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Cold Comfort for Graphophobes

3657055_com_writersblockjckI’m writing under deadline, having promised this post to my editor this morning, and I will get it to her this morning, if you count “morning” as lasting until 1:00 p.m., which is when civilized people eat lunch, right?

It is the season to procrastinate. Our excuses are manifold—too many committee meetings, exams to grade, application files to review, holiday cards to mail, presents to purchase, students to reassure, recommendations to write. One can almost revel in it, if one has incurable graphophobia, like old Saussure.

Saussure?

Apparently so, according to Ingrid Piller of Language on the Move, who reports on an archive of letters Saussure sent with varying explanations for his tardiness in delivering an article. The father of 20th-century linguistics had enormous trouble setting pen to paper. Colleagues attributed his procrastination to perfectionism and the incredible care he wished to take in presenting such new concepts. But let’s face it. Those are the excuses presented by most of my students (the ones who’ve run out of claims to dying grandmothers and lingering flu symptoms) when they beg for a last-minute extension. They’re the excuses I give my editor when I run past the noon deadline.

Still, procrastination in writing feels different, doesn’t it, from putting off scrubbing the bathroom or reading applications? Its roots seem to lie less in the warm soil of Saussure’s paresse scripturale (scriptorial laziness) than in the dry, strangulating mud of horreure d’ecrire.

Just yesterday, I met with a student who wanted to rewrite a piece she’d composed early in the semester, but she felt she had grown so much as a writer that the syntax of her September sentences and the way she’d leapt from paragraph to paragraph felt all wrong, like the work of someone else. No problem, I told her. You still want to write the same story, with the same character, but you have new (and, one hopes, more enlightened) ways to go about it. Keep the earlier version open on your desk and take out a new pad of paper, or open a new file on the computer. Then tell yourself you’re just going to write or type the story over again. Within half a sentence, your enriched sensibility will take over, and new sentences, a new point of view, a different scene will start presenting themselves.

Her eyes widened. I asked what was the matter. Ink was cheap, I said. Typing or scribbling would do no damage to her finger muscles. “But the page,” she said just above a whisper. “It’ll be blank.”

Yes, I know. That is the horror. Of course, it should pass quickly—write one sentence, and the page is no longer blank. But then there’s the next sentence, and the one after that.

Saussure’s procrastination, and my own, remind me of what I learned when I first tried downhill skiing at the advanced age of 17. To execute graceful turns as you descend the hill, you need to descend fast enough for the edge of the downhill ski to dig into the snow and swing you around. You won’t really stop being frightened of those turns until you work up enough speed to be sure they’ll work. But you won’t be able to work up that speed until you stop being frightened. The analogy to graphophobia is that you won’t stop fearing the blank page until you have filled it, but you can’t begin to fill it until you get over your fear of it.

Saussure managed to get his brilliant work out … barely. His Cours de Linguistique Générale was published posthumously. So following in his footsteps may make us feel we have brilliant companionship on the path of procrastination, but it does little else. We just have to get on the skis, face the slope, and push off. Here I go. In just a minute. Or maybe two.

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