The Loneliness of the Long Distance Deadline
My business partner Jenn has a master’s degree in journalism and everything about her is journalism squared. She’s inquisitive, thorough, writes an amazing letter and hardly ever takes no for an answer. I mean she has a lot of other special qualities but this blog post is not entitled Love Letter to Jenn. That’s not a blog post. That’s a novella.
And you know what else screams journalist about Jenn? She’s on it.
I wanted to focus on her journalistic expertise because I too wrote for newspapers in the fabled past. I wrote for them just long enough to realize I should definitely not be writing for newspapers. However, I will always be grateful for my short stint at a newspaper because it taught me something of inestimable value and something I’m convinced every writer needs in his or her toolbox. I’ll never forget my trial-by-fire into this practice. Our local newspaper had hired me as a dance reviewer and an editor accompanied me to my first official performance. We were walking out, talking, my head full of ideas, my metaphors spinning and, wait a minute, was that solo in the corner of the stage during the first act maybe an homage to one of Trisha Brown’s “Accumulations”? I couldn’t wait to read, research and think deeply about what I’d seen. Maybe order some books, gather some articles. I was so excited about that! I turned to my editor and said: When do I hand in this review?
And he said: in 35 minutes.
Yep. That was my deadline.
Pending hypnosis treatments, I will never forget the terror of that blank screen, my rising panic and at least seven stages of denial I whipped through before writing the piece. I mean it was pretty clear. Write the review right and right now or pick up your toys and go home. You don’t argue with your editor on your very first assignment. That comes later. But on top of the PTSD I experience just thinking about that moment, I have to also recall the pretty-good-not-half-bad-kinda-one-of-my-best reviews that came out of it. So when writers complain to me about not having enough time to write what they want, I silently say to them: You want to get better? Shut up and meet a deadline.
Or not so silently. It may seem counter-intuitive but often the more time you give yourself, the less time you have. I am always making my students set deadlines and holding them accountable. I set deadlines for my own work daily. I don’t get a prize for meeting them, I just meet them. I don’t beat myself up for missing them, I just don’t. I find this practice so important that I’ll encourage people who don’t have a real deadline to just make one up and treat it as set in stone. I’m not saying that great writing doesn’t take time because it does—a lot of time. I’m just saying you don’t have it to waste. Have the courage to follow your first idea, which might be your best one. Learn how to pick the right word and not wander off into that extraneous description. Deadlines can pressure that unruly chunk of coal into becoming a diamond. Just ask Hemingway.
So, respect yourself and cherish your deadlines. That’s the best lesson from every journalist to every writer. Oh, and once you’ve mastered the deadline, maybe we can talk about the arcane art of the lede.