The well-known ailment of any artist, writer, illustrator, photographer, comedian, actor – anyone creatively inclined at all, in fact – is of course creative block. So often, this mental obstacle that seems to stifle our ability to think clearly about creative challenges is met with hours of another well-known symptom: procrastination.
Indeed, this symptom is increasingly common throughout the world – in office blocks and class rooms, in the student dormitories of undergraduates and post graduates not working on their theses or essays, and in our own homes, where chores are put off in favour of watching that latest episode of Catastrophe, or simply staring at a spot in the wall above the fireplace until you can’t tell whether you’re asleep, awake, or in some crazed semi-reality where everything is off-white and always out of focus.
These life-draining hours spent putting off new projects is often predicated on the illusion that tomorrow will contain more favourable – or even optimal – conditions for beginning it. And this theory itself is of course based on the clear untruth that there will ever be any perfect or optimal conditions for doing anything, anything at all.
Yet what so often happens when trying to begin a new creative project – or that novel you’ve been working on – is that the more we stall and procrastinate after the initial spark of inspiration, the more we stifle the force it fired within us, until eventually – tragically, inevitably – we douse it completely without catalysing a beginning at all.
Part of this may have to do with overthinking, which is an especially common form of procrastination. Picasso famously captured the error with thinking that art can begin with planning or a novel can begin with a thousand post-it notes when he said: “To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.”
Another great artist articulates the psychological underpinnings of this tendency with an uncommon clarity and vulnerability. Eugene Delacroix’s journal provides us with a transcendental, moving meditation on procrastination and self-doubt.
In an entry from April of 1824, two weeks before his twenty-sixth birthday, Delacroix writes:
“I’m always having excellent ideas, but instead of working on them while they are still fresh in my imagination, I keep telling myself that I will do them later on — but when? Then I forget about them, or worse still, can no longer see anything interesting in ideas that seemed certain to inspire me. The trouble is, that with a roving and impressionable mind like mine, one idea drives another out of my head quicker than the changing wind alters the direction of a windmill’s sails. And when I have a number of different ideas for subjects in mind at once, what am I to do? Am I to keep them in stock, so to speak, quietly waiting their turn? If I do that, no sudden inspiration will quicken them with the touch of Prometheus’s breath. Must I take them out of a drawer when I want to paint a picture? That would mean the death of genius.”
Delacroix’s solution to this is to turn to the classics as a clarifying force of inspiration:
“I believe that when one needs a subject, it is best to hark back to the Classics and to choose something there. For really, what could be more stupid? How am I to choose between all the subjects I have remembered because they once seemed beautiful to me, now that I feel much the same about them all? The very fact that I am able to hesitate between two of them suggests lack of inspiration… What I must do to find a subject is to open some book capable of giving me inspiration, and then allow myself to be guided by my mood.”
Four days later, he returns to this topic, reasoning that at the heart of procrastination lies self-doubt – and the most effective cure for it is immediate action:
“I must never put off for a better day something that I could enjoy doing now. What I have done cannot be taken from me. And as for this ridiculous fear of doing things that are beneath my full powers…. No, this is the very root of the evil! This is the mistake which I must correct. Vain mortal, can nothing retrain you, neither your bad memory and feeble strength, nor your unsuitable mind that fights against ideas as soon as you receive them? Something at the back of your mind is always saying: “You who are withdrawn from eternity for so short a time, think how precious these moments are. Remember that your life must bring to you everything that other mortals extract from theirs.” But I know what I mean. I think that everyone who has ever lived must have been tortured by this idea to some degree.”
Procrastination is by no-means a modern phenomenon. No doubt Homer spent days picking sand from his toes after walking on the beaches of the Aegean rather than pen the Iliad. Shakespeare undoubtedly spent many weeks talking about how high the price of apples were rather than start working on Romeo and Juliet. And it spares no-one: not the troubled French artist nor those writers we celebrate as geniuses: after all, Steinbeck reasoned, that to avoid procrastination, one simply had to get on with it: “One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all […] I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.”
Yet in our digital world, it is undoubtedly harder to concentrate, and procrastination is far easier to fuel when the means of distraction are all around. We know, for instance, that digital devices are disrupting our creative tendencies when all we really need is silence and – in fact – boredom.
To steady ourselves in a thrashing sea of distraction and procrastination, then, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix remains an invaluable source and reference book for all creatives struggling with creative block – and two centuries after it was first written. Not only does it provide readers with an invaluable record of the inner life of one of humanity’s greatest artists; but also serves as a timeless trove of insight into the universal afflictions (and their cures) which take the challenges of the creative life and turn them into art.