Katherine Howe is the author of “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane” (see my review) which is being published today.
When people first hear that I wrote The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane while I was in graduate school for American studies, preparing for my qualifying exams, teaching undergraduates, conducting dissertation research, their eyes widen by a noticeable fraction. “Wow,” they say. “How did you do that?”
Usually I am honest. “By getting nothing done on my dissertation.” I confess. In fact, one incontrovertible lesson that I have learned from writing this novel is the paramount importance of procrastination.
Perhaps procrastination isn’t the proper word. After all, procrastination has a substantially negative connotation. It implies the wasting of time, the willful failure to make any progress. It suggests the active avoidance of appropriate tasks. We are an achievement oriented culture, after all, and we privilege effectiveness. Procrastinators like me are a blight on improvement and efficiency. Whole support groups exist for the procrastinator’s eradication.
What I am really talking about is the importance of creating open space in the mind, room for ideas to move around. This kind of room is only available within a measure of idleness, and that comes only by effort.
For instance, there I am, roaming around town with my dog, putting off reading another book for my qualifying exam. As long as I am out here, on the street, in motion, I can’t possibly be expected to read another book from my orals list, can I? I can’t grade any freshman composition papers either. I can’t check my email. The dog needs his exercise – this is important work. I have an excuse, but it’s a thin one.
Over the course of our rambles, we come upon a house down near the water, empty for some time. Years, judging by the level of decay to the clapboards. In the interest of a delayed return to my desk, and because the dog is a bit of a noser, we elect to traipse up the steep approach to the house. We peer in the windows, kick the flagstones on the path for awhile. In the back, along the overgrown shortcut to the waterfront, we find a shed. The shed’s door has a rusted horseshoe nailed to it, surrounded by what look like carved names that the dog and I have trouble making out. We gaze on the door for awhile, sifting through reasons why the horseshoe might be there, shading in a back story to substitute for the absence of any credible explanatory facts. After awhile the dog grows restive and insists we proceed to the beach as promised. I file the odd horseshoe away with all the other observations collected in the time when I am not doing what I am supposed to be doing, another ingredient added to the stew.
My dog and I have a fundamentally different approach in this regard. He is focused, goal oriented. Investigate, and then reach the beach, where there will be swimming. My goal is more diffuse. Idleness and laziness are not the same, after all; in idleness work is still being accomplished, albeit of a different kind. In the space created by my procrastination, an idea can take shape, built on the magic in that horseshoe.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane begins with a Harvard graduate student named Connie Goodwin, who is also studying for her qualifying exams. But Connie is a better worker than I am. When she is forced to spend the summer cleaning out her grandmother’s abandoned house in Marblehead, she resents the idleness and distraction that this task will foist upon her. Luckily, procrastination has allowed me to create a world for Connie to explore, peppered with surprising turns of events. Connie will discover that one of the Salem witches wasn’t so innocent after all, and that discovery will have profound, and dangerous, impact on her life.
I am glad that Connie isn’t a procrastinator – she has work to do. She has a mystery to solve, a life hangs in the balance, and the truth about Deliverance Dane hovers just out of her reach. But for my own part, making my way with my busy dog, down to the beach with my head suddenly knocking full of ideas, it turns out that procrastination has its uses after all.
For more about Connie and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, including upcoming book signings and other events, visit http://www.physickbook.com.
And for procrastination, you can find me on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Katherine-Howe/47456997235
Or on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/katherinebhowe