By Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.
Some of us hate deadlines of any kind: they feel like pressure. Others can’t get a thing done without that pressure. What’s going on here?
I interviewed 76 really topnotch novelists and poets when I was working on my book Writing in Flow. One of the most inspiring things I learned is that writing feels like play when you’re motivated intrinsically. That is, when you’re doing what you want to do, not because someone is MAKING you do it, it feels great. When you’re intensely involved in the writing process itself, with little or no thought of future publication and riches, you are more likely to persist, feel good about yourself, be your most creative, enter flow.
What is Flow?
Flow is what happens when time seems to stop and you’re writing for the sheer pleasure of it. Good stuff often results — though there are no guarantees, and it’s best to worry about that later, not in the free-flowing first draft.
It’s also been found, however, that when motivators or competition, where you feel judged, are thrown into the mix, the desire to do the thing for its own goes down. Even words like “Good writing!” or something as simple as a pat on the back, are meant to tell you how good or bad you are. That is, when someone tells you how well they think you’re doing, they mean to give you information about how well you’re doing. Obviously. But such remarks and rewards, for some writers, feel like someone’s trying to control them. It shifts the focus — the “who’s in charge, who’s the boss of me, who’s the judge here?” — from inside to outside. (Poet Lucille Clifton once said, “If someone gives you permission, they can take it away. I give MYSELF permission.”)
What happens next is that you don’t feel the same urge to write for its own sake, at least in the long run. One psychologist writes of the “laxative principle of motivation”: “People who always take laxatives become dependent on them — they can’t push for themselves.”
Some writers, of course, are able to ignore deadlines when they become unrealistic (to the writer’s mind). Says popular novelist Diana Gabaldon, “Let’s put it this way: we have deadlines in my contracts because there’s a space for them. I’ve never met one. They get the book when I’m finished with it. They scream and tear their hair a lot. . . . But I have a much higher loyalty to my book than I do to any of them.” (Remember, Gabaldon’s a bestselling author and has earned a certain freedom.)
What does this have to do with flow entry? When you’re writing ONLY as a means to an end (to shut up the voice in your head, to please someone else, to meet a deadline obligation, to pay the rent, to win an award), you’re likely to be less intensely absorbed by the writing itself. And THAT means you’re less likely to enter that charmed state of timeless flow.
The good news is that outside motivators may COMBINE with inner ones to make flow even more likely. As long as you don’t feel manipulated by your deadlines, you’re okay. For example, say you are harboring the thought that your editor — whoever gave you the deadline — has marketing in mind rather than quality. If you feel rushed, you might either shortchange the work or you might resist meeting the deadline in an effort to hold fast to your internal ideal for it. If your deadline feels as though it would be unreachable unless you sacrificed either your sanity or the quality of the work, then you may decide to speak up.
Why Deadlines are Useful
Plenty of writers, though, find deadlines extremely helpful in keeping themselves on track. That’s why I always tell beginners and others working without a contract or deadline to consider setting their own mini-deadlines.
Deadlines are also a way of setting standards to measure yourself against. You can sense yourself improving. Surely, sometimes you do your best, most flowing work when you’re on a tight deadline, even when you know you’re going to be judged.
What happens is that, by facing a deadline, your perfectionism is forced aside so that you are able to meet the goal. When you have a limited time to produce your work, you may find it focuses you, as poet Marvin Bell has said: “Do I procrastinate? Yes, I delay until something has begun, and the right energy seems available. And sometimes I wait for a deadline to come closer, knowing it will force me to stay with the writing. There are inner deadlines I can only sense (the pot simmers) and outer deadlines I can put on the calendar. Both kinds release adrenalin.”
And that’s why so many of us have love/hate affairs with deadlines.
About Susan K. Perry
Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist, writer, and writing instructor and consultant. Her recent bestseller, Writing in Flow, is now out in paperback. It’s based on interviews with 76 successful novelists and poets. Perry has written several other books, including Catch the Spirit (about teen volunteers, just out) and a revised edition of the award-winning Playing Smart. She has had more than 800 articles, essays, and reviews published in periodicals such as Writer’s Digest, Psychology Today, Seventeen, L.A. Times, and Child. She has taught writing at UCLA Extension’s famed Writers’ Program and other universities, as well as psychology at Woodbury University. She currently teaches writing for Writer’s Digest’s Online Workshops.You may reach her at BunnyApe.