Exciting new ways of not writing a novel

Procrastination used to be an honest business – cleaning the bath, putting CDs back in their cases. Now we have Google

14 March 2015

9:00 AM

14 March 2015

9:00 AM

I read that Damon Runyon, in New York in the 1930s, would get up at 1 p.m. for a breakfast of ‘fruit, broiled kidneys, toast and six cups of coffee’. Then he would read all the newspapers. Then he would bathe, shave, dress and go out for a long walk which would probably include some shopping — one of his favourite activities. (‘He wanted to buy prize fighters, and racehorses, and great houses, and stacks of clothes and jewellery for his lovely [second] wife.’) In the early evening he would return to his house to change into ‘an entirely different lounge suit’ before proceeding to a restaurant for dinner with friends, invariably an extended and noisy event, and then ducking into the cinema (‘perhaps to two different shows’), after which he would set up shop in another restaurant for ‘another long session’ and ‘hours of talk’. When he eventually went home, at two or three o’clock in the morning, he would read the early editions of the morning papers and after that — only then — would he sit down and write for four hours before bed.

Well, bully for him. It is 06.59 in Dorset and not much has been achieved so far this a.m. If he were my guest Damon Runyon would be disappointed, bored and probably hungry, unless spinach or marmalade, of which I have plenty, are his favourite foods. It is light, or lightish given the weather, and I can see outside my window an enormous pheasant pacing up and down on the grass. This one has spent the last two winters in my garden — avoiding the local shooters — but he is cheerless and unsociable, supercilious and disapproving, peevish even on the sunniest days and ridiculous in fancy dress. All the other birds laugh at him. For each and every one of these reasons he reminds me of Malvolio, that conceited suitor, ‘yonder i’ the sun practising behaviour to his own shadow’, wandering about in (another) Olivia’s garden and giving himself airs: ‘I have heard herself come thus near, that, should she fancy, it should be one of my complexion.’ Impertinent fellow.

I am avoiding the book which I am supposed to be writing. I’ve fallen out with it. I’ve even started deleting it, in chunks, when-ever I go near it. This is an unhelpful compulsion: every morning I sit at my desk, humming along like Sweeney Todd, and slice away two or three thousand words whose appearance happens to offend me. A month ago ‘The End’ was nigh but now it most definitely isn’t. Last week I had a novel, this week it is a novella, next week it will be a short story and after that … a limerick? An epigram? A motto?

It reminds me of the occasional, idle and foolish attempts I have made to cut my own hair: however sternly and frequently I tell myself to put the scissors down and step away from the mirror I keep cutting until I look like David Bowie on the Space Oddity album sleeve. Which is to say, fuzzy. Snip-snip-snip. Peer at reflection. ‘Hm.’ Snip-snip-snip. Squint. ‘Not quite straight. Maybe if I — ’ Snip-snip-snip. ‘Ah. Now then. Just a little bit more on this side —’ Snip. ‘Urgh.’ Snip. ‘Argh!’ And six weeks under a hat.

Intelligent deleting would be called editing — but mine is not that. It is procrastination: I’m too cowardly to let the beastly little squid go out on parade and so I submit it to repeated and unnecessary kit inspections, fail it on spurious grounds and order it to reshine its shoes and repolish its belt-buckle. Again and again. ‘What d’you call this, Glazebrook? A disgrace, that’s what. Do it again! Shinier!’

Procrastination used to be an honest business in the old days — cleaning the bath, pairing socks or putting CDs back in their cases — but now it comes disguised, sponsored by Google. I have been tooling about on the internet for an hour this morning, reading about moles. I am a bit obsessed with moles at the moment. Has anyone else noticed that they are taking over the earth? Literally? The length and breadth of the country is simmering with molehills. Every field has an outbreak of brown measles. Sheep can barely keep a foothold in their pastures for the rootling underfoot. I drove past Stonehenge the other day and bless my soul if it wasn’t surrounded — positively hemmed in — by row upon row of little brown bobbles.

So this morning I read, on a mole fanciers’ website, that a winter’s crop of molehills is perfectly normal: worms live nearer the surface at this time of year and therefore moles do too; tunnelling near to the surface creates molehills; QED. I also now know, as everyone should, that a mole can dig 15 feet in an hour, the velvety little swot, and that a group of moles is called not a ‘rumble’ or an ‘embuggerance’ but a ‘labour’. I’m glad I know all this but finding it out could not be called work — and what’s more the bath is still dirty.

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  • grimm

    I’m all in favour of procrastination if it will spare us yet another overrated literary product from our self important, self congratulatory British intelligentsia.

  • Ivan Ewan

    A chap walks into a Starbucks. It’s pretty busy, one of the only seats available is next to someone who is using a laptop, so he sits there.

    The fellow with the laptop apologises for the thing taking up so much room. “It’s for the novel I’m writing, you see,” he explained.

    “What a coincidence!” the newcomer says. “I’m not writing a novel either!”