Deadline Demolition

Karl Marx, Douglas Adams, Ted Heath, Dorothy Parker, Yoda. Guess who never missed a deadline?

Marxdouglasadams Edward Heath parker Yoda

Dear Herr Doctor,

You are already ten months behind with the manuscript of Das Kapital, which you have agreed to write for us. If we do not receive the manuscript within six months we shall be obliged to commission another to do this work.

(Letter to Karl Marx from his Leipzig publisher)

… to which the best response might be “Doh!”

This week I found myself with four simultaneous deadlines for four different projects: two encyclopedia entries, a section of a textbook, a blog post for a language learning company (reallyenglish), and a couple of thousand words for a grant proposal (for the Southwest Festival of the Written Word). To compound matters, it’s Thanksgiving Week, which means no school for my six-year-old, which means it’s Time To Be A Good Daddy, which means No Work.

Deadlines schmeadlines. Naturally, the first thing one does when faced with insurmountable circumstances like these is to look for a distraction. So here it is: a blog post meditating on the horror of deadlines.

I’m not alone in my whining. Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was a famously prolific procrastinator. He once said, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” Apparently, he was so intransigent that his editor actually moved into a hotel suite with him, and locked them both in for three weeks, so that Adams would finish a manuscript.

As a procrastinator, however, Douglas Adams was no match for Edward Heath, ex-British Prime Minister. Heath left office in 1975 and dabbled with the idea of writing his memoirs. Then he dabbled some more. Ten years later he signed a contract with Weidenfeld. And then … nothing. Nada. Niente. Twelve years after that, he signed a contract with another publisher, Hodder Headline, and eventually produced an autobiography.

Nothing, however, beats Dorothy Parker. Parker is arguably better known for her witty one-liners than her writing. That’s not surprising because she was a serial ditherer when it came to actually getting words down on paper.

In 1929 she signed a very optimistic contract with Viking to deliver a novel in less than a year. Her comment “I can’t write five words but that I change seven” should have set alarm bells ringing. She then did what all top procrastinators do. She went to live in another country. Skedaddled. As if emigrating will help you GET STUFF DONE. In Paris, she did the I’m-a-1930s-American-ex-pat-artist-y thing – i.e. she hung out with Hemingway and Picasso and Gertrude Stein and drank lots of vodka martinis and practiced being witty. Her deadline went the way of all flesh and she produced nothing. Rien. Nichts. Ekkert (Icelandic, of course).

Eventually she sailed back to the States, planning to explain the situation to her editors. But instead she fell into a major funk and tried to kill herself by drinking toxic shoe polish. Fortunately, she recovered a few months later.

But the story isn’t finished. Fast forward to 1945, fifteen years after her novel had been due. Her editors at Viking – gluttons for punishment – commissioned her to write an introduction to a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work. Disaster. With the deadline disappearing in the rear view mirror, Parker sent a telegram:

“This is instead of telephoning because I cant (sic) look you in the voice. I simply cannot get that thing done yet never have done such hard night and day work (sic) never have so wanted anything to be good and all I have is a pile of paper covered with wrong words. Can only keep at it and hope to heaven to get it done. Dont (sic) know why it is so difficult or I so terribly incompetant (sic).”

In the end John O’Hara wrote the introduction.

As for Parker’s novel, the decades rolled by and as the 1970s kicked in, Viking announced that the deal with Parker had been the longest unfulfilled contract in their illustrious history (she died in 1967, novel heroically unwritten).

Deadline abuse isn’t that uncommon, apparently. Tony Lacey, publishing director of Viking, Penguin, says there are some contracts that take seven or eight years to honor, and in 1997 the American division of HarperCollins famously announced that they’d cancelled 70 author contracts because of missed deadlines.

As for my deadlines, I beat ’em all. Crushed ’em. Slayed the beast. Y’see I learned from my hero, Yoda, who said, “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” Or something like that. Write like your hair’s on fire. Just write. Everything else is distraction.


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