There’s a reading series in San Francisco called Writers with Drinks, but I’ve been thinking lately about the ingredients that make someone a working writer or a professional writer–whatever you want to call it in a country that does not recognize the existence of, let alone the profound need for, professional writers. A way with words helps. A sense of story, storytelling, or having amazing stories to tell helps. A work ethic helps profoundly. But what pulls all these out of thin air, what makes something from nothing? Deadlines. What takes the esoteric task of creating something “good” in writing and forces each of us to the page to do the dance and see what happens? Deadlines.
I hope you are hearing this in the grovel-y, growl-y voice of the Cowardly Lion doing his own call and response with the word “Courage!” Deadlines and courage are much the same thing in the life of the writer. The one forces the other, round and around. You have a deadline, you find the courage to produce. You have courage? You create deadlines for yourself. Sign up for readings, enter contests, submit your work, create a group, take a class, hire a coach, sign a two-book deal, whatever it takes.
My friend Kendra told me the Something from Nothing story at Habitot Children’s Museum the other day. The small underground museum was crowded with toddlers running and playing with trains, paint, water and baby dolls, plastic groceries, farm equipment. Not so far from the clubs where Kendra and I first met a dozen years ago, trading stories in the din and passing dates back and forth the way we now pass babies. Drinks instead of snacks . . . Anyway, she told me that she had two copies of this book Something from Nothing, about a grandfather who makes his grandson a jacket. After a while, the jacket is worn out, but the grandfather says, “There is just enough material left to make a vest.” So he makes a vest for the grandchild. When the vest wears out, there is enough material to make a scarf (say–not remembering exactly, as fatigue has replaced drunkenness in these new “clubs”), and when the scarf wears out, there is just enough material to make a button. Then the button falls off and is lost. “That’s okay,” the grandfather says, “for I think that there is just enough material left to make a story.”
That’s it, folks. You work with what you have and you stretch it in service of those you love. Kids form a kind of deadline. They make you realize that you have precious and limited time, that life is its own deadline.
There’s a great twenty-minute talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on genius at TED. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote the hit book Eat, Pray, Love, which Angie calls Eat, Pray, How Barbie Got Her Groove Back. This is a talk about doing your part–doing the work. She’s had enormous success, and now, she says, people look at her with an expression of . . . doom. What can she do to top this success? The talk is worth listening to. It builds to a point much related to my own point today, but rather more joyfully and with a large audience and a standing ovation at the end. But I guess the bottom line here is you’ve got to do it in the back room of a strange cafe with E=mc2 (don’t actually know how to do squared on my computer keyboard!) painted across a black brick wall of planets and DNA structure with only the cell phone conversation of the guy in the corner as accompaniment. Take the evidence of life, your own waking and sleeping dreams that keep telling you stories, the richness of what’s around you as encouragement. Take the growing word count (what as a child I fantasized would be a stack of pages beside a typewriter), the hours clocked, the clicking of the keyboard as applause.
And find, force, create a deadline. A real one. Invite your friends over to a party to hear your latest story . . . and then write it. Do what it takes to make the work urgent, and then do the work. Cut your judgment about how great or terrible it is out of the loop until you’ve got a productive rhythm that serves you and can’t be broken. If you aren’t writing, it really doesn’t matter how good the writing that you’re not doing is, does it?
Declare your deadline here. Let’s have it now.