deadlines and derring-do
Back in the days when I was guilty of “committing journalism” I had an editor first tell me the old truism that deadlines are a great way to foster creativity. I felt vaguely insulted by this notion at the time. It implied that creative people can be, essentially, lazy and that by having a deadline they are forced to overcome their inherent nature and produce in haste what they should have been producing in the leisure of their free weeks before.
Part of my affront to this observation was, I’m pretty sure, that deep down I knew it to be true, at least about me. (Probably not about you though.) I could dither and avoid the hard work of being creative with Olympic-level skill, and when faced with a looming and fast-approaching deadline, I could somehow muster the drive and call on the Muse and spew something that might pass for acceptable. (This particular editor would either rewrite everything I gave her or, if she also ran out of time, at least point out how she would have rewritten what I had given her if she’d had the chance. Our relationship did not last long.)
I recall these dark and troubling memories because I am currently writing to a deadline. For a long time (years, my friends, years) I had this idea for a story that could work double duty as an allegory for the sorry state of the nation. And then, sometime many, many months ago, I found a listing in the Calendar section of Duotrope’s Digest calling for stories on the very subject of my envisioned story. (Actually, on the metaphor I would employ in the story, not on the subject behind it.) In my imaginings of this story, I always saw it as suitable for a different magazine, one that had rejected one of my submissions but that had said kind things about it and encouraged future submissions. And some day I was going to write my allegory and submit it to this different magazine. And so my story existed in that awful state of a “sure thing” I would “get around to.” And there it remained for those years spoken of above.
Then came that Duotrope listing months and months ago. I realized it was time for me to write my allegory. Now, to be honest, I’m not sure how well my story will fit the theme of this other magazine. Sure, the overt subject matter is correct, but I think most readers, and certainly most editors, will quickly see past that and nod knowingly at the profound story behind the story. And that may be my undoing. I don’t get the sense that this other magazine is interested in social commentary, unless it were commentary about the overt subject matter, which it ain’t.
Yet here I am, working frantically on my story, trying to get it done in time for the submission deadline. (And, yes, I had let the story “simmer” for most of those months and months ahead of the deadline.) The bulk got written, somehow, but my problem had been that I didn’t know how to end it. The story is mostly a semi-drunken conversation between two friends around a campfire. (I seem to be writing a lot of gather-round-the-campfire stories lately.) The subtext of their words touches upon a lot of the rhetoric of the particular societal issue that troubles me enough to get creative about it. But that issue is not resolved in society, so I was not sure how it would be resolved in my story. (Is all of this coyness just too vague?)
But the deadline seems to have forced my creativity. The story is told, up to the end, and over the weekend a suitable ending revealed itself to me. (And I don’t suppose it is mere coincidence that this happened shortly after I finished re-reading Melville’s The Confidence Man, which employs a similar ending. Or non-ending, you might agree.)
So, gentle reader, I seem to have nearly completed a story (one that is not part of my Fathers and Sons cycle) with a couple of reasonable prospects of publication. All thanks to a vaguely insulting truism. I suppose I should be grateful for that.