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.

There's a heartbreaking moment in Gerald Clarke's biography Capote when the writer, having finally completed the debilitating process of writing In Cold Blood in 1965, waxes optimistic about his next masterpiece: a novel he was calling Answered Prayers. "Oh, how easy it'll be by comparison!" Capote exclaimed. "It's all in my head."

That may have been true. But upon his death in 1984, after years of public promises, revised delivery dates, and the ravages of alcoholism, Capote had managed to publish only snippets of his long-promised epic—and one of them was the notorious "La Côte Basque," which savagely lampooned his social circle and alienated him from some of his dearest friends. In the American annals of famously attenuated literary careers, Capote is perhaps surpassed only by Ralph Ellison, who worked for nearly 40 years on his second novel—the follow-up to his phenomenally successful 1952 debut, Invisible Man—only to leave it incomplete when he died in 1994.

Jessica Winter Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

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In their sustained anticlimaxes, Capote's and Ellison's writing lives raise a perplexing question: What is the difference between severe procrastination and writer's block? Are they part of one continuum, like a Möbius strip? Were Capote and Ellison truly blocked, or did they merely delay so long that they ran out of time?

I wrote to Clarke and to Ellison's biographer, Arnold Rampersad, to get their thoughts. The "really interesting question," Rampersad responded, is the difference between writers who can't get started and "those who write and write but can't finish the job to their satisfaction. Roughly speaking, Ellison was in the latter category." Clarke struck a similar note about Capote. "He set himself the highest standards, and he knew when he wasn't achieving them," Clarke wrote in an e-mail. "He never allowed anything to be published that he thought was not up to snuff, and despite the booze and the setbacks he wrote well, very well, in fact, even during his final years. … He just wasn't able to finish the big one, Answered Prayers." In other words, Ellison and Capote were both the beneficiaries and the sufferers of perfectionism … which just happens to be a syndrome that correlates with both procrastination and writer's block.

Neurologist Alice Flaherty attempts a working distinction between procrastination and block—the fearsome Orthrus of the creative process—in her 2004 book The Midnight Disease: The Drive To Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain: "A blocked writer has the discipline to stay at the desk but cannot write. A procrastinator, on the other hand, cannot bring himself to sit down at the desk; yet if something forces him to sit down he may write quite fluently." But don't these two scenarios amount to different performances of the same role? Every seasoned procrastinator loves to tell himself that, amid his flurry of avoidance strategies—rearranging the furniture in his office, pitching himself into a YouTube rabbit hole, surrendering to a fit of self-Googling—his brain is secretly marinating ideas and hatching plans. (As the underground narrator of Invisible Man puts it, "A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.") Surely this percolation process is also happening inside the "blocked" writer, even if he's motionless in his swivel chair?

Of course, given that procrastination carries the stigma of sloth and disorganization, it may seem uncharitable to ascribe the dithering disease to the blocked but feverishly ambitious writer—surely, if he weren't truly stuck, he wouldn't be finding new Facebook groups to join instead of composing his chef-d'oeuvre? On the other hand, creative-writing instructors often start class with a five-minute automatic-writing exercise for a good reason: There is always something to be written.

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