Rearranging the House at Night

In our new series, Procrastination Confessional, writers share the strange things they do to avoid writing. 

Ann Beattie’s procrastination still life.

It has long been my assertion that writers will do anything in order to avoid writing. Ask any of my former students. Teaching used to be the perfect way to avoid writing, as seminars and private conferences took up a lot of time, along with written comments. Have you heard that writers are a bunch of narcissistic alcoholics? (Probably Trump could not be so eloquent, but don’t we suspect that’s what he thinks?) Narcissism, itself, is time consuming—and drinking may be more alluring to some than dyeing all their white shirts black (yes, that was one writer friend’s method of avoidance) or midnight gardening wearing an LED visor (why start writing so late?). I happen to be a night owl. To avoid writing, I might Google this, tap my dictionary icon—etymology, another way to drive away serious thought—or look at some of my husband’s paintings and ask why he’s painted so few birds (a guaranteed rousing discussion).

But now I’ve avoided writing this piece long enough, so let me confess: At night, feeling I should be quiet because of aforementioned husband, I try to avoid writing in my favorite time period by assembling—is there any way I can make this sound more dignified?—tableaux of found objects from within my own house, so that something funny will await the unsuspecting. (We have guests, too—my life is not just a prolonged prank pulled on my husband.) Imagine my delight, muffling a chuckle [professorial interjection: Exactly what would this sound like?], as I realize that the eBay hat with foxtails (go on, trolls, hate me—that will provide me with diversion) might be put atop my husband’s sculpted bust of me, with the faux-fur (I’ve got some shame) “stole” looped around my neck to dangle in a casual way. Alongside this, one of my favorite gifts, ever, from another writer who shall be known only as “E.” A turkey with a leather nose, so lifelike that the night I received it, I laughed and laughed, then placed it, inadvertently, below an air vent, so that when I saw it in the middle of the night, feathers ruffling in the breeze, I almost had a heart attack. Back to the assemblage: Why not add, oh, the jester’s hat bought in Prague? (One time, when another writer came to dinner, my husband and I, in a major miscalculation, put on our hats, only to be told we’d worn them TWO YEARS IN A ROW) … Anyway, with so much tabletop to spare, good to add the tiger mother with cubs that bob at the flick of a finger, and, in a moment of inspiration, drop the Edgar Allan Poe mask (a gift from a journalist friend who also avoided writing by wrapping and mailing, a really serious method of avoidance) on the bust, then replace the jester’s hat and see if the shark fin could be added atop the hat like a cherry on the perfectly demented sundae. Add the lion hand puppet with the kindly face and rearrange with politically incorrect fur tails, and voilà. All that’s needed is the white mouse to bring up the rear with Lioness, and to step back.

Back into the quiet abyss of night, a soothing time for me, a time of maximum creativity, if it can’t be successfully avoided, that beckons me to my MacBook Pro, where email goes unanswered and manuscripts are filed in a way impossible to find. (Would I have thought this piece was “Ann’s New Essays” or “Ann’s Pictures”? Frankly, should there be another file, with a name you’re probably already thinking?) With the night ahead of me (after quickly turning on the light and taking an iPad photo of my tabletop wildlife faute de mieux), the last diversion is sitting at my desk and wondering if the floodlight outside hadn’t burned out, whether the sound I suspect is the deer, chewing the tall phlox, is indeed the deer or the groundhog we’ve heard probably lives elsewhere but camps out with its buddies (this would include f— buddies), burrowed under our porch (yes, the person who knows all about gardens believes in groundhog summer camp). No matter! The night is young, until the sky begins to exhibit its fuzzy pink haze, like the belly of an as-yet-uninvented animal that occupies my mind—a visual image for fiction, a stand-in for the person it’s based on, so transformed that it will never be recognized, a stage set soon be struck, on my sleepy path to further avoidance of writing.

Ann Beattie’s short story “Ruckersville” appears in our Fall Issue. She is the author, most recently, of The Accomplished Guest. Read her Art of Fiction interview.

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