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.

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.

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.")

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.