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.