The most formidable deadline I ever faced was in seventh grade. The end of the semester was approaching, and I suddenly realized I had five book reports due the next day. They were supposed to have been done over the previous months, but because there were no specific deadlines, I’d let them slip. The books had been read, but not a word had been written, and, being a serious student, I was appalled by my oversight. So I pulled the first—and only—all-nighter of my life, writing furiously as my family slept, the dark deepening, the house creaking, me cloaked in existential terror. I wrote until four or five in the morning and stumbled to school a few hours later with the five completed reports, so relieved to have gotten them done.
That experience marked me. For the rest of my time at school, I made sure I never came close to missing a deadline—and I carried that habit into my writing life.
Every novelist (indeed, every writer) needs to navigate between two worlds: the private world in which ideas get launched and imagination takes wing, and the public one in which one must meet deadlines and subject oneself to judgment. Moving between these two is a delicate operation. If you think too much about what your editor or readers might say as you write, you’re likely to be paralyzed. You must carve out a writing space for yourself as if those people don’t exist. But at some point you must get with the program, hand things in on time, and harden yourself enough to endure critiques.
I’m the kind of writer who needs solitude and silence in order to get my juices flowing. I have never been good at writing in class or cafés; even the computer—with its pulsing cursor, pop-up notifications, and autocorrect—is too filled with the ghosts of human presence for me to generate work there. I usually start on projects early to give myself freedom to experiment and make mistakes and avoid that desperate, seventh-grade alone-in-a-dark-house feeling of a looming deadline I might not meet.
A novel cannot be rushed; it can’t always defer to deadlines. Writing a novel usually takes years, the final result like sedimentary rock, with stacked layers emerging from time spent thinking, writing, researching, ruminating, revising.
A little over a year ago I was handed a new kind of deadline: a fatal ALS diagnosis. Some people, such as Stephen Hawking, live for decades, but for my kind of ALS—bulbar-onset—the prognosis is bleaker. Two years is average. At the time of the diagnosis I had two recently completed novels, ready to sell, and I had begun writing a new novel. I entered the proverbial race against time.
My agent immediately got to selling those novels (both of which will publish in September), and I pressed on with my novel-in-progress, worried the muscles in my hands might give out before I could finish. I wrote and wrote, much faster than I normally would, determined to get to the end. If I could finish a draft, I thought, the rest would be easier. I didn’t pause after each chapter to make sure it felt right, didn’t do the research I knew I needed to do. Driven to get to the holy grail of a completed draft, I pushed on—and, always the conscientious student, I finished.
I took my manuscript to an island for a retreat during which I hoped to whip the novel into shape. I began by rereading it. And—perhaps you know what’s coming—I found it to be a disaster. The idea and the characters seemed workable, but I couldn’t delude myself; it wouldn’t be a quick fix. A huge amount of work awaited me.
After a day of despairing, I began to feel more chipper. I realized this is the kind of work I have always loved best: shaping a manuscript, adding and subtracting, playing with sentences. This was a time to revel in the writing process rather than wishing it to be done. I needed to apply to my manuscript the same approach I’ve tried to bring to my limited life span: slowing down and savoring.
I may go to my death still immersed in this project, engaged in the work that has always made me feel most alive. I’d rather blow off the deadline than arrive at the Pearly Gates with completed work that isn’t my best. The good student in me still feels deadlines must be observed, but there are always times when the muse has a very different idea.
Cai Emmons is a writer living in Eugene, Ore. She has two novels publishing in September: Unleashed (Dutton) and Livid (Red Hen).