Self-imposed deadlines can be tricky. Too lax, and you’ll wind up with Writer Who Doesn’t Write Syndrome. Too strict, and you’ll get what Dennis Lehane calls Ticking Clock Syndrome. For me, the key was finding a midpoint between these two extremes.
For many years, I had Writer Who Doesn’t Write Syndrome. Though I dreamed of publishing, countless issues all “prevented” me from writing. I was “too busy/naïve/tired/sick of the computer/bereft of anything worthy to say/shy/whatever” to write.
A singular moment changed my attitude. I was in yoga class during final relaxation pose (my favorite), and my instructor was talking softly about how hard it had been for her to decide she was “good enough” to teach yoga. A little voice in her head kept saying, Who do you think you are, believing you actually have something to offer other people? Eventually she was able to tell the voice, Well, who am I NOT to believe in myself?
A simple shift in self-perception — a flick of a switch, really — and she kicked self-doubt aside, and took the steps necessary to achieve her goal of becoming a yoga teacher.
I was so inspired, I sped home and wrote a poem. No longer would I be “too _____ (fill in the blank)” to write.
A few months later, after The New Yorker rejected that poem, I locked myself in my room and stewed for half a day. I didn’t realize it then, but I’d gone straight from one unhealthy extreme to another. From Writer Who Doesn’t Write Syndrome, to Ticking Clock Syndrome.
Lehane coined Ticking Clock Syndrome in his foreword for the book Your First Novel. Ticking Clock Syndrome afflicts many aspiring authors who wish the process of writing and publishing worked faster. They rush into things, elect shortcuts, and confuse wanting something with deserving it.
After that fateful yoga class, when I finally stopped making excuses and started writing in earnest, I gave myself a ridiculous deadline: publish my first novel before my 29th birthday. After all, I reasoned, Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer were both 25 when they broke through. So logically ….
My 29th birthday came and went, and so did a few more birthdays, and I hadn’t published a word, let alone a whole book. I thought, What is wrong with me? I should have something published by now. People think I’m a loser! I AM a loser! I’m sorry to say I occupied this crippling, anguished psychological space for years. As Lehane puts it, “Tick tick tick …”
Truth is, the only ticking clock is the one you hear inside your own head. What’s real? The time you carve out for yourself, and the effort you fill it with.
To find the midway point between Writer Who Doesn’t Write and Ticking Clock syndromes, set reasonable deadlines that get you writing, and don’t totally freak out if you’re not a literary superstar. In other words, have enough urgency to write every day — even if it’s only for an hour — but not so much urgency that you contemplate giving up if you don’t experience the success you imagined by a certain random point.
And if you’re anything like me, you might have to question whether your ideas of “success,” and when should “get” it, are completely chimerical. If so, toss those misconceptions out the window, and focus on one thing: writing.
The following wise words are oft-quoted by Big H, my husband’s grandfather: “It’s a long race.” He says that about life in general, but I think you can apply the “long race” theory to the endeavor of writing and publishing, too. It’s not a sprint. Very few are the writers who can whip out a beautiful, flawless manuscript in a few short months and make instant millions from it. More likely, you’ll spend years honing your craft before you get even a whiff of interest from a publishing professional.
So set gentle deadlines; meet them; and brace yourself for the long race.