Thursday, September 24, 2015

On Procrastination, by a writer manqué

London Review of Books (LRB)
"When I hear other people talking about procrastination, I find myself getting proprietorial: surely their fleeting pauses are as nothing to mine. Procrastination is the main way I express anxiety and depression, if I can use these medicalised, dignifying terms. It’s franker to say that I put things off because much of the time I’m frightened and sad ...[A]s I eased into middle age it got worse. Every task took longer than it should have, and felt less finished. Other things got pushed back; I failed to make phone calls, send letters and emails, do household chores, repair things, turn up for things, fulfil promises. The career drifted away around 2009. ...
Job gone, I sat around trying to write, managing bits and pieces, but earning very little. And then my marriage drifted away too.... While this was going on the LRB commissioned me to write about Richard Hughes, who wrote A High Wind in Jamaica. ... I cheerfully settled to the research, reading the novels I hadn’t read, rereading the ones I had. Then I started writing, or that’s what I told myself: some paragraphs, some sentences, a sketch of a plan, then some rewriting, rearranging, scrubbing, more rewriting, more scrubbing, pauses to reconsider. Then I did some more research: the short stories, the children’s stories, the poems and plays, the journalism, Richard Perceval Graves’s biography, then back to the rewriting …
Hughes himself was notoriously unproductive – four novels of variously uneven brilliance over 45 years or so. ... It seems to me that Hughes wanted to be a writer more than he wanted to write; the difference isn’t always obvious, even to the person doing the wanting, and talent, which you feel ought to be a clue, may be a red herring. During the war, he became an effective civil servant at the Admiralty, and turned down an offer to stay on – how dreadful to admit that bureaucracy is your true vocation. I’m tempted by the idea that Hughes set me a bad example, but it’s not as if I needed one. At any rate, I wasn’t writing anything else; and after a while I wasn’t writing this. I began to wonder whether it made any sense to think of myself as a writer at all, though I didn’t have anything else to offer people who asked me what I did. The Hughes piece became a rather uneasy joke between me and the LRB, eventually giving way to an admission of defeat."