June 4, 2013
Fighting the blank page: how famous writers stopped procrastinating
by Michael Seidlinger
Do you tell people you’re writing a novel? It might be better to go with something like, “I am trying to write a novel,” because if you are indeed tackling the daunting task of compiling words into a longer work, more than half of your time will be spent fighting the urge to look away from the blank page. You may very well spend years in denial of what you’re attempting to conceive. But that’s okay, really. The fact of the matter is that a lot of time will be spent on not writing.
The lapses tend to be frequent; they consist of long durations of doubt, feverish revising, planning, and eccentric ritualization of what might not matter in any other way than in that very moment being a need for a balance. In the war against procrastination and getting quality words onto the page, anything can help and everyone is a literary soldier searching for more ammunition.
A lot of the time, the only reason you keep going is due to your influences. It’s both admirable and daunting what they were capable of doing. Battle worn, they carry rituals and all sorts of items to both stave and inspire procrastination. Maybe it feels like nothing is working, totally out of ammunition. It might be why you’re reading this right now. It’s certainly why I’m writing it.
It’s interesting to discover what some of those rituals may have been. Truman Capote wrote horizontally, while Hemingway preferred to stand up while writing. Everyone has a ritual much like everyone loves a good read. What kind of routines did the literary heavyweights cultivate just to combat procrastination? What did they do to get away from the fight, if only for a few hours?
Thanks to Maria Popova and Shortlist, we get to read more about some of these odd, yet captivating rituals.
Maya Angelou checks herself into a hotel with a room equipped to her odd specifications. All potential distractions – visual stimuli – removed and the following items added: legal pads and thesaurus, playing cards and a bottle of wine.
Jack Kerouac knelt, prayed and became fascinated by the number 9, often conjuring up different yoga-like poses repeated in sets of nine. He wrote by candlelight, never letting the flame go out until done writing for the night.
Haruki Murakami runs approximately 10km or swims 1500m to wear out the anxious energy that often distracts and causes procrastination. The repetition of routine exercise and extensive physical exertion allows him to tap into a self-proclaimed “deeper state.”
And so we ask ourselves: Is she suffering? Also, why is the phone facing the wrong way?
Victor Hugo turned nudity into an explicit constraint. The logic here was that if he was naked, he wouldn’t be able to leave his house. To prevent him from simply putting clothes back on, Hugo had his valet hide his clothes.
Douglas Adams relished in procrastination to the point where frequent intervention and updates from publishers and editors became mandatory. Steve Meretzky, one of Adams’s friends, stayed with him and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy might not have been completed without Meretzky’s constant intervention.
William Gibson incorporates naps into his routine to help reset the mind. He doesn’t nap to get to the dreams; rather, he sleeps so that he can get back to the period of time when his mind is fresh and most detached from conscious reality.
Don Delillo looks at a photograph of Jose Luis Borges whenever his concentration wanders away from the page.
Michael Seidlinger is a Melville House intern.