If Mr. Litlove and I had met during our schooldays, I don’t think we would have been on speaking terms, let alone liked one another. I was one of those students who did her homework once I got in from school, on the evening it was set. He was one of those students who did it in the car on the way into school, on the day it was due in.
I could never bear to rub up close to a deadline; it made me feel my work would be rushed and pressurised and I would rather not have done it than done it poorly. He could never bear to get started on a project until the pressure of the impending deadline compelled him over his resistance. We haven’t changed at all, really, as I still do things with plenty of time in hand and he still does them at the eleventh hour. For both of us the deadline exerted a fearsome psychological power, it was just that we reacted to it differently. Mr. Litlove needed them, I loathed them.
I find myself thinking about this a lot recently as I embark on writing a new book. The thing is, I have no deadlines whatsoever for this project, and this is absolutely the way I wanted it; I have in fact put a great deal of time and energy into removing all possible deadlines from my creative proces. And yet I find it hard to get started without even the hint of a deadline. This has been puzzling me, because I’m not the sort of person who needs a push to get moving, nor the thought of a time constraint to keep me going. When I was an academic I overdosed on deadlines because there were always so many research projects that needed my attention. This was my own fault; my normal procedure was to get excited about a lot of different conferences and to sign up for a whole bunch of lectures because I was interested in the research. I’d put in abstracts and proposals and, being impatient, if I didn’t hear back within the time frame I felt was reasonable, I’d put in a whole lot more. I usually ended up having to write everything I’d proposed, and inevitably that meant squeezing work in around deadlines in a way that was uncomfortable. Nowadays I love the feeling of not being booked up for months and months ahead. I relish my freedom.
And yet I’ve put off starting this new project repeatedly, and toyed with the idea of offering it to editors or agents in case there’s a possible commission to be had, even though I know I really don’t want to go down that route. So I sat down and had a good think about it and was rewarded by a lightbulb moment. What I’m missing this time around is the sense that someone, somewhere wants this thing. All those projects I wrote before – there was someone, in the form of an editor or an audience, waiting for me to come good on my promises. It’s not like these people were sitting around saying ‘If I don’t hear Dr Litlove’s analysis of gothic tropes in the late 20th century family romance, my life won’t be worth living!’ (I wish!). No. But knowing who was going to read it (or listen to it) was an influential factor in the writing process. I tailor my material quite closely to the idea I have of its audience. It’s not the deadline I need, but some idea of the face behind it.
Of course you could tell me to imagine an audience. Nope, doesn’t work. I’m fully aware of the artificiality. I could target an audience, like the marketing people tell you to, only I wouldn’t be able to convince myself they actually wanted it. What I need is some invalid somewhere, who has plenty of other reading matter to satisfy her, but who might maybe look forward to reading my work; I could think of this person and feel myself wanting to do my best to entertain and amuse her. Not that I know of anyone in that situation, and how dreadful to want someone to be in it to appease my needs!
So I’m stuck with the default position that the only person who wants to see this thing written is me, even though I am regarding myself very dubiously as the potential audience. It’s such a strange feeling.