The Duchess of Deadlines

I’m a procrastinator. There’s a twelve-step programme for that, Procrastinators Anonymous. I mean to join it someday, but so far I just keep putting it off. Just as well, really – they never get around to holding the meetings.

Joking aside, I am a procrastinator – but, oddly enough, I’m good with deadlines. I can honestly say I’ve never missed a writing deadline, which is not the same thing as saying that I’ve always had my writing done way ahead of deadline. Sometimes I’m in just under the wire, but I’m in. I was surprised to learn that the ability to make deadline isn’t universal to writers; an editor friend of mine sets her writers’ deadlines a week ahead to allow for procrastination, and she says she’s not alone.

I can attribute my ability to meet deadlines to two things. One is Keith Rossel, who was my high-school history teacher, and whose attitude to deadlines was strict. Miss the deadline, lose the mark. The second is the fact that my first steady writing gig was in radio. The work had to be done in time to go on the air.

As the nearest CBC studio is nearly three hundred kilometers (or about a hundred and eighty miles) from home, the sensible thing to do was to prepare multiple pieces and record them all at once. That’s what I did. I recorded things that wouldn’t be aired for months. Yes, it was an extremely early deadline, but it saved me time, money and the goodwill of the radio professionals I worked with.

Duke Ellington once said, “I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.” The first time I read that, I said, “Right on, Duke!” For years I procrastinated at getting a novel done. When I entered the Three-Day Novel Contest, that seventy-two-hour deadline did wonders for me. I finished my first shitty first draft. I think that was the first time I consciously realized that Deadlines Are Our Friends.

Right now I have a little list of deadlines taped to my office wall. Is that stressful? No, not at all – quite the opposite. I love that list. I look at those little due dates and know which pieces I have to write first and which I can put on the back or middle burner.

I have a little nag in my head. Whatever I’m doing, she niggles away at me about other things I would-be-could-be-should-be doing. If I let her, she can seriously screw up my writing time. I point my inner nag’s attention at the deadline list and tell her to shut up. It usually works, and the absence of that voice lets me get on with my writing.

Deadlines, like grammar and punctuation, get a bad rap in the writing world. But, like grammar and punctuation, deadlines aren’t there to torture writers – they’re there to help us. Knowing that this story is due tomorrow, and that article at the end of next week, frees us. We don’t have to decide what to work on first – the deadlines tell us.

It’s like artificial will power. I dunno about you, but I’ll take all of that I can get.

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