I am busy engaging in the old must-sharpen-pencils-before-I-can-write strategy. Procrastination, as it is commonly known. But as I write on a laptop, I don’t need the pencils. Perhaps I could check my email – there might be something interesting or urgent waiting for me. Or I could look slightly to the left and stare out the window. Or I could look up the meaning of ‘procrastinate’. May as well know the exact meaning of my current state of mind.
I am, according to the Dictionary.com site, deferring action, and delaying until an opportunity is lost. My 1911 copy of the Oxford English dictionary goes one step further and accuses me of being dilatory. I dilated even further when I dug up my trusty 1952 copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, and I discovered that to engage in procrastination could also be described as engaging in Fabian Tactics.
Fabian Tactics? This could lead to some excellent procrastination.
I nipped over to Wikipedia, despite having an ancient set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. To get out of my chair and walk into the living room, pull down the index and find the entry on the Fabian Society, replace the index and find the relevant volume is just too much like hard work, and possibly against the spirit of Fabian Tactics.
The Fabian Society, according to Wikipedia is ‘a British intellectual socialist movement whose purpose is to advance the principles of Social Democracy via gradualist and reformist, rather than revolutionary means’.
So where does the procrastination come in? To be reformist is not deferring action. I was missing something. On reading further I discovered the Fabians to be named after the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus, nicknamed, (beware transposing those letters…) ‘Cunctator,’ meaning The Delayer, whose battle strategy consisted of the guerrilla tactics of harassment rather than direct confrontation on the battle field.
It is true that I am not approaching my writing task in a confrontational way, but nor am I conducting guerrilla warfare with it. The term Fabian Tactics proved not be the definition I was after and I returned to Thesaurus where I discovered I was, by procrastinating, indulging in ‘masterly inactivity’, ‘fribbling’ or – thank you Quintus Fabius, ‘cunctating.’
The opportunity to procrastinate is one to savour. But I went one step further back to the old word ‘leisure,’ yesterday and went to bed for the afternoon with Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Be not alarmed, jaded reader, I speak of the newly released Penguin edition in the recognisable orange black and white cover. The covers hark back, (clever Penguin marketing people), to a slower time, a time when choosing a book was not an act decided by a visceral attraction to the cover image.
To pry myself away from the screen and re educate myself in reading has become a compelling obsession for me lately. The screen brings anxiety, brings demands, brings urgency. The book allows me to escape.
I am also about to re engage in an old technology – writing a letter with pen and paper. A novel and charming idea. Imagine the freedom, to squiggle and draw, to scrawl when I want and to do perfect modified cursive if I want. To sketch a little picture next to my words and to not have to master thirty computer programs in order to do so. One drawback. Once written, it can’t be changed. No going back and editing, no cut and paste, no second chances. Get it right first time or not at all.
My father spent the second half of his working life in a position that required him to write long, detailed legal decisions. Despite his assistants and staff all using computers, he would write his decisions in longhand. When asked by me, completely bemused by how he did it without Word, he replied, that he thought about each sentence before he wrote it.
I raised my eyebrows and nodded slowly. Simple question, simple answer.
To write and get it right first time is a challenging concept. My father used an A4 notepad and ballpoint pen and worked on a desk free of clutter. He never used correcting fluid and prided himself on the evenness of his handwriting. (You can imagine what our family dinners were like.)
My handwriting lurches from hastily scrawled printing to illegible and all variations in between. And it deteriorates the more I use a keyboard. When I write handwritten notes my hand grips the pen in an unsteady way, like an accident victim learning to walk again.
I have read, where I don’t know, that writers working on computers tend to become more ‘wordy.’ One would expect from that observation that handwriting a book favoured an economy of style, and yet to read a nineteenth century novel is to experience ‘wordy’ sometimes to exasperating excess.
Did Anthony Trollope cunctate when faced with writing Barchester Towers at 200,372* words? To produce a manuscript of 85, 000 words I have written perhaps 200,000. I whittle away, replace, add a bit, cut, cut more, cut another chunk, until I am satisfied, and it is a long process despite the ease computers lend to writing. Whereas Trollope might have had to get it right first time – by gaslight with pen, nib and notebook. And yet I, with all my modern tools, am still dilating and cunctating. But Trollope’s readers had the leisure for his lengthy books, and my readers, like me, can only steal fragments of leisure in between answering phones, emails, social networking messages, twittering, exhaustion and those gorgeous moments where they allow themselves to cunctate.
*The Victorian Literary Studies Archive: Concordances website