I’ve read a number of articles about writer’s block over the last couple of years, articles that examine the neurological reasons why we sometimes stare hopelessly at the blank page. A common thread in these articles is fear. It turns out that fear of failure, fear that what we write won’t be any good at all, can actually impede our ability to think creatively. This is something that I can’t afford right now, because in September I started my thesis semester at my MFA program. The task is daunting. I have 11 weeks to complete 100 pages of a fiction project of publishable quality. Even with the majority of the stories for my thesis drafted before September, I am still looking at two new story drafts and at least three intensive revisions. When I actually confronted the amount of work involved, I felt a little panicky. I couldn’t seem to get started. Then in my first meeting with my thesis advisor, I sat down with a calendar and set myself a series of deadlines.
Deadlines don’t seem like the most natural thing to help free up our creative thinking processes. In high school and in college I had writer friends who rebelled against deadlines, who thought that their creativity shouldn’t be constrained. But here’s the thing, facing a huge project like a collection or a novel can be completely paralyzing. It’s like trying to run a race while keeping your eyes on the finish line the whole time. For a while it can seem like we aren’t getting anywhere. Breaking it down, though, gives us small manageable goals to work towards. I just have to reach that next corner. I just need to draft one story this week.
In effect, small deadlines force us to stop staring in horror at the whole picture, and simply get down to work on the pieces. A large project doesn’t seem so unmanageable when we can think about it one story, or one chapter at a time. Plus, as we meet each deadline (or just complete each piece, on deadline or not), we feel a sense of accomplishment about what we have done, not hopelessness in the face of what we still have to do. If we can draft a new story in two weeks, then we can definitely revise a story in one week.
Finally, deadlines force us to spend the necessary butt-in-chair time. One of the hardest parts of writing is actually sitting down and writing. Somewhere in the back of my brain I still assume that writers sit around in cafes, drinking lattes and scribbling artistically in their notebooks. The reality of my chosen vocation is that in order to produce work we have to sit alone at desks for hours at a time, struggling with sentences and how to make that piece of dialogue sound just right. Writing takes up time that sometimes I’d rather be spending with friends, or maybe baking pumpkin bread, or taking a nice walk through the fall colors, or doing my laundry. The work requires sacrifice and discipline, practice and lots of time spent with our butts in chairs and our fingers on our pens/keyboards. Trying to commit the time on our own can be really, really hard. Especially when the part of our brains where the fear of failure lurks is telling us that what we really need now is a nice walk to the store in the sunshine to pick up stuff to make cookies.
Deadlines are the excuse we need to make those sacrifices to we can get the work done, even if we have to start wearing all our weird pairs of socks because we haven’t done laundry in two weeks. Setting deadlines helps us put pressure on ourselves to do the work. And while the pressure isn’t always pleasant, it can help unleash our creativity. When we have to turn in a story, we will sit down and write ten pages. Some of those pages, at least, will be good. But at least the story will be down on paper, and we can move forwards from there.
Miriam Cook, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow