How To Avoid Writing


"A master procrastinator, Robert Benchley is remembered for his work at The New Yorker magazine in the 1930s -- and even more for his deadline-defying high jinks at the Algonquin Round Table."

Famous for his essay "How to Avoid Writing," Benchley used a later short piece, "How I Create," to further elucidate his technique while still managing to not get much done:

Very often I must wait weeks and weeks for what you call "inspiration." In the meantime I must sit with my quill pen poised in the air over a sheet of foolscap, in case the divine spark should come like a lightning bolt and knock me off my chair on to my head. (This has happened more than once.) . . .

Sometimes, while in the throes of creative work, I get out of bed in the morning, look at my writing desk piled high with old bills, old gloves, and empty ginger-ale bottles, and go right back to bed again. The next thing I know it is night once more, and time for the Sand Man to come around. (We have a Sand Man who comes twice a day, which makes it very convenient. We give him five dollars at Christmas.)

Even if I do get up and put on part of my clothes--I do all my work in a Hawaiian straw skirt and bow tie of some neutral shade--I can often think of nothing to do but pile the books which are on one end of my desk very neatly on the other end and then kick them one by one off to the floor with my free foot.

I find that, while working, a pipe is a great source of inspiration. A pipe can be placed diagonally across the keys of a typewriter so that they will not function, or it can be made to give out such a cloud of smoke that I cannot see the paper. Then, there is the process of lighting it. I can making a pipe a ritual which has not been equaled for elaborateness since the five-day festival to the God of the Harvest.

From "No Poems: Or Around the World Backwards and Sideways"
(1932) by Robert Benchley, Illustrated by Gluyas Williams.

"Eventually, of course--after sharpening pencils, making out schedules, composing a few letters, changing typewriter ribbons, relighting his pipe, building a book shelf, and clipping pictures of tropical fish out of magazines--Benchley did get down to work."

-- Richard Nordquist, Writers On Writing.

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