In Celebration of Deadlines

By Bob McCrillis

Did you know the origin of the term deadline? It arose, among many other horrors, at the Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia. The Confederate guards established a line about twenty feet inside the stockade walls which no prisoner was allowed to cross. Should a prisoner cross, or even touch, the line, he was shot by the tower guards. According to War Department records, this policy was strictly enforced, leading to the term deadline.

It’s not too difficult to see how the concept could migrate to the newspaper world in the days of manually set type and travel-impaired distribution. With such long lead times between presentation of copy and delivery of a finished newspaper, getting copy in time to print it was very serious business. I was unable to find a verified instance of an editor shooting a delinquent reporter of columnist but I’m sure punishment was severe.

Once into common journalistic use, the term was adopted by the rest of society and watered down to mean due date. Within the journalistic world, it seems to have retained some of its original deadly seriousness. It’s within this meaning, that I’ve established Friday night deadlines for my blog posts and weekly short stories.

And why, you might ask, is this something to celebrate? The deadline forces me to write whether I feel like it or not.  When Anna Quindlen spoke about her writing process at Pearl Buck, she credited her years as a newspaper reporter for developing good habits.  As a reporter, she had to write every day, no matter what. Unmotivated, sick, having personal problems, hating the stuff you’ve written because it’s junk – you still have to turn in your copy by the deadline.

As a creative writer, I tend to treat myself rather better than that. This softer treatment is deadly.

Last week’s short story, Flyer, was one of the best ones I’ve written. I avoided starting on this week’s story terrified that it wouldn’t be as good. What if Flyer was like the perfect golf shot that I hit once and was never able to reproduce? A random lightning strike.  I dithered, then dithered some more.

A good friend told me it was writer’s block. No, no, no I said. Writer’s block is when you don’t have any ideas. I have ideas. I’m just afraid to try to write them. Obviously, I didn’t know what the heck I was talking about.

I continued to hem and haw, feeling very sorry for myself and my situation. But the deadline inexorably ratcheted closer. What else could I do? I started writing.

Clunk, clunk, clunk. I gave up worrying about it being as good as Flyer. Heck, I gave up worrying about it being good at all. I just needed it finished. To make the deadline, I needed the drafts done by Wednesday so I would have Thursday and Friday to rewrite and edit. It’s now seven o’clock Wednesday evening. The short story is done and this post is coming together.

The lesson from this is that a serious deadline helped me get back in the game. So it’s just a goal, right? Wrong. A goal implies an objective that I’ll try to meet – if I miss it by a little, it’s not a big deal. A due date is even more ambiguous. It even sounds sort of hopeful. A deadline – cross it and get shot – is not to be trifled with.

I don’t know if the Week 10 story, Protector, is any good but meeting the deadline was enough to keep me moving forward as a writer. And, if it’s bad, then the story for Week 11 will look even better.

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