Why I Built A Microscope Instead of Writing My Book

True story: I recently made a microscope out of an old computer charger box, the lens from of a CDROM drive, and a bunch of tape.

I may have also cannibalized an LED from the front of my bike (no night riding for me anytime soon). The whole thing took me a weekend, and when I was done, I could take digital photos of plant cells with my smartphone.

If you’re wondering whether I’m MacGuyver, the answer is yes. I am MacGuyver.

I have a novel hanging over my head, one I recently declared I would finish by the end of the summer.

When I shared this with my family, I got something of a mixed response. Universally, they agreed it was cool, but then universally they wanted to know why I was spending my days off making a microscope when I could be writing. In other words, why was I wasting time on these little projects of mine rather than tackling the much larger project of finishing my writing? Wouldn’t a weekend spent writing do much more toward knocking that out of the way than a weekend spent harvesting lens parts and fashioning cardboard harnesses for my phone?

Fashioning a microscope with cardboard and old Mac parts.

They’re right, up to a point. I have a novel hanging over my head, one I recently declared I would finish by the end of the summer. With this mental stone sitting heavy in the middle of my calendar, spending a whole weekend designing, cutting up pieces of charger box, testing an instrument with no guarantees of it working on the other side amounted to an act of pretty hardcore procrastination.

It works! Sand detail through my homemade microscope.

Being called out on this sucks, to be sure. In a culture that values productivity more than creativity, results more than process, being called a procrastinator is tantamount to being called lazy.

But here’s the thing: Not all procrastination is made equal.

There exists that special breed of procrastination that actually helps get our creative juices moving. For me, it’s working on weird craft assignments where I build scientific equipment out of e-waste. At least one person I know makes origami cranes when a deadline looms at work. My partner cleans the house when she has to start any big project (she’s writing a dissertation now; our apartment absolutely sparkles).

These are the useful acts of procrastination — the creative procrastination — in which the stress of trying to exist in a product-oriented, perfection-oriented culture transduces into the need to make a physical product. Yeah, we have forms of procrastination that are totally useless.

Yeah, we have forms of procrastination that are totally useless.

No, it is not the most useful expenditure of time to spend an afternoon obsessively checking social media or reading reviews of last week’s Game of Thrones finale on the internet (both of which I have done while writing this post). Indeed, that video of a cat slowly pushing a drawer closed after getting caught stealing food is the funniest thing ever posted to the web, but it will not get your project off the ground.

All of these amount to a kind of passivity in the face of a big workload, but when we respond to the pressure to produce, to perfect, to imagine ideas bigger than we know we can handle by creating physical objects, what we’re doing is using the physical world to shape our mental space into a creative space.

Our creative projects so often fail because the end seems so far away, the process so messy and imperfect, that the easier pleasures of passive procrastination seem better and more readily attained. This is the value of creative procrastination: it gives us a way to push back against the mental pressures of creativity and to sublimate stress, fear, doubt — all the negative emotions that can orbit around creative projects, threatening to fall in and crush our brilliant ideas — into a physical medium that proves to us we can make a project.

This is the value of creative procrastination: it gives us a way to push back against the mental pressures of creativity and to sublimate stress, fear, and doubt.

That’s not passivity. It’s not exactly productivity, either, but it amounts to a kind of active putting off of work that deserves to be seen as a valuable part of any creative workflow. When I finished making my microscope, I had opened up a world of new sights and creatures to myself. I had also proven to myself that I could finish a big project. When I started writing at the end of the weekend, I did so with a creatively charged mind and a will to get through the toughest writing problems.

Minnow Egg Detail.

I sincerely hope, then, that the next time you have a project coming due and decide to spend an afternoon gardening beforehand, you don’t chastise yourself for wasting time. Congratulate yourself for knowing your process well enough to incorporate productive procrastination into it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to finish a chapter. Time to look up how to build a telescope.

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