Express Yourself

The Art of Not Doing Art

Procrastination as vocation

Photo: RyanJLane/Getty Images

II have embarked upon yet another of my Massive Secret Time-Wasting Projects. It’s too late to interrupt the process now: Once undertaken, these things take on their own unstoppable momentum. O the seductive and terrible lure of whatever you’re not supposed to be doing, whomever you’re not supposed to be with, wherever you currently are not. I remember my late cat, whenever I would munificently let her out into the backyard, wanted nothing more than to escape immediately into the adjacent yard: “Over There,” we called it, that alluring and forbidden land. The cat heart yearns for Over There, and so, too, do ours. Human beings are incorrigibly contrary: We write on bathroom walls and have sex in libraries. A vast and unforgiving system of rewards and punishments, which we call civilization, is necessary to get us all out of bed to keep the world running every day. One of my favorite-ever jokes comes, embarrassingly, from an old Jay Leno monologue on The Tonight Show: “Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone goofed off at work as much as you do?” It takes a second to sink in; the world itself is the punchline.

I don’t pretend to have any special expertise on this subject, but I am a writer, a profession that may be unequalled in its refinement of procrastination to a high art. The Massive Secret Time-Wasting Projects (henceforth MSTWPs) are procrastination stratagems on a scale beyond mere memes or doodling, Netflix binges or fantasy football — major, long-term undertakings involving intensive research and serious investments of time and labor. As the things I’m officially supposed to be doing have gotten bigger and more ambitious, so, too, have the MSTWPs; my illustrated edition of Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon script, e.g., is 364 pages long. I guess these are what normal people call “hobbies.” But because my time is unstructured, the MSTWPs have the potential to metastasize into my productive hours and devour my entire life. The MSTWPs are absorbing, even all-consuming, but not exactly relaxing — they have a compelling, avoidant urgency that philately or skeet shooting lack. It’s sort of like knowing that you really ought to be figuring some way out of Vietnam or dealing with that whole civil rights thing, and instead deciding you’re going to land men on the moon.

I can never quite recall how the MSTWPs originate: I just get obsessed with something stupid and pointless and irresistibly start working on it, the way you fall inexorably in love with someone who’s married, or lives in Sweden, or is demonstrably incapable of emotional attachment. Once I realized, while re-reading Pale Fire, how much geographical detail Nabokov gives us about the imaginary kingdom of Zembla, there was no way I wasn’t going to map it. The MSTWPs have a number of features in common: They tend to be visual, utilizing parts of my brain that have atrophied since I retired as a cartoonist; they also involve a lot of research, which most of my writing does not, unless you consider sitting around drinking beers with friends research. Maybe most importantly, they’re all second-order art, based on the work of other artists — a lazy, uncreative kind of art, like fan fiction or cosplay. It’s such uncomplicated fun compared to the work of making original art, which in my own experience is more like dredging the harbor for corpses. It has all the addictive absorption of the execution, with none of the wretched second-guessing of actual creation. While scouring the internet for an image of General Danican for my Napoleon project (an archivist friend at Yale finally tracked one down), I began to understand the appeal of covering entire houses with buttons or inscribing the book of Genesis on a single grain of rice. I’ve seldom had more creative fun, or a happier collaboration, than the summer my friend Boyd and I spent working on a nostalgia/fan site dedicated to the tragically short-lived 1960s live-action Fantastic Four series. The famous episode featuring the surf contest between The Human Torch and The Silver Surfer may have been the pinnacle of both our artistic lives.

The fact that the MSTWPs involve other people’s intellectual property also means that, whether through accident or unconscious design, they are all utterly unmonetizable. Which is too bad, since some of them might’ve been pretty lucrative: the Fantastic Four fan site got half a million hits in its first 48 hours. I still think my audio Ass Tour of the Met might well prove a significant secondary source of income, provided I can work out some gray-area legal issues (a guard once gave me an informal cease-and-desist in front of Gérôme’s Pygmalion and Galatea). But their immunity to commodification must be part of what makes them so enjoyable. (Maurice Ravel subtitled one piece “the delicious and always new pleasure of something useless.”) Mark Twain — who, between writing books, patented a garment fastener like a bra strap, a history trivia game, and a self-adhering scrapbook — wrote that “Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and […] Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” The reason people pay you to do things, in principle, is that they’re hard, boring things you otherwise wouldn’t do. The luckiest people are those who get paid for doing something they’d secretly be doing anyway. (A friend of mine knew a guy in divinity school whose two unmarketable passions were Shakespeare and Star Wars. He drifted a bit after graduation, until he finally broke down and wrote an adaptation of Star Wars: Episode IV in Elizabethan English, iambic pentameter and all, which attracted the interest of Lucasfilm. He is now contracted to write all the official, licensed Shakespearean adaptations of the Star Wars saga.) And yet, by some ineradicable glitch of human nature, as soon as someone pays you for something, it turns into a chore as dreary as algebra homework. I’m sure if I got a commission to prepare an Ass Tour of the Louvre by, say, January 31st, I would soon be flopping histrionically around groaning to my friends about what an odious burden it was to have to live in Paris and study derrières all day.

What is it we’re really doing on this planet: the stuff we’re supposed to be doing or all the stuff we do instead?

Obversely, you might willingly put in what would otherwise seem like a punishing amount of overtime on a project provided you’re not getting paid anything. The ratio of time I’ve devoted to MSTWPs to time spent on my ostensible job is something I feel is best left uncalculated. It is possible that the former exceeds the latter, in which case it could be argued that procrastination is my primary vocation. E.B. White expressed the essential dilemma with his usual frank eloquence: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” What is it we’re really doing on this planet: the stuff we’re supposed to be doing or all the stuff we do instead? If you wanted to get all adolescently existential about it, you could argue that it’s all — the energy and insurance industries, novels and operas, prosthetics and space probes, conquests and coups — procrastination. The great pyramids may not be so different, in their underlying impetus, from my friend Nell’s geometric telephone doodles.

Ideally, you’d have several different legitimate projects underway at once, so that you could procrastinate on one by working on another, thereby tricking yourself into productivity while still getting to feel guilty. Many people suddenly decide they can’t put off cleaning the house another day when taxes are due. A lot of artists have made great art out of interstitial procrastination projects: Beethoven wrote his bright, airy Fourth Symphony while he was struggling with the stormy Fifth; Hunter S. Thompson ripped out Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at night while researching a long, grim investigative piece about the police murder of a Latino journalist; the Coen Brothers wrote Barton Fink as a nightmare about writer’s block while stuck on the script for Miller’s Crossing. Okay I realize that my Ass Tour is not Beethoven’s Fourth, but I wonder whether the mountain of time invested in the MSTWPs is not in some way necessary to produce that sliver of work for which I do, ostensibly, get paid. Most means of generating energy are less than 50% efficient: Maybe our officially sanctioned “productivity” is the output of all the screwing around. Surely couples couldn’t slog through the tax returns, mortgages, daycare and savings involved in running a marriage without the messy, transgressive play of sex. I don’t think I could have spent five years delving into my past relationship history for my last book without also immersing myself in my late-night researches into Napoleon. So maybe the fact that I’ve begun work on a new, even more hubristic MSTWP is a promising sign, a prodromal symptom of my next book.

Am I distracting myself so that my subconscious can come to a decision, the way pinball or crosswords can free up your brain to solve a problem? Or am I just fucking off?

Or maybe I’m just rationalizing being a shamefully lazy undisciplined person. I’ve just realized that this essay is itself an exercise in procrastination: I’ve been evading what it’s really about. (This is a common problem in student drafts: the first paragraph, the first page, sometimes the entire essay up until the last line is all procrastination.) I’ve spent the last several weeks facing a major decision, one that’ll alter the course of my future, and have devoted most of that time to watching TV. I’m having a summit talk about this very question in less than an hour, and instead of showering or eating breakfast or, more importantly, thinking clearly about what I’m going to say, I am researching Ian Miller’s phantasmagoric illustrations for H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Even as part of me is screaming Why are you doing this?, I’m being drawn off on another internet tangent (who knew he also illustrated Gormenghast?). Am I actually distracting myself so that my subconscious can come to a decision, the way pinball or crosswords can free up your brain to solve a problem? Or am I just fucking off? Anyone with internet access knows the dissociated horror of watching yourself click through an infinite feed of forgettable crap as the hours and days evaporate and the Great Books go unread. What are we all avoiding?

There really is something illicit — sinful — about procrastination, and not just because you’re wriggling out of your responsibilities or filching a few minutes from your employer; it has the same perverse, thanatotic thrill of smoking cigars, drinking whiskey, or other more overtly self-destructive vices: Instead of heedlessly endangering your health, you are knowingly squandering time, a commodity more irreplaceable than uranium. My friend Nell likes to ask people in the throes of romantic or sexual obsessions, “If you weren’t thinking about [x person], what would you be thinking about instead?” because it is usually this that they are fleeing into their infatuation or affair. The true driving force of an obsession is not its ostensible object but the thing it occludes. Beneath the frivolous subject of procrastination is the dreadful subtext of time passing, deadlines approaching, things left undone. I am over 50 now, and the time has begun to feel distinctly finite. I have 20 or 30 years left to work; I know what 20 or 30 years feels like, and I can also feel the time accelerating. And creative energy, like physical energy, eventually begins to flag; an older writer recently told me it gets harder to sustain the flow state of composition as long. I should be dedicating all my time and attention to my next book; I know I want it to be big, ambitious, formally complex and innovative. But first I just need to finish the first two or possibly three episodes of my screenplay adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.

Hear me out here. I’m seeing this as not another bad Syfy CGI extravaganza but a serious, cerebral drama, with a lot of somber Machiavellian plotting, like The Godfather or Margin Call. (This project, too, is financially futile: Foundation is currently in development by Apple TV, being adapted by David S. Goyer of Batman Begins.) Because the story spans several centuries of future history, the art design will evolve to reflect different eras of science-fiction illustration, so I’ve been researching the art deco rockets of Frank R. Paul and the chunky, bristling spaceships of Chris Foss; I have an appointment at the Columbia Library to look at the colossal, brooding architectural drawings of Hugh Ferriss. The soundtrack will echo vintage ’80s electronica — Larry Fast, Wendy Carlos, Vangelis. I can envision it all clearly. It’s going to be great. There is work to be done.

Tim Kreider is the author of two essay collections, and a frequent contributor to Medium and The New York Times. He lives in NYC and the Chesapeake Bay area.

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