Robert Benchley on How to Avoid Writing

"Very often I must wait weeks and weeks for what you call 'inspiration'"

Robert Benchley (1889-1945). (American Stock Archive/Getty Images)

Humorist Robert Benchley describes the sort of commitment that not writing demands.

"It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing," Robert Benchley once said. "But I couldn't give it up because by that time I was too famous." In truth, Benchley had a great talent for writing—comic essays, for the most part, and theater criticism. But as Benchley was quick to admit, he had an even greater talent for not writing:

The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one. I have based it very deliberately on a well-known psychological principle and have refined it so that it is now almost too refined. I shall have to begin coarsening it up again pretty soon.
The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.
("How to Get Things Done" in Chips off the Old Benchley, 1949)

A master procrastinator, 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.

Like many of us, Benchley maintained a strict writing regimen, which involved postponing work until the last possible minute. In "How I Create," he described the sort of commitment that not writing calls for:

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. (See my book on Rituals: the Man.)
In the first place, owing to 26 years of constant smoking without once calling in a plumber, the space left for tobacco in the bowl of my pipe is now the size of a medium body-pore. Once the match has been applied to the tobacco therein the smoke is over. This necessitates refilling, relighting, and reknocking. The knocking out of a pipe can be made almost as important as the smoking of it, especially if there are nervous people in the room. A good smart knock of a pipe against a tin wastebasket and you will have a neurasthenic out of his chair and into the window sash in no time.
The matches, too, have their place in the construction of modern literature. With a pipe like mine, the supply of burnt matches in one day could be floated down the St. Lawrence River with two men jumping them. . . .
(from No Poems, or Around the World Backwards and Sideways, 1932)

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. If you'd welcome some advice on how to skip all the preliminaries, see Writers on Writing: Overcoming Writer's Block and Writing Rituals and Routines: Advice on How to Become a More Disciplined Writer.