Fr. Peter Daly
September 4, 2006
Somebody once asked Hemingway, “How do you start writing a novel?” He replied, “First you defrost the refrigerator.” This being the age of frost free refrigerators, I’ve usually had to find other ways to summon the creative muse. But I know what he meant.
Whenever we have to do something hard, especially if it is creative, we always find a reason to procrastinate. Many a closet has been cleaned or kitchen drawer organized under the threat of a deadline.
When it comes to the creative process, procrastination isn’t all bad. While you are putting away the barbeque grill for the winter, something may actually be going on in your head.
Every priest knows this creative “procrastination.” Like other “wordsmiths,” priests are often called upon to “say a few words.” If we are really doing our job, this means we have to bare our souls a bit in creative homilies or weekday mass meditations. (Some priests cop out altogether on creativity and just buy “canned” homilies. I think that cheats the priest as well as the parishioners.)
People who don’t speak or write for a living, may not know how hard it is. Writing or public speaking can really wear you down. It calls for the author to reveal something of himself or herself.
Writing makes us anxious. What if people don’t like us or what we say? What if someone in the crowds shouts out, “the emperor has no clothes.”
So creativity takes time and caution. It takes turning over phrases and ideas in your head. It can’t be rushed anymore than baking bread or making wine.
Of course some procrastination is just laziness or bad organization. Every parent is frustrated by their procrastinating children. I can still hear my other yelling, “Why did you let your homework go to the last minute?” “How long have you known about this assignment?” “Why didn’t you start this term paper earlier?” She was right, of course.
But sometimes, procrastination is part of the creative process. In the midst of cleaning out the tool shed or rearranging your library, you can be really thinking.
I build a little creative procrastination into my ordinary schedule. Each Monday, when I am organized, I read the scriptures for the upcoming Sunday. I underline key words or sentences that give the theme. Then I put them aside. I do nothing visible about the homily for a few days.
During that week, even when I am doing the dishes or cleaning out the car, I think over the scriptures. An idea may germinate at the oddest time. I jot it down.
Creative procrastination is recognizes that you can’t force creativity. Writing, art or music isn’t like routine work. It is not enough to just assemble the tools. Just because you turn on your computer doesn’t mean you are ready to write.
Countless writers report they’ve had “writers’ block” for an hour or for a year. They get paralyzed. If the block is really bad, you just stare at the blank page or the glowing screen.
That is when I get up from the chair and grab a mop or the hedge clippers. That is when I vacuum the rugs, repot the plants, or clean out the basement. If I had an old fashioned refrigerator, I would defrost it in honor of Papa Hemingway.
When my secretary she sees me cleaning out the supply closet or scrubbing the office restrooms, she knows what it means. She knows that I really writing a column or working on a homily.
So leave me alone. I’m writing.