“I don’t need time, I need a deadline.” – Duke Ellington
I had a professor in college who did not require that every student meet the same writing deadlines. His office looked just like I imagined his brain – loose papers covered his desk, books were stacked on every surface and covered most of the floor. When I went to his corner office to turn in a paper, I could see only his unkempt hair sticking up behind the stacks of textbooks near the small window. I’d thought the paper was due in class that morning, but he hadn’t collected our work and I was a paranoid freshman – worried about points and grades and syllabi. He smiled as he took my paper. “Well,” he said, “Some people need deadlines.”
I give students deadlines all the time. Read this by Wednesday; write this in the next two weeks; be ready to answer this question in ten minutes. I’m not sure how the classroom would run without deadlines big and small. Students seem to need an endpoint or a train bearing down on their laptopped lives that forces them off the social networking couch and back in to my classroom. Even my pseudo deadlines – draft and outline workshops – rarely produce the same kind of participation that a don’t-miss-it-or-you-will-have-a-zero deadline does. I have also taught self-paced freshman comp classes. Most of those writers never made it beyond paper number two and those that earned the credit, created self-imposed deadlines. It seems like human nature – we don’t get writing done unless we must.
So most writers find deadlines. I’m grateful for the occasional free-lance assignment that includes an editor imposed deadline. I rely on the peer pressure of colleagues to meet blogging deadlines and the registrar’s office to demand my grades. But mostly I bribe myself. I sit in my favorite bakery and promise myself another cup of coffee for thirty more minutes of writing. I reward myself with a cold beer or a long run when I meet word count. It’s a silly, self-imposed game, but I have learned – I need deadlines. This week I have the NaNoWriMo countdown clock up on my desktop. I have 8 days 17 hours and 15 seconds to commit to writing a novel in a month. It’s a crazy endeavor and a nearly impossible goal for a full-time instructor and a mother of two, but I like the idea because there is an endpoint, a train bearing down on me.
I cannot conceive of a classroom or a creative pursuit without deadlines. But my college prof must have – I had friends who turned in all of their papers at the end of the term. I watched one guy push a thick manila folder under our prof’s office door just two days before grades were due. We both graduated – eventually. I’m still not sure about the intent of our professor’s unorthodox assessment methods. I turned in all my work when he “suggested” I should. I often worked in the early morning hours to get the writing done before class, but he truly did not care that I met some arbitrary deadline. Maybe he hoped we’d learn to find our own motivation outside of grades or timelines, but it’s more likely that he just wanted us to write and hone our own process.
For some reason, when I write, I picture myself walking to that messy office to hand in a final draft. Along the way I meet the writer who doesn’t need deadlines and she explains how she makes it work. I nod politely as she describes her Zen state of mind and her organic writing process. But as I shove my papers under the door, I’m smug. I met my deadline. Now I can eat a chocolate croissant and go for a bike ride.