Ralph Ellison, Truman Capote, and the difference between writer's block and procrastination.

A brief history of wasting time.
May 14 2008 12:24 PM

"It's All in My Head"

Did Truman Capote and Ralph Ellison have writer's block—or were they just chronic procrastinators?

Read more from Slate's special issue on procrastination.

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Yet that knowledge in itself—that there are forever more words to be found, however imperfect—can be dangerous, too. The Midnight Disease points to a paradoxical variation of writer's block, more accurately termed writer's flood, in which the author spins out page upon page in ceaseless search of le mot juste. Flaherty invokes Gustave Flaubert, "who crossed out nearly as many words as he wrote," and Ellison, too, might come to mind: He amassed some 2,000 pages of chapters, scenes, and notes for his second novel without coming close to resolution. (A heavily whittled-down edit of Ellison's manuscript was published as Juneteenth in 1999; Modern Library plans to bring out a longer version, titled Three Days Before the Shooting, next year.)

Ellison's voluminous labors on the second novel certainly didn't have the appearance of procrastination. And yet his biography, like Capote's, resonates with the findings of decades of academic research on the subject. Perfectionism—check. Precocious success that at once inflates the ego and instills extreme anxiety about future endeavors—check. ("The procrastinator thinks, 'If I never finish, I can never be judged,' " says Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University.) Low self-esteem—check. ("La Côte Basque" was self-destruction as performance art.) Blaming others for one's own failings—check. (Ellison's skill at the blame game can be summed up in a telegram he once fired off to his future wife: "YOUR SILENCE PREVENTING WORK.")

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And prodigious excuse-making—check, check, check. Garden-variety procrastinators will settle for scapegoating the train or the e-mail server, but these guys were the world champions of the elaborate pretext. For years, Ellison maintained that he had lost hundreds of pages of the second novel in a 1967 fire, a claim that Arnold Rampersad's biography, published last year, showed to be a likely falsehood. Similarly, Gerald Clarke's book recounts how Capote went so far as to sue his former lover John O'Shea for the return of manuscript pages of Answered Prayers ("Every word was perfect," Capote lamented); Capote and O'Shea later reconciled, and as for the missing work, Capote "all but admit[ed] that in fact it never had existed." Ellison's house fire and Capote's ex were their variations on famed procrastinator Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "person from Porlock": the visitor whose untimely arrival forever derailed the composition of "Kubla Khan."

According to Ferrari, all these excuses are just the procrastinator's tissue-thin front for what's happening on the subconscious level: "The chronic procrastinator knows he's presenting a negative image, but he'd rather be perceived negatively for lack of effort than for lack of ability," he says. "Lack of ability is a stable attribute, but lack of effort is shifting—it means you could do it, you might be able to do it."

Maybe it's the "might" factor that allows us finally to draw a line between procrastination and writer's block. A block is thick, insurmountable, cast in stone, "as impenetrable as the Great Pyramid," in Clarke's words. Procrastination is a more pliant creature. When we defer a challenge until a hazy, ill-defined "later," one might say that we devalue future time and belittle our circumstances in it; but you could also say that we are irrationally exuberant about the future—it becomes an ascetic, distraction-free idyll where all appetites have been permanently gratified, where minutes stretch out as luxuriously as hours, where all our creative prayers are answered. You might even call procrastination a perverse form of optimism. And optimism, as both Capote and Ellison surely discovered, is a tough habit to shake. In a New Yorker profile published a month before his death, Ellison said of his novel-in-progress, "I'm eager to finish it and see how it turns out."

Previously: Jessica Winter on great books about wasting time.

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