"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Guest Post: Deadline Dread by Dennis Palumbo

Is a writing deadline friend or foe?

Someone once said, "The problem with being a writer is that it's like always having homework due."

Which is as good a starting point as any for a discussion of deadlines, a fact of life in every Hollywood writer's existence. Whether a screenwriter on assignment, a member of a TV series' writing staff, or a struggling writer who's promised his or her agent a terrific new spec pilot, everyone's faced a deadline at some point.

But not every writer views a deadline in the same way. Like most "facts of life," this aspect of writing holds a different meaning for different people. And most of these meanings were formed years ago, embedded in a writer's childhood experiences concerning ideas of expectation and performance.

For many of my creative patients, a deadline is viewed with dread—the same pressure to "deliver the goods" that they experienced in school when homework was due. Or a big final exam was to be given. Or some try-out in team sports. The same fears of failure, the same concern that they would somehow fall short of their own and others' expectations.

For some, then and now, a deadline represents the date at which their long-held belief in their own inadequacy and unworthiness is finally confirmed. For these writers, the approaching deadline is like the ticking clock in High Noon, the oncoming asteroid in Armageddon, the hairpin curve up ahead on the tracks in Unstoppable. In short, not a good thing.

We're all familiar with this "deadline dread," and the stereotypical way that most writers cope: namely, procrastination—which can take the form of household chores, distracting social activities, or just anxious fretting. Experienced procrastinators can spend hours "researching" on the Internet, or re-writing again and again the stuff they've managed to produce so far.

The point is, the dread is the same: the potential danger of shaming self-exposure. The fear that once written and handed in, the finished product exposes us as inadequate, untalented or unentitled.

On the other hand, there's a smaller group among my patients for whom a deadline, despite its attendant anxiety, is an absolute must. These writers feel they need the prod of a deadline, or else they'd never finish the work (or even start it!).

While this may seem an acceptable state of affairs, I think it's a good idea to investigate a bit further. Often, there's a kind of "negative reinforcement" in this line of thinking, the meaning being that the writer feels him—or herself to be a lazy, unmotivated slacker who needs to be whipped into compliant productivity by the authority of an imposed deadline.

As one patient of mine, a veteran screenwriter, confessed, "Without a deadline to meet, I'd go all to hell... I mean, I'd just screw around, not accomplishing anything..."

A noted TV sitcom writer in my practice put it this way: "Deadlines just put a big gun to my head... if I don't get the damned thing in on time, BANG!..."

There's a pleasant way to spend the next 20 or 30 years of one's life!

Regardless of how you view deadlines, they offer an opportunity to explore and maybe temper the self-critical, self-shaming ways you might be viewing yourself. When the next deadline for a writing project looms, take some time to investigate your feelings about it. Look under the almost automatic response of anxiety and dread to see what kind of message you're sending yourself.

For example, do you feel the same way with every deadline, or does it change depending on the type of project, the person you're delivering it to, your perceived (or their explicit) level of expectation? How are these ways of experiencing deadlines similar to the ways you felt as a child in your family, a student at school? Whose authority and judgment evoked these feelings the most? Do you experience your project's potential reader—the producer, agent, studio exec, etc.—in some similar way?

By exploring and illuminating these issues, writers can sometimes get the perspective needed to ease the grip that "deadline dread" has on them. Moreover, they can develop coping strategies based on these understandings.

For instance, if you use deadlines as a motivator, but suffer anxiety, you can gain some measure of control by setting a series of private, personal deadlines for yourself—points at which you not only see where you are on the project but also take some time to assess your feelings about it, identify various creative and emotional concerns, and re-group. In other words, become your own authority regarding your writing process, instead of merely being vulnerable to that imposed from outside.

Let's face it. As long as there are TV and film writers—and, hopefully, writing assignments—there'll be deadlines. How we deal with them, how we weave them into the fabric of our working lives, is up to us.

In fact, as I once suggested to a writer/director patient, "You could keep a journal about it... maybe jot down the issues you think deadlines evoke for you..."

"Can I bring it in to show you?" he asked.

"Sure. Our next session, if you'd like."

"Great." He grinned. "A deadline."

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