In his masterful book Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer writes at great length about not being able to write a book about D. H. Lawrence and, in the process, writes a book about D. H. Lawrence and about himself. There’s a bit of a novel thrown in there, too. It’s the holy grail of procrastination. All of this not-writing piles up, and miraculously a book emerges. Even more miraculously, Dyer gets to not-write on a beach on a Greek island.
I do my not-writing in a coffee shop in Park Slope for the hour and a half between dropping the kids off at school and starting my actual job. I do my not-writing at five in the morning, before everyone gets up and starts eating cereal, and looking for socks in my office, which is the living room and the dining room, too. Sometimes, in a desperate pinch, I do my not-writing on Saturday morning, hunching guiltily in the corner pretending that I’m not not-helping clean the apartment. Though I also have the gall on those occasions to bark furiously at anyone who has the temerity to approach my desk about borrowing scissors.
My daughter has taped a cheerful sign to the back of my chair: DON’T BOTHER ASKING MOMMY. SHE’S AT WORK. The “asking” has been artfully inserted as if by afterthought: Protect Mommy. Recriminate Mommy … Describe Mommy.
Given a work-life balance that allows for maybe five stolen and drowsy hours of writing a week, it would seem that I couldn’t legitimately, even plausibly, fit in procrastination. But, to Dyer’s point, procrastination is an integral part of the creative process: one must make the time. And it can’t be the four hours spent browsing in stores intended for women half your age or double your income-tax bracket—because that’s just idleness, an expression of nervous exhaustion, and those hours would have been wasted anyway. TV doesn’t count either. Reasonably speaking, TV acts to quiet and organize the brain, drown out the extreme white noise caused by overdue grades and taxes, unanswered emails, that impolitic thing you said to your child’s new teacher, the name and provenance of that familiar man in the felt baseball cap who just walked by. Get the synapses firing in an organized way—the system of connections in which the brave heroes break in to save the innocent girl from the psycho killer with mere seconds to spare. That’s the kind of productive tunnel vision a brain needs in order to focus.
I believe that procrastination must torture; it must lead to self-recrimination, feelings of failure, doubt, and conflict. It must have no productive value and constitute a pure obstacle to work. Procrastination doesn’t count unless it’s truly self-sabotage. Which is how I ended up on the PTA. Parent-Teacher Association.
Volunteering for the PTA is a brilliant strategy. The better you are at it, the more you’re needed, and the harder it is to get out of. Everyone’s so grateful. You’d never volunteer, after all, for something that isn’t entirely deserving—making it then impossible to walk away. There are always papers that need to be sorted and stuffed into folders, tiny faces that need painting at weekend fund-raisers, budgets to be revised and defended, and gossip, glad-handing, and hand-wringing. There is absolutely no way to contemplate your novel-in-progress when you’re at a PTA meeting—it’s creative suicide. If there is either glory or power in the PTA, it’s completely illusory; and the sense of community gained is capricious, sometimes joyous and sometimes toxic. A suitable equivalent to the writing life itself.
Like all saintly acts, the martyrdom is inevitable, complete, irreproachable, and inconceivable to those looking on from the outside. This procrastination is airtight. No book will ever come out of it. And, it is perhaps soulless of me to admit it, but I take great solace in the conviction that Geoff Dyer would never join the PTA.
Minna Zallman Proctor is the author of Landslide: True Stories, and translator, most recently, of Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives. She is editor of The Literary Review.