Yes, I know you’ve heard that title before. It’s the name of a book and movie from the sixties about Michelangelo. I’d never quite understood how those two words could apply to an artist unless it was referring to the neck pain Michelangelo must have sustained while looking up at the Sistine Chapel for the four years it took to paint it. And then I became a writer and those two words, used together, began to make perfect sense.
I just completed my sixteenth novel. Approximately 140,000 words, and 426 pages. Through all sorts of luck and miracles, I turned it in three days before my deadline. The experience of writing on deadline makes me say with confidence that I now know what it feels like to have my eyeballs jabbed with a nail gun. Repeatedly.
For an entire month, I holed up in a beach house by myself to do nothing but write. Before you start thinking romantic notions, allow me to let you in on the reality of a writer’s life on deadline. Every morning, noon, and night, I wrote, rewrote, edited, wrote some more, then rewrote again. Every day. For thirty-one days.
My dog, bless his furry little heart, never once complained that I hadn’t washed my hair for six days or that I was wearing the same sweats that I’d worn the day before and the day before that and may have even slept in. I never walked on the beach because it would have taken too much of my writing time, and I lived on Lean Cuisines, apples, cottage cheese, and ice cream (of course!).
I became paler from lack of sunshine (except when I had to go outside to walk the dog), and my nails will make my manicurist weep when I see her next week. I forgot what it felt like to wear shoes or carry on a face-to-face conversation.
But I did manage to write a book. I was almost at the halfway point when I went on my self-imposed retreat with only a month to go until my due date. My lateness wasn’t from procrastinating, I assure you. I’d had three different deadlines earlier in the year in addition to a 7-week book tour, a child graduating from high school and starting college, and another child moving to Scotland for a semester. Plus three family funerals and a dog with a delicate stomach. Whenever I wasn’t dealing with any of the above, I was writing.
So was my month-long retreat at the beach fun? No. Not at all. It was a lot of hard work. It was agony. Every morning felt like somebody had stapled my head to the carpet while I was sleeping and I had to rip it from its moorings to start writing again.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. I have created a book that I am very, very proud of. A book that I believe will give readers a lot of reading pleasure in the years to come. I will love and treasure each and every email, letter, Facebook posting etc. that will come from readers letting me know that my words—the same words that I agonized over—have brought them happiness, comfort, assurance, or all three.
This thing I do is such a blessing. In what other profession is it possible to touch so many people, and to share what I love the most in the world—stories?
When my son was a junior in high school, he informed us that he didn’t want to play football anymore. He said he loved the camaraderie with his teammates and being out on the field with them, he loved the game of football and he loved Friday nights when he would rush the field with his teammates. But he really hated the time commitment—seven days a week and school nights where he was up past midnight trying to fit in his homework and study time. He said the bad parts—the agony—outweighed the good parts—the ecstasy. It made total sense to me—more so than to my husband—and our son didn’t play football that year. It’s a good way to analyze everything we do in this life: is what you gain worth what you give up?
Writing books is hard. Like my dad says, if it were easy everybody would be doing it. But do the bad parts outweigh the good? Never. If they did, I wouldn’t be doing what I do. Life is too short. Meeting a deadline is a lot like giving birth—shortly after delivery, the pain seems to blur in your memory. Enough so that you’ll maybe consider having another baby. Or writing another book.
I turned in the book last Monday. Today is Sunday. I’m already starting to hear new characters whispering in my ear, telling me their story. And I’m getting that itch to write it down so I can share it. The agony of a deadline seems to already be a distant memory. At least until the calendar flips over and I realize I’m a month until deadline and I only have 100 pages written. Then it will be time to grab the dog and my sweats and head back to the beach to do it all over again.