Deadlines as lifelines
One huge aid to the writing-rewriting dynamic is the deadline. It forces savage action. Like form or design, the deadline is not a prison to creation. It offers a promised release from the self-created prison of indolence, of not writing. It is as liberating as form, despite the sensation that it makes time weigh upon the act of writing. But that weight is not just the weight of expectation; it is also the weight of anticipation. Deadlines are good for us, stern though they may seem.
A deadline is like a supervisor who tells you impolitely to get on with it. The deadline pays heed to your writing; it does not pay heed to your life. The deadline set for the submission of a student’s portfolio of writing pays little heed to the different ways that students write, learn and live. The date is the same for everybody, and only illness or accident can provide excuses. The deadline is a necessary falsification of time. What’s more, somebody else has usually placed it in your calendar, which can make it feel almost like a physical threat. The threat is that some reward will not come your way should you fail to meet it. Those rewards can include the score your work receives or an advance of money. It may include promotion, sales, or the praise of a tutor, editor, critic or reader.
In the writing business, deadlines are a fact. Writers working in the media, especially, write against them daily, even hourly, and the practice of journalism provides outstanding training not only in punctuality and brinkmanship, but also in economy and clarity. Hemingway received his training on the Kansas City Star:’On the Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.’
Deadlines demand concision and conclusion; at some point, a piece of writing is as complete as it can be. The threat and the reward hanging over that final process are usually external factors. Acadamic years trot their tidy schedules; newspapers net their copy; publishers pump out books on schedule, in tandem with the schedules of their marketing and sales departments. In the middle of these demands, the writer sits with their stalled or stilted creations, with both eyes on the clock. I suggest you seize back the initiative, and use the power of time as a motivation to write. By setting your own deadline (it must be earlier that the official deadline), you take control of the process psychologically. You will also learn to appreciate how your deadline then gives form to the way you write and even to you conduct your life around that, as we explored in the section on discipline.