Tunes for a Monday Morning
In the studio

On Deadlines

Tilly and the Oak Elder

It is ironic that after a series of posts dedicated to the value of "slowing down" in both life and art, I now face a stretch of time (after a period of poor health) in which I must pull out the stops and run full tilt in order to catch up on work again. Deadlines loom, the email box is crowded with neglected correspondence and my desk is littered with lists of Thing To Do, each one of them ridiculously long. So today, while I turn my focus to the daunting piles of work at hand, I pass the conversation to you, dear Readers, with this question:

How do you feel about creative deadlines, looming or otherwise? Do you find them helpful or harmful, inspiring or distressing...or some combination of the two? I've known writers and artists who can barely start without the pressure of a deadline, others for whom they're an intolerable burden -- but whatever part of this spectrum we inhabit, most of us must find ways to cope with deadlines, of one sort or another, if we want to send our work into a world where clocks and calendars rule.

Among the roots

Oak leaves in autumn

"A deadline is, simply put, optimism in its most kick-ass form," says writing teacher Chris Baty encouragingly. "It's a potent force that, when wielded with respect, will level any obstacle in its path. This is especially true when it comes to creative pursuits.”

But Carl Honore, author of In Praise of Slowness, is a little more sceptical: "Your best ideas, those eureka moments that turn the world upside down, seldom come when you're juggling emails, rushing to meet the 5 P.M. deadline or straining to make your voice heard in a high-stress meeting. They come when you're walking the dog, soaking in the bath or swinging in a hammock."

Field mushrooms

Dani Shapiro (in her lovely book Still Writing) advises establishing regular internal deadlines rather than relying on the external sort, over which we tend to have less control. "Some writers count words," she says. "Others fill a certain number of pages, longhand, have a set number of hours they spend at their desk. It doesn't matter what the deal is that you strike with yourself, as long as you keep up your end of it, that you establish a working routine for yourself, a rhythm. I prefer to think of it as rhythm rather than discipline. Discipline calls to my mind a taskmaster, perhaps wielding a whip. Discipline has a whiff of punishment to it, or at least a need to cross something off a list, the way my son Jacob does his homework. (Big sigh. Got it done.) Rhythm, however, is a gentle aligning, a comforting pattern in our day that we know sets us up ideally for our work."



Of course, there are forms of creative work requiring adherence to strict deadlines whether they fit one's personal rhythms or not. "I write for a radio show that, no matter what, will go on the air Saturday at five o'clock central time, " says Garrison Keillor. "You learn to write toward that deadline, to let the adrenaline pick you up on Friday morning and carry you through, to cook up a monologue about Lake Wobegon and get to the theater on time."

Likewise, Isabel Allende notes: "From journalism I learned to write under pressure, to work with deadlines, to have limited space and time, to conduct and interview, to find information, to research, and above all, to use language as efficiently as possible and to remember always that there is a reader out there."

It's rare to be able to do creative work without deadlines as part of the art-making process, whether those deadlines are external or internal, dreaded or welcome, paralyzing or energizing. Is it possible to create effectively while the clock is ticking? Can one work both fast and well, when required? And do so while maintaining a life that's slow, gentle, with a minimum of stress, and engaged with full attention?

Dear Readers, I'm endeavoring to find out. And while I do, I'm curious to hear what your own experience has been.

Underneath the oak

A panel from Calvin and Hobbs by Bill WatersonA favorite "Calvin and Hobbs" cartoon by Bill Watterson.


I'm prone to "creative meandering" (which is a fancy excuse for procrastination) so I always thought I would do poorly with deadlines. But writing a serialised novel has shown me how they can bring wonderful clarity, as well as helping me manage the story's natural momentum. They also make me more aware of the reader, which is mostly a good thing. I'm not sure I would always want to write to deadline, but in this case it has been invigorating. (Granted, my housework has suffered a great deal!)

I create my own creative boundaries, personal writing deadlines (I will write for x minutes, I will revise one poem each week, I will send submissions to X literary magazines each Sunday night, etc.). I find when I do this I develop the mindset to be creative almost on cue, like I've made room for the muse to visit and she knows that at a certain time I'll be at my desk. It is surprising how much one can accomplish towards short deadlines in small steps. If I start thinking of a creative project as a whole (a new manuscript of poems, a novel), I freeze up. If I set myself a deadline for a small fragment of work, I easily meet it because I'm not tharn.

I also schedule in "time around time," which is used for the meanderings that are so fertile, either walks or time to read or even visits to a museum. I find this time around time absolutely vital for writing.

Speaking of clocks and calendars, there is an interesting post on The New Yorker's blog about the subject of time:

I love your "time around time."

Health disabilities have created a very interesting border for me in the past several years. When I worked for a regular pay check and created 'on demand' I did it...for 40+ years. After each major deadline I would be depleted. Without acknowledging the pattern I left that form of "deadline" (look that definition up and it will frighten anyone 'sober.') with the symptoms of Invisible Disabilities. I would need to learn to recognize and revalue what I needed to create. Nature heals at medium to slow. Writing and performing my art today my body is my Muse. She loves the freedom of that 'creative meandering' within the structure of my Social Security check. It has taken years -- medium to slow pacing, to apply the discipline that worked to make something out of nothing. (I began my creative life as a pre-school teacher in wall-less classrooms).

I have found a practice that is based on living with Nature, and fold my body's requirements in with plenty of attention to sensation and study synchronicity. I note it. Write it. Blog. Let characters tell the story. Learn my culture's ancient chants to reconnect to deep knowing, big-picture application and daily needs. The process is shared in performance art and storytelling twice a year. I learn to use my adrenal system more lovingly, she has worn down so substantially it's the only way to be. The border? It's the surrounding territory that keeps me fluid and transportable. This is my safety pinned life: small, portable, elegant in its simplicity.

Beautifully stated, Mokihana.

Running a farm means our work hours are dictated by externals- the season, the animals, the weather & such. Sometimes the hours are very long & sometimes -less often in a house with two young boys!- my work day is light & relaxed. But the fact that it is outdoor nature-centred work makes a difference I believe. Even the weariest seasons such a lambing season provide a soul-satisfaction that makes up for lack of sleep, rather than the soul-erosion of other forms of over-work. In office jobs in my youth, exhaustion felt numb and lifeless- where now I associate tiredness from work with stronger emotions- with relief & satisfaction when things go well, or grief if something with the animals goes wrong, or hilarity and a laugh shared with my husband on those days when everything goes 'tits up'- to use the rude British phrase because I can't think of a more respectable one at the moment. :)

Mokihana, it sounds like you have found rhythms to your writing work equivalent to farm work rhythms.

Terri, if the deadlines facing you are a writers' equivalent to lambing season, my advice is to remember to eat well, accept any reasonable help that's offered - as my husband says, there's no one with with a score-card giving you extra points for doing everything yourself, and treasure every small success even in the midst of worries and setbacks.

I have just started following your beautiful blog Terri I love it. Thank you for all the nourishment and teaching it brings as I start painting again after a long recovery. I live over the Dartmoor hills with my black lurcher Tilley who loves hearing about your Tilly's adventures. Being an artist brings me back to life and peace turning away from distractions, I have a wonderful rhythm that takes me to the canvas I am inspired and excited. Also present is a lot of anxiety about my lack of direction and this shows in my work I am prone to "creative meandering" and leaving work unfinished. Pondering your vital and timely question I wonder is it possible to meet my need to create freely without demands on the work whilst also putting some healthy deadlines in place and finishing some paintings to send into the world. This is a Balance I am grappling with and calls my attention, I will continue holding the question for now.

I have nothing helpful to add on "deadlines" yet, I'm still thinking about what the word means to me as a musician. I'm not a composer, so there's no sense of "finishing" something, just ongoing cycles of practice, performance, and practice.

While I'm thinking about deadlines, I came here to say that these photographs of oak trees, field mushrooms, fall color, and Tilly, our Animal Guide through the English landscape, are wonderful.

Two black Tillys on Dartmoor! There's a magical story in there somewhere....

I am good (usually) with deadlines and know when to ask an editor: "Is that your deadline or the drop-dead-line. They can be days, even weeks and months different.

But when I have signed on to too much work under contract, I have a bad habit of skiving off and writing something that I want to write, right then. It loosens things up, because it reminds me that I am a creative person not just a type-writer. (And often it's my best work, though not always salable!)


I'm not surprised to hear you're good at deadlines, Ms Yolen. I can't imagine how you would have published as many books as you have if you weren't.

I'm in Uni so my life is one big honking series of deadlines. I'm a bit like Stephanie Pearl-McPhee in her quote in the picture captions, I procrastinate and then use the adrenaline and panic caused by the impending deadline to push me to work. Not proud of this. The fact that this habit might cause health problems later in life as Mokihana says in her comment, is a worrying thought.

I smiled when I saw Stephanie's quote by the way. I'm a fabric artist and love her books.

Well, I'm celebrating my 40th year of making a living by my art and, luckily enough for me, at this point in my career I am able to only take jobs (books with Ursula Le Guin and Joanne Harris and an illustration for a Alice Hoffman short story are on my drawing board right now) that excite me and so I use their deadlines as a way to prioritize what I do when. I LOVE my job and really find it hard NOT to sit and draw all day, every day, only the siren allure of yard and garden work seem to be able to pull me away. I do have to try like hell to keep the business of being busy (paperwork, art exhibitions, etc.)from eating up too much of any day. I'm supposed to be an artist/writer/sculptor not a book keeper after all...

I'm reading a book right now entitled "Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life" by Shelley Carson, PhD. Despite the hokey subtitle, it's really forcing me to evaluate how I time-manage all the necessary steps in a creative work. I don't know if this book's method will be helpful, since I just started reading it, but for me, there *is* an active and conscious creativity that happens alongside a deeper and subconscious creative process. For instance, I'm starting a new painting series. I initially decided to paint illustrations from some of my favorite quotations and poems. I chose each text carefully, taking my sketchbook to the cafe a couple times a week to work out the details, pencil and coffee in hands. So for me, this was the conscious and active component of this idea.

Well. Then I had a dream, and I hope this doesn't sound creepy, because the feature of the dream was you and Howard bought some land in the Southwest and invited me over for a tea party. Long dream short, I walked outside of your home there and there was an older fellow painting, and he said, "Did you know this land that Terri bought, it's the only land on earth that has this new species of cat?" And I said, no. "Yes," he continued, "it's a caracat, the only cat in the world that grows antlers".

I woke up and boom. I had to paint something entirely new, a zoomorphic and anthropomorphic series featuring cats.

So, I guess this seems reallllly off topic, but somehow that deeper, subconscious creative idea from the dream came from a quote I was actively working with in daily life, a quote from Dr. Clarissa Pinkola-Estes. And it seems really productive and magical to make time for both of these brainy creative journeys...

So now I'm thinking with both sorts of deadlines, the internal and external, (both of which I'm dealing with right now), I need to schedule time for 'active' creating and 'passive' creating. I have no idea how, but I suspect that allowing *both* to occur as they wish will help me not only to feel like I have more creative control within a deadline, but also to help make said deadline in a really awesome, magical way.

Like it or not, I'm on a fast approaching deadline right now for my book. If I don't meet it, I'll have major consequences. I have mixed feelings about it. The great thing is that I'm accomplishing much more than usual, and seem to be improving technique as I go. I don't like feeling like I "have" to create. In some ways, that takes the joy out of it. On the other hand, if I just waited to feel like it, I'd produce far less, and probably my work would be of lower quality because of my lack of regular discipline and growth. I find writing and making art love-hate (no, that's not it. love-struggle is more accurate)activities. Although I'm lost without them, there's often a lot of gutting through the process that's uncomfortable, but yields increasingly satisfactory results, both in product, and internal stretching.

This century I have developed a rhythm with the waxing and waning moon building up the idea from the Dark to the Full Moon then getting the finishing touches together in the Waning Moon and dreaming into being in the days 'round the Dark of the Moon. I enjoy working on big sprawling projects to get lost in & give myself 5 years with extensions available and ample time for sidelines.

NB Old Man Crow and I are old and remarkably unsuccessful but still feel compelled to make art and music which feeds our souls if not the bellies, the gardening still works for keeping a roof over our heads and feet on the ground.

Dear Mo Crow your reply to yourself about being 'old and remarkably unsuccessful but ...!' is just where I live as well. The rituals of aging and old turn upside down and inside out when the strings we pluck are the ones we picked in youth. This conversation is rich and nourishing, 'feeding my soul' as I know the chickens have already been un-penned, soup is warming up for breaking the fast and the dreams that were me me? They pointed out how odd the water level appeared (those emotional ones!)

"Check your sources," said the voice. Ho.

By the way, Terri, the mushroom/toadstool pictures are astonishingly beautiful.


I'm with Shapiro. It takes discipline to work without deadlines, but I can no longer function with the external ones OR the internal variety which sound just like the others. ("must, should" and all their cousins)

So a rhythm sounds much better. A bit of gentle motivation inserted at the right times to not end up in slippers and pyjamas all day having done nothing but imagining what you might achieve some other day when the stars are just right. ;-)

And acceptance of the days when that's all you have the stomach for. Which is probably the hardest bit to learn.

It would be so nice if our stress factors came neatly spaced every once a week or so, but unfortunately they always have a habit of bundling up, don't they?

Now that the years are quietly piling up behind me, I find a deadline somewhat refreshing. Retirement from my first life's love, teaching, has given me pause to reconstruct my life. The question of what to do now gave rise? I practiced Sarah's "Creative meandering" for several years but felt little satisfaction since the journeys led to dead ends. So I began to set mental deadlines for myself, write lists, make a "job" jar for cleaning, and write. I'm enjoying just the pleasure of putting words in story order, editing, and rewriting. Don't know if I'll ever publish, but this new way to set deadlines, write, and wonder is amusing. Oh, I do write for a local weekly when the spirit moves me with "real" deadlines, word count, and a set purpose. But my current passions are several fantasy worlds I'm creating, a garden to nuture, a sweet husband to cozen, and a life to live fully until I reach the apex of my years.

I love deadlines. :) I see them like the bones of the body of the creature upon which I am working (writing), the structure that holds it all together. Without a deadline I may meander through 5 different projects for weeks on end, and somehow, without that urgency, I feel that my work isn't as sharp, as full of fire, as it could be. My deadlines are created by my subscribers for my Wild Tales by Mail projects, which is a bit different I suppose than a contract, etc... and it brings me joy to know that what my deadlines mean is that people around the world will soon be receiving tales in their post boxes. I suppose I see them more as "what is" than "what should be"--without them I am actually harder on myself about my productivity! I seem to work very well under the deadline sort of pressure; perhaps it is something like the energy of a gray fox that must hunt in order to eat, vs. a domestic dog who is fed--for me, the necessity of the deadline is like the hunt for the vole; call me crazy, but I love it! :) (And this is not to insult domestic dogs at all, merely to say that I seem to thrive on a bit of urgency, which surely has it's downsides, ahem) Maybe this is all because I am a dreamy-watery meandering Pisces type, in desperate need of river banks. xo

Thank you Cynthia Rose. Equating the living art that is my usual course to farm work rhythms is reassuring. 'Lambing season' like midwifery in the second-half of life.

Youth, where you must be if you are in Uni, is blessed with the vigor meant to charge forth and clamber to the shaded hillsides. That you notice too much of that too often will tap too deeply at the well, as I have done, means that when you are an old woman you might have cared for your personal clay (your dear self) knowing nothing is permanent. Apprentice with Earth, she will teach you what you need. Simply ask. And count on the Moon, she is there for us ... really:)

How lucky indeed you are. The industry of your art has grown a broad and famous foundation to be able to choose from such grand collaborations! What I love reading in your comment was that last line about '...not[being] a book keeper after all...' For that bit, I laugh (at myself) grateful to know my book keeper is the dear white-haired Raven Man who keeps my bed warm, builds cozy nests and calls me 'wife.' Lucky I am for him!

I've done a slightly terrible thing dear Terri but I think you might forgive me--I stole the last shot of Tillie with her 'Advice' from chuck close at the nose that knows, plus the Calvin and Hobbes panel and sent it quick to a friend in Washington who is attending her grand daughters )ll years old) writing group and had just sent me a list of questions they want to explore that included "How do I get inspiration for writing". I think she will enjoy it.

As for me, the only time I write to deadline these days is in those weekly meetings with my Amherst Method group...we write to prompts in timed sessions of usually twenty minutes. Over the years I've kind of just learned to let myself go till a certain point near the end and then find the finish. I have a whole lot of flash fiction in dozens of notebooks. Occasionally I transcribe some choice ones. The only other deadlines for me are the monthly bills and other book keeping tasks. I am 'retired' and busy as I want to be. Blog posts sometimes take days to construct and I follow their lead.

I want to add one more thing--an observation--those mushroom shots remind me about fungi and spores...the way mushrooms are the flowering body of a vast network--web based organisms that are related to our lives in amazing ways...Paul Stamets gives an inspiring and fascinating lecture about various ways in which mushrooms can help humanity and the earth heal, expanding on the themes outlined in his TED Talk 'Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save The World,' at Bioneers 2011--

Creativity is like this...underground as the unconscious and semi conscious, and flowering into consciousness given the right conditions (maybe a deadline)

...and one more video...

As an illustrator I have mixed feelings about deadlines. I suppose I would never take on a job if the deadlines seemed unreasonable, having said that I think they are something of a double edged sword. They force the pace, sometimes a good thing when indecision would take precedent. They set boundaries and impose disciplines which can be a positive thing and force for good but on the whole I like them most when they are flexible.

I love your photographs by the way.

I love the caracat!

I wonder if in your dreams if you found your way to my old land in the desert at the Endicott West Retreat, which I didn't own (angels who sponsored the Retreat did), but it was my home for many years, and Howard loved it too. I had a big ol' beloved tom cat there named Oliver, a grey and black tabby, fierce and loving. He came into my life as a starving, flea-ridden kitten in Boston (thus named after the orphaned Oliver Twist), and lived to the age of 20, dodging coyotes and rattlesnakes with aplomb.

I'll always miss Oliver and I'll always miss the desert. In contrast to the beautiful view of Devon hills outside the studio window, I have a picture of the sun-baked land of Endicott West (in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains) as my computer's desktop pictures. Both places formed my soul.

"there's often a lot of gutting through the process that's uncomfortable, but yields increasingly satisfactory results, both in product, and internal stretching"

It's the same for me.

Hmmm. Considering the loveliness of your work, perhaps it's time we re-define what "success" means.

Thank you!

That's not terrible at all; I'm honored. Here's the full Chuck Close quote:

"The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case.”

I love this! I'm fascinated by mushrooms, which is odd because I have a phobic horror of other kinds of mold and fungus.

My friend and Chagford neighbor Andy Letcher published a terrific book on the history of "magic mushrooms" (one species of which grows wild in the fields around here):

Andy's music, writing, and folklore blog, The Bosky Man, is here:

My apologies for not answering every one of these thought-provoking comments, due to being in deadline-rush mode -- but I've read them all with interest and delight.

Please keep this fascinating conversation rolling!

Thank you, this means a great deal to me.

(((Terri))) there is a great freedom in making art and music that is totally under the radar!

I've been thinking a lot about to-do lists lately and so revisited this post. It seems to me, we'll never have it all done. We'll never be entirely caught up. The trick is to find comfort in work, in progress, and yet continually and gently reject the belief that we "should be" anywhere else. If only I were better at this. Love to you Terri. Thank you. As always.

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