regularly get a “gentle reminder” email from our tactful editor reminding me it’s a new month and time for my column. For all his delicacy, I receive the prod with a groan and ask myself why on earth I decided to subject myself to monthly deadlines. I know the answer. If I didn’t have a deadline I’d never write anything.
When it comes to papers, students often get the same advice: Never wait until the last minute. They hear the same thing about studying for exams. But that’s a very literal way of looking at the challenge. People with that kind of approach tend to believe the intellectual and creative demands of studying and writing are directly proportional to the amount of data a student must absorb or produce. And that the amount of time put into active writing, studying or focused thinking should be similarly proportional to the work that needs doing, again in almost direct relationship to the number of words (or pages) involved.
Many people — writers and scholars, intellectuals and thinkers — successfully swear by this method. But it’s not the only approach. Many of us do things at the last minute. Some of us only do things at the last moment. That’s the case with me, unless I’m hit by that rare arrow of inspiration (which usually means something’s been nagging at me and I need to write it down, like scratching an itch). The truth is that most of what I write comes as a result of someone breathing down my neck.
I’ve presented several papers at important conferences. How did I manage? By submitting the quick outline necessary to get the project accepted, after which I let the deadline pressure do the rest. I never know just how much time I’ll need for the actual writing, but somehow I always manage to sneak in under the wire, often at 10-minutes-to-midnight on the day the paper is due.
It’s the only way that works for me. Since my student days I found that trying to get going well in advance doomed me to false starts. The preliminary writing I did manage was inevitably awful. But under the gun, with a looming deadline, the words came streaming out. (Think of a magician pulling a long chain of colorful silk handkerchiefs out of a closed fist).
The ancients spoke of a Muse with good reason.
Sometime it does feel like an invisible force is arranging the words and encouraging the tips of my fingers to race across the keyboard, making me wonder who’s actually doing the writing. It’s me, of course, but there are times when I need to reread what I wrote years ago just to “meet” the person I was then, in that breathless moment of rapid-fire expression.
Why does it feel like someone else did the writing? There’s no language to explain it. Some enlightened cognitive neurologist would probably cite complex brain functions. But that kind of explanation has no relationship to actual experience. I can digest a steak without needing to know biochemistry.
In terms of writing, while my aware mind, the part that reflects on things logically and concretely, may be “wasting time,” there’s another part that’s locked into the topic. But that “other part,” while more adept at making connections and understanding, is one I’m far less aware of, if I’m aware of it at all.
That’s why some scientific discovery emerges in the dead of night like a bolt from the blue. The mind is always at work. Maybe it needs the distractions of everyday life to keep its more literal and concrete functions busy so they don’t gum up the works — which leaves the Muse with the quiet space necessary to do her job.