The thing about growing older is that we have a shared experience with our self. Each year I round the Sun I move an inch closer to knowing who I am; knowing how my mind and body work.
For years this knowing myself seems an integral part of being alive. I don’t recall having existential questions when I was in kindergarten, nor in the first years of elementary school. Everything I was back then seemed tight-knitted to everything I did. I was my actions, so to speak.
But during adolescence, part of the “I” gets split from the rest: the actions no longer seem as perfectly synchronized with who I envision myself as. Whereas I would lie in my bed and be an astronaut when I was a kid, I could no longer fathom the action in the same way as I left childhood. It was too obvious to me that my imagination was not action in the same sense that the real world considered events worthy of that description.
That marks the time when we begin to form who we are, based on how we react to the realisations of our loss of childhood. My primary reaction to most things has always been to draw back into myself, to hide away from the realisations, to procrastinate the answers. The less I knew, the more potential, was what I believed.
Nowadays I can feel the procrastinator in me in every sense of life. It’s a demon, but it’s also a saint. A saint when I manage to treat it right; to turn it benign. In the worst circumstances, it can be a downright paralyzing kind of procrastination, rendering me unable to perform even simple tasks such as getting out of bed. On days like those, where I find no answers, I end up huddled with a cup of cocoa, a movie I’ve seen a hundred times, and texting days worth of texts in 24 hours. The most painful in hindsight is that these are the days I ruin most for myself. The days where I cannot get myself to do anything are at the same time the days where I stay awake far into the night.
Whether that’s a sign of hunting for ideas, inspiration, or just plain stupidity, I don’t know. But I’m partial to the latter. It’s ignorance, mostly, I think. Leading me astray on days that were already sunk deep in the ocean from the get-go.
On other days, and pleasantly more often the last years, I’ve instead managed to perform the saintlike version of procrastination. Just as boredom is not always bad, procrastination is not always to be frowned upon, not always an evil spirit taking possession of the industrious mind. These procrastinating days are filled with substantial talk with my closest family and friends, and is guided by the reading of literature I have stored up, ready to offer me advice on various subjects and inspire me to get back on the task.
Currently I’m reading Draft No. 4 by John McPhee, taking it slowly, one chapter at a time. McPhee is one of my all-time greats. An extremely well-known name in non-fiction circles, he is less distributed in Denmark, and I consider myself lucky to have happened upon him. In Draft No. 4 he offers advice on writing, and though I’ve read most of the pieces already published on The New Yorker‘s website, it’s such a pleasure to hold the book in my hands, turn the pages, let the words sink in without rushing them.
There is so much of the advice in there that I can use. His chapter on structure alone would be enough to warrant my purchasing of the book, giving me new ideas on how to structure any of my own writings, from the fiction to the non-fiction, to the thesis. Even in genres with great differences there’s still an opening to play with the structure. Even in something as set-in-stone as a thesis, there’s the opportunity to use creative structure as a vehicle to create progression.
In this way I’m using my procrastination tendencies for good instead of evil. Taking time to learn from the best, to try to always better myself, learn new ways and new shades of this skill that I’ve always envisioned myself as possessing. The older I’m getting, the more acutely aware I am that writing is a skill that is never perfected. And so I shouldn’t be disheartened by reading greats like John McPhee, Ursula K. Le Guin, Henry Miller, for whom every word on the page seems so effortless and graceful.
As much as everyone is gifted with different levels of raw talent, the best only ever become the best by working hard at their craft, perfecting a skill that can’t be perfected. I often have trouble getting even thoughts going, running the same two or three words over in my head numerous times before finally getting on with it, or moving on altogether. I ascribe that to a counter-productive sense of perfectionism, but it might be something else. I’m no expert in thought processes, and still only a young student of my own. But I’m getting tips on how to move on anytime I read an inspired piece of writing.
That’s the only true drawback about my newfound way of dealing with procrastination: I immediately get drawn so far into the pieces I’m reading, that I imagine myself doing that kind of writing, getting new dreams (sometimes reinvigorating old dreams) that I can see myself pursuing, when there’s still this last big chunk of accomplishment in front of me.
Reading pieces of David Foster Wallace’s writings on tennis, in the collection String Theory, I find myself longing back to the days when what I wanted more than anything was to be a sports writer or commentator. I can still easily see myself in that role. My love of sports is as strong as ever, always enjoying the competitive aspects, the narratives that show up when you look for them, the intense struggle against failure, often more so than a battle to win. Sports to me is the most tragic of all arenas, and yet the most beautiful. It’s where humankind tests itself against itself; sets clear rules and boundaries; wins or loses, devastatingly, but not fatally.
I’ve strayed far off the paths I once set out to walk on. Some of that was down to evolution, refining my ideas of myself, becoming more enlightened in a clouded world. But a lot of it happened because of neglect toward my younger self. Forgetting the dreams and ideals about what constitutes good in this life.
Getting older and learning more about oneself is also about re-learning things about oneself. I don’t know what I’ll make of this in half a year when my life as a university student is at its end. But I feel positive in knowing that I’m regaining my sense of wonder, finding more subjects interesting now than ever before.
I feel that the older I get, and the more I know of the world, the more I still want to know.