are we really doing nothing? Or is there some mystical creative force at work?

This is a frequent scene at my house:

Husband: How many episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians have you watched?

Me: Leave me alone. (Translation: All of them.)

I like to say that last summer after I finished my graduate work in Voice Performance (perhaps the topic for another essay), I went through an existential crisis that could only be assuaged by watching the all eleven seasons (that’s 160 episodes) of KUWTK. In this, apparently, I have a kindred spirit in Toussaint: “Most of these afternoons I was alone in the apartment . . . the broadcasts started at noon and ended at nightfall . . . I emerged from those sessions nauseous and numbed, my mind empty, my legs limp, my eyes bleary,” he writes. Toussaint is talking about watching the Tour de France when he should have been writing a “groundbreaking study of Titian,” but he could just as easily be writing about the Kardashians.

Though Toussaint realizes he has to quit TV, he finds other ways to “do nothing.” He goes swimming every day. He gathers mushrooms. He sunbathes in the park. He plant-sits for his neighbors. (The plants die.) He watches a girl undress in her apartment across the street (we might protest that voyeurism is a separate topic with its own literary and philosophical pedigree). His “ground-breaking study on Titian” goes unwritten.

If I wasn’t binge-watching some form of reality television that summer, I was at the mercy of my Instagram feed. My thumb was sore from all the scrolling and swiping I did, day after day. “It seems to flow along hand in hand with time itself,” Toussaint writes, “aping its passage in a crude parody where no moment lasts and everything soon disappears, to the point where you might wonder where all those images go . . .” This is perhaps a better analogy for Snapchat, but nonetheless, “television offers exactly what it is, its essential immediacy, its ever-evolving, always-in-progress superficiality.”

The process of watching other people doing nothing (traveling, eating, humble bragging) made me realize I was literally “keeping up with the Kardashians,” in the sense that I was deeply attached to what was happening to other people I didn’t really know that well, and if I did know them, I sort of hated them. I took to posting pictures that made it look as if I were working. In these photos there was some kind of performance of work happening, like a photo of my desk or a selfie in a practice room. Like Adam Gordon in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, who consciously doesn’t answer his e-mails because he wants people to think he is busy working on his poem about the Spanish Civil War, I wanted people to think I was busy doing something meaningful, too.

The people I did admire, other writers and artists, seemed to have a near invisibility on the Web. I was jealous of both those doing nothing and those supposedly doing something. It was a Catch-22 of epic proportions. The character of Sheila, in Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? has it even worse than I did last summer, because her best friend Margaux is doing something. “Margaux worked harder at art and was more skeptical of its effects than any artist I knew. Though she was happier in her studio than anywhere else, I never heard her claim that painting mattered. She hoped it could be meaningful, but had her doubts, so worked doubly hard to make her choice of being a painter as meaningful as it could be.” Sheila, meanwhile, wanders through Toronto, taking a job at a hair salon of all places, finding that it’s impossible to finish her play because she’s not the same person she was when she started writing it, and now she isn’t sure who she is at all.

The fifth installment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume auto-fiction magnum opus, My Struggle, has just been published, which begins when Knausgaard is nineteen and ends fourteen years later at the dissolution of his first marriage. Though he begins the fifth volume by writing that “I had such ambitions and achieved nothing,” obviously at some point Knausgaard’s creative block or procrastination or whatever you want to call it must have been lifted. Each of the books in the series is roughly 500 pages long. That’s an astounding amount of not-procrastinating — bordering on graphomania.

In an essay for the New York Times, Knausgaard explains that his antisocial nature is actually good for his writing: “It’s good that I’m afraid to speak on the phone with anyone except my closest friends. It’s good that I always put off paying bills. It’s good that I never cash the checks I receive. That means I’m a writer, I think I’m not so focused on worldly matters, which in turn means that some day I just might write a masterpiece.”

Okay — but in those years and years of procrastination, Knausgaard was undoubtedly gathering experience and observations from the very “worldly matters” he seems to reject in that essay. When I look back at my lost summer, it turns out it wasn’t so lost at all. I ended up writing a few things that I am really proud of. If I hadn’t had the space and the fog of procrastination, of rumination, of jealousy and depression, I don’t think I could have written them. Which is weird, and kind of wonderful at the same time.

As Toussaint writes in Television, the real definition of a successful day’s work shouldn’t be judged by the quantity of pages. “No, the best criterion for evaluating the success of a day’s work, it seemed to me, was surely the way we have seen the time pass as we worked . . . the singular capacity the hours have demonstrated to take on the weight of work . . . changed all the experiences we’ve gone through, and yet so incomparably light that we never so much as noticed its passing. That’s what grace is, it seemed to me, that mix of fullness and lightness, which you can only experience in certain privileged moments of your existence, moments of writing or love.”

I don’t think there’s really a better way to put it, so I won’t even try. It is worth remembering, however, that even though these writers struggled with procrastination, or felt like frauds, or wondered what on earth the point of art was or who they should be in life, they all ultimately ended up with a finished book on their hands. At some point, doing nothing gave way to doing something — and via the alchemy of art, turned all the prior nothing into something entirely new. Sometimes the production of something marvelous looks merely like Keeping Up.