Writing under Duress

It seems that lately I have been so over-scheduled with life that I am always doing things at the last minute – not because I am delaying and stalling, but because I have so many tasks in my life that I can only focus on the one with the shortest, most-immediate deadline.  My job is reactionary (answer the customers’ calls as they come in, etc.), my recreational activities are reactionary (if it doesn’t rain as predicted, go water the garden; if my pitcher isn’t throwing strikes, replace him, etc.), my home activities are reactionary (if the laundry basket is full, wash it; if the cat’s bowl is empty, fill it, etc.).  I don’t know if it has to do with my own inability to say “No” when things come up or if it is simply a factor of where I am in life: fighting to pay bills, chauffeuring one kid or the other to one activity or another, attempting to eat more home-grown veggies. Whatever the cause, I find myself moving from one frantic problem to another, pretty much all the time.

This is, as you can imagine, having an impact on my writing.  It is impacting my ability to write because I can’t calm my mind down enough to focus in on the story before me.  It’s impacting the quality of my writing because I don’t spend as much time editing as I should and after not spending as much time with the initial writing of the story as I should, the story already has two strikes against it.  It’s impacting my will to write because realistically I need to focus on paying the bills before focusing on hobbies I hope will some day pay a few of the bills.

But as I sit here and attempt to write this post, once again under a state of duress due to a scheduling snafu of my own making, I can see this situation as not entirely bad.  Sometimes, having a tight deadline is the kick-in-the-butt I need in order to get the job done.  Deadlines, for all their many, many negative qualities, have a way of positively focusing my energy onto the task at hand, making me better able to get the job done more quickly and with more quality sometimes than I might do with looser timeframes.  I have actually done some of my best -quality writing on a deadline (read: the night before or the morning of the deadline). In some ways it’s because the extra fluff I tend to include in my first drafts gets skipped because I just don’t have time to put it in.  On the other hand, these pieces tend to be my least favorite, either because of how stressed out I felt when writing them or because they are lacking the aforementioned fluff.

Having written several pieces under this type of scenario in the past few months, I’m left wondering:  how long can one keep living from one deadline to the next?

I’ve often mentioned my lack of planning when it comes to the actual content of my writing.  I wouldn’t want to write any other way.  However, all of the rest of my life is scripted and structured to the point that everything is, has and requires a deadline:

  • I have several calendars for different aspects of life (work, childrens’ schedules, general household appointments).  If it isn’t on one of the calendars, it likely isn’t going to get done.
  • Plants need to get into the garden at specific times, with little flexibility if I want to have a reasonable harvest.
  • Baseball practices or games, band competitions, dance rehearsals, school activities… these all have set dates and times which have no flexibility to them.
  • Television… well, as much as I don’t want to acknowledge it, I do somewhat pay attention to the first-run times for shows I like.  Though lately between On-Demand and the DVR, the TV Schedule is not really dictating my life all that much.

The point is that as I attempt to figure out how to have writing bubble up to the top of the to-do list more often and more easily, I am coming to realize that I may have to actually force the issue and put writing on the calendar.  I have Big Ideas for things I’d like to write, projects that will take more than a random half hour here or there if I want to complete them. Planning anything around or about writing is new to me… I’ve never done it. Now as I attempt to plan writing into my days and weeks, and as I attempt to set date-driven goals and deadlines for myself, I’m finding it difficult to do. I have attempted to treat it as I would treat a project at work, though I am steadfastly refusing to open up Microsoft Project to set my targets and milestones (at least so far).  I have tried toning it back and just putting 30 minutes into the calendar – blocking out a half hour every day so that the phone, internet, email and everything else are off.  I’ve tried withholding coffee until I have written for a half hour such that the coffee is my reward (this is actually the strategy that has worked the best so far, though it doesn’t feel sustainable).

While I figure this out, I’m forcing myself to write a little bit every day.  But I’m curious how others manage their writing projects, both short term and long term.  Do you schedule writing times? Do you make big plans and targets for projects and then just work toward them little by little as you can?  Do you have any particular tools which help keep you on task and help you avoid having to write while feeling like you are held captive by a deadline?  What I’m doing now in terms of my Pavlovian conditioning with the risk/reward of coffee as a reward for writing is helping, but I’m sure I can do better.  I look forward to your ideas.

4 thoughts on “Writing under Duress

  1. The late Douglas Adams’ quote re deadlines is very pertinent! I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’

  2. I experienced this a great deal when I was in pastoral ministry – having many weekly demands from congregants and putting off writing my sermon until after midnight Saturday nights.

    I read an article called, “The Tyranny of the Urgent”. I can’t remember much of what it said, but the title has stuck with me. The basic idea is a matter of devoting yourself to tasks not by how demanding they seem, but how significant they truly are.

    Easier said than done, of course. But I wish you well.

  3. Truth, my plants die, my husband would starve if he didn’t cook, my children wouldn’t hear from me if they didn’t reach out. I’m always writing. Other obligations–like work–are secondary. Work–yes, pays the bills, but I’m trying to change that so writing pays the bills.

    I can hear you laughing… stop laughing… it’s just a goal…

  4. There’s a great deal of imposed structure in my life. Things I must do no matter what, tasks related to work and financial responsibilities. I dislike most of it but slog through as required. So writing is a release from the stress. I get frustrated when my writing reads like overcooked vegetables look, but when I finally complete something I’m proud of, a celebration seems in order. I kind of like the idea of an appointment to write and a reward for staying to schedule. See that bag of chocolate over there? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about! No no no, not yet – I haven’t written today! Ah, too late, just one little bite.

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