Why do you write like you're running out of time?
On how to deal with deadlines or the lack of them
If you’ve been following me on Twitter or Instagram, you’re probably aware that I’ve been busy. I recently wrote The 5 A’s of Decolonized Editing in BookTrust, How to get your first book published for We are the City, and an essay on how to handle well-intentioned but not necessarily helpful feedback in the print issue of Mslexia.
There’s something oddly comforting about being asked to write to spec, with a clear word count, an editor with a theme or vision they want to realize, and a deadline. Don’t underestimate the value of a good deadline. That’s what today’s piece is about.
When I was younger, I had to decide if I wanted writing to be a job or a hobby. A lot of people have to make this choice. Money is often a factor in choosing not to make writing a profession (very, very few writers make enough off their writing to live on) but deadlines are another. Many have anxiety at the thought of having to produce writing on demand. What if the muses don’t cooperate?
For a long time I was one of these people. I hated the idea of having to write a poem for a class assignment. I didn’t enroll in any creative writing classes because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to meet the deadlines. And even when I did start taking classes, it was only when I already had some draft work that I could dust off and bring to the class to polish. I couldn’t handle the idea of having to write on demand.
By the way, this is a valid strategy, and if you’re doing it too, you’re not alone. But now, as someone with one book published and two in progress, I realize I’m actually at peace with deadlines. I’ve learned strategies to make sure I can write even if inspiration doesn’t strike.
Moreover, I’ve realized I need deadlines. If I’m not eating, sleeping or working, I’m writing. Or I’m reading the kinds of things I want to be writing. Or thinking about writing. Or writing about writing. So, yes, a lot of friends gave me the side-eye about the Hamilton lyric that titles this post. But the point is, if I don’t have a deadline to say, “This is the point where I’m going to stop tinkering with this draft and set it aside,” I can lose sight of the bigger picture. The one where I write more than this one book I’m working on right now. These days, deadlines are how I know to stop writing.
There’s something very fulfilling about sending off a piece to a magazine or an editor and being done. A sense of closure that actually inspires you to write the next thing and the next thing. With short essays, externally imposed deadlines are great. Beyond that, I still take writing and editing classes to keep me accountable. I’ve realized I need someone to ask for the next 10K words of my WIP, to demand to read the next draft of my book, and generally to expect more of me than I’m currently delivering.
All the things I would have had if I’d chosen to make writing a job.