On Deadlines, Failure, and Getting Started

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

When I was in elementary school, we had end-of-year projects. And in the beginning, when I was little, I worked my little fingers off, coloring in my drawings, cutting out little uneven squares of colored paper, and writing papers. But by fifth grade, I decided that I was tired. The idea of coming up with something — something that no one might like — that I then had to show off for a grade, completely overwhelmed me. I was so afraid of spending time creating something mediocre that I decided not to make anything at all. It was an idiom project, one that my brothers had done before, and we still had theirs, nicely drawn and tightly bound in the closet upstairs. I think we needed fifty of them, tiny phrases that I went around the house attempting to remember. After several explanations, I still couldn’t wrap my head around “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” I tried to use “Too many cooks in the kitchen” to get out of doing the dishes. “A penny for your thoughts” was rather handy when I needed lunch money, and I usually managed to charm that penny up to 50 cents.

When my brothers did the idiom project in elementary school, I helped them color in the backgrounds of their tiny drawings. Now that it was my turn, the responsible one, I sat in the floor of my bedroom in front of their old projects, wondering if I could steal their drawings and turn them in as my own. I knelt in front of my blank sheets of paper and decided it just wasn’t going to happen. I shoved the papers, my colored pencils, and my ideas all back in my desk drawer and pretended like it never happened.

When I write and I have an idea, I scribble a phrase on a post-it note and I come back to it later. I constantly have ideas. Most of them are terrible. Some of them are amazing, but I find that the amazing almost never make it on paper. It’s such an effort. You’re taking this great, big, beautiful idea, these series of Impressionist paintings in your mind, and then you are going to slowly destroy them by putting them on paper. Nothing will ever be quite as great on the page as it is in your imagination.

I read books that take me above and beyond and away — it’s an escape, but it’s a comfort, too. Some books are made into films and those films never live up to that joy of not really knowing what’s coming next. Of how the world you envisaged is not what you see on the screen. And yet, when I get started writing, when I finally express those thoughts on a page, it makes my days better. Writing a great sentence can change the tone of any day.

Toni Morrison did an interview with NPR  to promote her new novel, God Help the Child. And she talked a lot about the moments she regrets in her life, but also, why she continues to write:

“The writing is — I’m free from pain. It’s the place where I live; it’s where I have control; it’s where nobody tells me what to do; it’s where my imagination is fecund and I am really at my best. Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I’m writing.”

Then, why is it, when I talk to my writer friends, or anyone who’s at work on anything, we all bemoan the looming deadline? It’s going to happen. The date isn’t going to change. You’re not going to suddenly have more time. Even if you do, you’ll find yourself re-watching episodes of The West Wing to help “stimulate your creativity” or “decompress” or whatever lie you’re currently trying to tell yourself.

And I need deadlines, we all do. Even if I mark a day on the calendar for myself, I still have to follow it. It’s not going to go away. The work might. The idea might vanish.

“The story will die anyway,” I tell myself. Either at my own hands as I attempt to get it on the page, or as it slowly fades away from me when I’m not looking.

“Depressing!” you say. Well, yeah. But wouldn’t you rather try?

Writers tell me they have trouble submitting work because they’re afraid of what people might think, but the worst that can happen? The editors won’t like it. They’ll send you a rejection note, or you’ll query them in six months and they’ll say, “Oh, sorry!” and you’ll get your note a couple of weeks later. I’ve been collecting them from The New Yorker like trading cards for the last several years.

I’m no better at it now, especially now that my thesis is done and the threat of failure is gone. If I don’t finish my stories now, no one will notice really, except for me. One of my friends offered to keep track of my deadlines for this novel I’m (sort of) writing. He will nudge me when I have a date looming so I can stay on track. And I’m currently procrastinating on letting him know my own deadlines. Mostly because I don’t have any for my novel. Which means it’s not going to get done until I do.

I get why my friends in engineering, pharmacy, computer science, and other “less-artsy” fields think that writers are crazy. We’re so neurotic it’s exhausting. “Just do it,” they say. “You care too much about the outcome.” “If you really want to do it,” they tell me, “it won’t be so hard.”

They’re right. Because I’m not writing for anyone else but me. I’m the one with the high standards. I’m the person I’m afraid of disappointing. So I pull out my little notebook with tiny scribbles in the margins, doodles, and fluorescent post-it notes. I go through my list of ideas until something makes me laugh or smile. Then I pull out a notebook, a full-sized one with a bunch of blank, wide-ruled lines, and I get started. Once I’m really going, I’ll pull out my computer if it’s handy. I like to draft in 750words.com because it times me, it tracks me. I get to see exactly what I’m up to before it ends up anywhere else. When I go back through the archives to see what I wrote in April 2015, at the very least, I’ll find this worry-missive about why I can never seem to work without a deadline. I’ve given in to my need for structure and boundaries. Why I’m writing now? I’m on a deadline. But also because it makes me happy.

And that idiom project in elementary school that I agonized over? I turned it in. It was late, sloppy, and I rushed through it. I got a C, something I’m embarrassed about to this day. Whenever I have some creative work looming, I picture that little girl kneeling on the floor over a bunch of blank sheets of paper, wringing her hands, wondering how she could ever manage to get started. Then, I pick up a pen.

Beloved  by Toni Morrison

In her essay “Site of Memory” (Inventing the Truth, 1995), Toni Morrison talks about how a snippet of information—“a dimly recalled figure, the corner of a room, a voice”—is enough detail to begin building a narrative upon, in order to “explore two worlds—the actual and the possible”. Creating stories from mere shadows is what Morrison does so beautifully in Beloved. Memories invade lives, trauma binds people together, and what seems only fleetingly “possible” becomes overpoweringly “actual”.

Set in the nineteenth century and inspired by the real-life story of Margaret Garner, Beloved follows Sethe, an African American slave who “collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful” and fled to the free state of Ohio. When Sethe’s plantation owners arrive to recapture her, she attempts to kill her children to spare them from the fate she suffered. Three of them survive but her two-year-old daughter, Beloved, dies.

Despite its horrific nature, Sethe’s act of violence is never presented as evil; in fact, her love for her children is so overwhelming that it is labelled as “too thick”. But years of living as a slave, where her humanity was questioned and her children were at constant risk of being taken away, makes Sethe aware that loving is perilous:

For a used-to-be-slavewoman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one.

Gaining the freedom to “love anything you choose” becomes Sethe’s motivation for escape. Consequently, when her captors reappear in her new life, she believes that if her children cannot live a world where loving openly and excessively is allowed, they are better off not existing at all. Taking Beloved’s life is an act borne out of Sethe’s innate desire to protect her children.

Yet Beloved’s death is not enough to rid her from Sethe’s life. Years later, Sethe is living with her teenage daughter Denver and a friend from her past, Paul D, when a malevolent spirit, believed by the household to be Beloved, appears. The spirit grows in intensity as the story progresses—first, its poltergeist-like antics drive Sethe’s sons out the house while keeping Denver a recluse inside it; then it turns up on their doorstep in the form of a grown human girl—leaving the family threatened and fragile in its wake.

Sethe is quite literally haunted by Beloved’s presence—a presence that, although undoubtedly transcending realism, is never questioned as entirely possible, enforced by Beloved making inexplicable allusions to Sethe’s past. As such, memory plays a big role in this novel, with the fragmented narrative allowing tiny portions of the past to filter into Sethe’s present: “boys hanging” from trees, surrounded by the “shameless beauty” of the plantation fields; the shape of her son Howard’s head, an image so powerful “nobody could forget”; the short life of her “crawling-already?” baby daughter.

Sethe constantly fights against these uncontrollable memories, but they are so pervasive that they cannot be contained. In Beloved, memories become part of a kind of collective history, in which “you be walking down the road and you hear something […] And you think it’s you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. It’s when you bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else.” Rememories—irrepressible memories that are so powerful that they remain rooted in the fabric of the place where they occurred, “floating” outside their owner’s head long after the incident has passed—illustrate the immovability of history. The grown-up Beloved is an embodiment of Sethe’s repressed past and a repetition—or perhaps a continuation?—of the baby Beloved’s life, possessing the household’s inhabitants, playing into their affections and then breaking apart their relationships. Ultimately, Beloved forces them to confront their shared rememories by making the past impossible to push aside.

Despite its inherent trauma, Beloved finds some kind of happiness for its characters: Paul D and Sethe accept their “yesterday” in an effort to build “some kind of tomorrow”, and Denver musters the strength to reach out to the community. Beloved, completely wild and larger than ever, is eventually exorcised; her presence slips out of their lives but not into obscurity, instead becoming part of the history of the “sixty million and more” of the novel’s dedication: those lost to the slave trade.

Beloved is both terrible and wonderful to read. Morrison writes fiercely, merging reality and imagination to show how the “two worlds” of the supernatural “possible” and the horrifying “actual” can unsettle and inform each other. It’s a novel that fictionalises a shred of the real-life tragedy of Margaret Garner, fabricating it with barely-there memories and shadows of past selves, but never giving the reader reason to doubt its truth.