Pressure and Time: The Shawshank Method of Writing

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This week we’re talking about how — as writers — we cope with pressure. Do we thrive under a deadline, or do we get a mean case of writer’s block? Do we like our agents to give us a firm due date, or do we prefer to set the pace for ourselves? Like most writers I have a love-hate relationship with pressure. I’m fairly new to this whole writing thing, but what I’ve figured out so far is that I do, in fact, need a deadline. But I also need my life to cooperate and allow me to take the time I need to get the work done. How do I make my life cooperate? I don’t. I can’t. And when life doesn’t cooperate, then the pressure builds while the time allotted shrinks. And that is when lousy writing happens.

To avoid the heinousness of my own bad writing, I try to remember Andy Dufresne and that fabulous moment in The Shawshank Redemption when Red says, “That’s all it takes, really. Pressure and time.” I figure that’s what it takes to write well: pressure and time. It may take a few other things as well (gummi bears, friends, coffee, booze, and a laptop), but — for me anyway — those two are essential. I need enough hours to get my thoughts together, and I need just enough pressure to get those thoughts on the page. I’m not much of a procrastinator because I know how long it takes me to write something and then rewrite it and then rewrite it again. Add to that a note from my agent reminding me of an approaching deadline, and I pick up the pace. Or turn up the focus. Or turn off the TV. A deadline gets me going. If there’s no pressure, I’ll take way too much time to write something. And if I don’t have enough time, that’s even worse because then I’ll write something shitty. So in the best case scenario, I try to be like Andy in the tunnel, under pressure with plenty of time: I just keep crawling along through the dirt I’m shoveling; I shift it around, throw a lot of it out, and keep working.

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The pressure only starts to feel unmanageable when I don’t have the time I need, which brings me to what happened this week, and I swear this wasn’t planned or done intentionally as some kind of experiment because of the Deb topic-of-the-week. Anyway, here’s what happened: I have three children, and I won’t go into details, but my kids had an assortment of issues that required phone calls, Kleenex, emails, food, teacher conferences, sleep, long talks, long walks, long underwear, a doctor’s note, and an unexpected road trip. We’re all okay now, but we had a tricky few days, and I haven’t had a minute to write anything. So…I’m writing this post with one hour to go before the deadline. How stupid do I feel writing on the topic of managing pressure and deadlines when I’m managing both really poorly at the moment? Very. But life didn’t cooperate. My crazy week wasn’t some kind of strategy to make a point, although if it were, I would say my children were brilliant to orchestrate an elaborate 3-kid meltdown just for the sake of my blog. But no, my crazy week was just another crazy week, and I wouldn’t trade the craziness of family life for anything, not even for some well-written pages.

Writing is relentless, but it’s incredibly fun and rewarding when distractions are minimized, life is calm, and there’s just the right amount of pressure and time — Everything worked out for Andy and Red in the end, so I’m certain the Shawshank Method works.

The pressure is on; if only there were more time. Meanwhile, please forgive the typos.

 

 

 

 

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Amy Poeppel grew up in Dallas, Texas and left the south to attend Wellesley College. Since then, she has worked as an actor, a high school English teacher, and most recently as the Assistant Director of Admissions at a school in New York City. Her three fabulous boys are all off in Boston attending school, and she and her husband now split their time between New York and Frankfurt, Germany. A theatrical version of SMALL ADMISSIONS was workshopped at the Actors Studio Playwrights/Directors Unit. She later expanded it into her first novel.

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