A benediction of the deadline
After I graduated from my MFA program at Goddard College, I went a little crazy. Deep in the throes of post-graduation panic (a sentence my brutal second-semester adviser would never have let stand), I took a sabbatical from my job as a newspaper reporter and drove a borrowed Honda Element deep into the wilds of Vermont, to the Vermont Studio Center. The artist colony, largest of its kind in the United States, hosts about 30 working artists and writers of all media for two, four and six-week stints. They live in quaint, New England houses squatting around a river in which there was always rumored to live an otter and occupy rows of studios in several larger structures, where windows blazed late into the night with artistic fervor or, equally frequently, house dance parties with cheap wine and soaring conversations.
Johnson, VT is less a town than a colony that sprung up around the studio center. When buying a jug of wine at the gas station, the attendant asked me what kind of art I practiced, like it was a matter of course. “I’m a photographer,” the attendant said, swiping my credit card. “Portraits.”
I was writing a portrait, too. Of my hometown, my life, my friends lives and those I wished we’d lived, inextricably would into a ball of a book I meticulously dissected and put back together through six weeks of slow-burning fear.
My studio was peppered with Post-It notes, containing grandiose statements: “Live the work,” “Walk the walk” and in bold, scratchy letters, “Who are you, today?” I spent a lot of time lying on the carpeted floor, the thermostat cranked up as high as it would go, staring out at the frozen river in -28 January weather, too cold to snow. I read a lot, wrote less than I wanted, spun around inside my artistically constipated head, asking myself if I couldn’t write in Dickensonian isolation, did I have a future as a writer, outside the discipline of The Program?
That first six weeks, I unmoored myself in order to test my ability to live as a writer, outside the womb-like support of an MFA education. I had spent the last two-odd years writing creatively on deadline, reading voraciously and hungrily, searching for annotable material. Our advisers demanded we examine everything, and while writing personal essay, I turned my own eyes coldly inward, scanning my manuscripts and myself for something – anything – worth writing about.
What I didn’t know until I forced myself to find it was that subject matter wasn’t my problem. It was discipline, that sense of timelessness I had thrived under, when it was superimposed on my work by the institution I paid good money to do so. If I learned nothing else from that, I learned how to fear the deadline. Without it, I floundered.
Vermont taught me that I can cloister myself in a little room next to a little river that I watched thaw and freeze and that again, and I can set up a fancy desk with all the right supplies and I can drink a lot of wine, a little less whiskey and a lot more coffee than what’s good for me and all of that, even if it sounds so damn perfect on paper, will go to waste if I don’t instill in myself that sense of urgency that my journalist’s soul needs.
The urgency of a breathless sentence: That’s the stuff.
Today, I write less than I should. I work more, watch too much TV, play with the puppy when I’ve run out of excuses. But I know that I thrive under deadlines, and a sabbatical with endless time to do nothing but Make Art is a waste of time, money and resources without one. It’s the reason my second book is a meandering Word document on my computer. Why I haven’t hauled out the Post-It notes and whipped it into piles of shapelessness, in the name of narrative formation.
But fellow writers, you know as well as I do that writing is like all other essential life functions. We can only go so long without sleeping, breathing, eating, excreting. And since writing is a sort of voiding of the mental channels, it’s as necessary as all the rest.
My book is currently a pile of dung, a smear in the corner of my screen. But in calling it out, in laying it out publicly as such, I’m setting myself a deadline: To finish it, to void it, to wrangle it into the shape it needs, and to get rid of it. On a deadline, because otherwise, I’m Ophelia with a pen.