Why I Need Writing Deadlines
I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by. ― Douglas Adams
I guess my mother’s death was my first writing deadline. I was 27 and working as a Customs Officer in Fremantle at the time: boarding ships at sea, securing bond stores and sitting on giant frozen tuna as I filled out the paperwork for the Japanese fishing fleet (and making sure their pet penguins didn’t escape). I was wrenched with grief but also took stock of my life and found it wanting. I had never dreamt of being a Customs Officer (actually, who does?). I fell into the job as I did with the endless succession of jobs I had since graduating from a degree in Comparative Literature: cleaning, working in aged care, delivering greasy pizzas, selling even greasier samosas at Freo markets and spruiking souvenirs in a tourist resort. So I quit Customs, travelled to London and attempted to write a novel, which later became the short story, The Last Days in Darwin, about my mother’s death from cancer. I submitted it to HQ magazine’s short story competition and was chosen as runner up. It seemed so easy, this writing caper! I dabbled in poetry, enrolled in a Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing at Curtin University and then fell pregnant.
The ensuing years were filled with caring for young children, working as a researcher to pay the mortgage and travelling up north for my husband’s work in the mining industry. Writing was put aside. There was no time and frankly no desire to tell any story at all. And then my next deadline hit me hard. I had just moved back to Perth after five years living in the North West, and we were staying in a city hotel, while my husband painted our new home. It was Christmas Eve, and I was exhausted. I remember being in Murray Street Mall with my young children in tow, and making a beeline for one of the benches. I remember thinking, Wow isn’t it great that these benches exist, and Whose wonderful idea was it, to put a bench in the middle of a mall? I assumed everyone had this love affair with benches. What I didn’t realise was that the tiredness that I had passed off for years as a symptom of parenting – a sleep-deprived, bone-deep weariness – was a ticking time bomb in my chest. That night I had massive pain across my chest and shoulder. After numerous trips to the emergency department, I was finally diagnosed with a faulty mitral heart valve. That was the writing deadline I needed.
After the first open heart surgery, I wrote frantically, realising that this was always the thing I wanted to do. I sent off the story, The Bees of Paris to Margaret River Press and that was published. My next open heart surgery spurred a mad flurry of writing, resulting in the story Dying (also published by MRP). And then another open heart surgery – and more stories flew from that chest cavity. Some stories were published (most were not!); others were just warm up exercises for the longer goal of writing a novel. So deadlines were literally that: me, trying to work against the inevitability of my looming mortality, and making every minute and word count.
Today I am healthy and well, and the urgency of that kind of deadline has subsided. It’s funny that when you are given these significant, life changing events you can nonetheless easily slip back into a comfortable complacency, into the administrations of life (and a Netflix subscription). Of course, I’m not advising open heart surgery as a way to get those stories written. I have learned to impose other types of deadlines. I submit to competitions with their rigid timeframes, I try to have daily word count goals (1000 words), and I have a wonderful writing group with whom I meet monthly so that there is always a reason to keep the output flowing. This is how I now face the spectre of dissipating time, notwithstanding my natural inclination for procrastination. As Jennifer Egan writes in her novel, ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad,’ Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?