The Trouble With Deadlines

Recently, one of the writers I’m working with was given a deadline to produce a document needed by a colleague. “Having a deadline feels like a relief,” she admitted. “Even if I have to stay up all night, I know I’ll get the writing done.”

This writer is working on a book project and her chapters have been dragging on and on. For a while this didn’t bother her all that much. Before we began working together, she had spent a year not writing the book for which she already had a contract. And to be honest, her slow pace didn’t concern me. At least she’s writing, I thought. We can smooth out the process later.

After a while, however, I became concerned. Instead of speeding up, the writing was slowing down, and it was taking her longer and longer to complete the second chapter. I thought I understood what was happening. When we first began working together, the writer was initially so pleased to be writing again, she was able to stop listening to the voices in her head. The voices that told her that her writing was no good, that nobody would care about what she was writing, that she had nothing profound to say about her topic.

But as the weeks passed, her doubts multiplied. Not just worried about her audience in general, she became concerned about what her former boss would think of her book. After that, she worried that her thesis advisor would be disappointed in her. “He’ll probably wonder why he ever passed my dissertation in the first place.”

I was just about to suggest we begin focusing on how to deal with these negative thoughts and voices, when she was given the deadline. I was not at all surprised by the relief she felt about a cut-off date by which the writing needed to be completed. I’ve worked with plenty of writers who at one time relied on deadlines to finish their work. And they would have continued to rely on deadlines if a part of them hadn’t finally rebelled against the abuse the deadlines were causing—the part of them that couldn’t stand any longer the anxiety and pressure the deadline created for them. “Enough is enough,” this sane self seemed to say. I’ve taken enough abuse. I won’t stand for one day more!”

In the short—or even the longish—run, deadlines work to silence the negative voices in our head. We simply don’t have time to heed them. And they back off, knowing that as soon as the deadline has passed, they can renew their insults. The problem here is the stress and strain the adrenaline needed to meet deadlines cause a writer. Each time the deadline approaches, the flight-or-fight response is triggered, and for a certain amount of time—for some writers it can be years—the writer decides to fight and completes the writing project.

One day, however, instead of choosing to fight, the writer flees—into cleaning the house, paying bills, making telephone calls, taking a walk. And once this happens, the writer, who has lost the ability to fight consistently, becomes blocked.

Am I concerned that after meeting this deadline, the writer I am working with will have even more trouble completing her chapters? Yes, I am. But I was already aware of her struggle and had been working on a strategy that would open a clearer path for her writing.

To be continued . . .

brooklyn wall

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