The Walking Deadline

Elizabeth Ames Staudt
November 22, 2010
Comments 5

During a particularly grisly scene on a notably gory TV show, the leader of a ragtag handful of survivors of the zombie apocalypse pauses to recognize that the (un)dead cadaver he’s about to hack into for some guts-camouflage (seriously, this show is gruesome) was once “just like us.” Our hero takes the wallet from the dead man’s pocket: “Wayne Dunlap. Georgia license. Born 1979. He had $28 in his pocket when he died. And a picture of a pretty girl. With love from Rachel. He used to be like us. Worrying about bills, or the rent, or the Super Bowl.”

Worries about money and football vanish when the zombies take over. Worries about the pretty girl do not.

My ability to stomach gore (gross bonus pun for those of you who have seen the aforementioned episode) in my entertainment corresponds with how closely I feel a deadline breathing down my neck, or rather, how willing I am to inch that deadline back by just a few hours, a day or two, only a week! One of my favorite things about attending an MFA program was the regular supply of (non-nudgeable) deadlines. The fact that there were people counting on you to bring 12 stapled copies of your short story and a snack to share–this was enough to move writing to the very top of the to-do list.

The full set.

If someone waiting is all it takes, why is it so difficult for some of us to honor deadlines outside the structure of a university or formalized group? Though she says she is not responsible, I credit my friend Natalie with trying to address this deadline dilemma in a brilliantly diabolical way: Give me X pages of your novel by X date or pay me $50, which I will donate to a cause you personally abhor. If parting with your hard-earned money is not motivation enough, the thought of it ending up in the hands of some crazed brain-eaters surely should be.

The big deadline, though, it’s always there. Here’s Joshua Ferris in Poets & Writers, on what inspires him:

“I take inspiration from the subtle daily forecasting of death. This should be impetus for anyone to get off his ass. Work is why we’re here, and to waste an hour of any day, fretting or worrying or procrastinating, is to release into the air the odor of death. Emerson said, ???To fill the hour–that is happiness.’ I try to fill the hour. And by filling the hour, the ones that follow come easier. Inspiration, then, is its own inspiration. But I must beware of why I work. ???You have the right to work,’ it’s written in the Bhagavad Gita, ???but for the work’s sake only.’ And a little later: ???Those who work selfishly for results are miserable.’ Here’s inspiration, and good advice as well. And should the greatest fear come to pass, that I die in the middle of writing a novel? For that I have the comfort of Rabbi Tarphon’s advice in the Saying of the Fathers: ???It is not necessary for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.’”

5 thoughts on “The Walking Deadline

  1. Elizabeth– Swell swell! Emerson said something else, too, that’s a head-slapper in a different angle: “every thing admonishes us how needlessly long life is.” He goes on to say that in the company of great action and desire, “a twelvemonth is an age.” It’s his argument against routine, toward total absorption, which I buy, but the sentence itself is a scary-exciting stimulant. Really? Needlessly long? Imagine if every day we woke up four days later. How much happier, more focused, more alive and occupied we might (might) be.

  2. I just encountered an idea similar to Ferris’ sometime in the last 48 hours, and for the life of me, I can’t remember where. Either an Eavan Boland poem (I’ve been reading her nonstop all weekend), or we discussed it in my writing group. Either way, it’s been a good reminder for me to keep writing and finish as much as I can.

  3. I love that quote. Exactly what I needed to hear right at this very moment (funnily enough, proving that I was right to check my reader just one last time before I opened my documents folder).

  4. I love that quote. Exactly what I needed to hear right at this very moment (proving that I was right to check my reader just one last time before I opened my documents folder).

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