Deadlines (or: How I Blew My First Assignment)

In my last post I mentioned that I don’t believe human beings have deadlines. At the time, in a sense, I meant it. We go at our pace, and there’s no point in looking back and demanding that we ‘should” have done more. But for a writer, the deadline is a very real and unavoidable force to be reckoned with.

I had no idea that a deadline would stop me in my tracks as effectively as it did last year, when I had my first opportunity to write a story and get paid for it. My mom, sharp-eyed and thoughtful as she is, had brought my attention to a local magazine that was looking for submissions. It was marketed as “a magazine for women,” so I submitted a story about two women; myself and my mother. (I plan on posting that piece tomorrow.)

Sending that email was scary. It was taking a tiny step into a life I hadn’t allowed myself to think I deserved to have. But that was exactly what made it exhilarating. I held my breath, embraced the fear, and submitted the piece.

A few days later the editor emailed me back. She wrote that liked the piece I’d given her, and that she would put me on a list of freelance contributors to contact in the future. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Her feedback was validating, but could I trust it? Surely she just said those things to be polite? I was caught up in the idea that I was somehow a separate breed from professional writers; this made it hard to believe that this editor might actually give me a chance.

But then, a week or so later, she emailed me again—this time with an assignment. She asked if I would be willing to write a piece highlighting local businesses. It would have required interviewing strangers, and cultivating a voice I wasn’t used to using. But I would have happily taken on those challenges if it hadn’t been for the deadline.

It was in bold letters at the top of the email, a date so impossibly quick that my brain wouldn’t even consider it. There was no debate; I wasn’t doing the story. I didn’t have time. I had a gig that weekend to prep for. I wasn’t mentally prepared. And there was the small matter of my full-time job that I often work after hours to keep up with. It didn’t take much effort to convince myself I wasn’t capable of meeting this deadline.

I emailed the editor to decline the story. I haven’t heard from her since.

Yes, it was a missed opportunity. But I haven’t beaten myself up about it too much. After all, something important came out of the whole experience; it has made me mindful of the terror I felt when looking at that deadline. I’m so used to writing in my own little cocoon, where it doesn’t matter when—or if—I ever finish anything. No one will see it anyway. But now I understand that in order for me to take writing seriously, I have to shift into a new way of thinking.

I can’t hoard my writing away because I’m waiting for it to suddenly become perfect. That’s what scares me about deadlines. I’m worried that I won’t have enough time to make the piece meet my standards of “perfection,” which of course is unattainable. It’s time to stop thinking of my pieces as children in need of protection, but rather as young adults ready to give the real world a shot.

I’m planning to enter a short story contest soon. The submission period is closing in a week or so, and I have a draft almost finished. Will this be the first (hopefully of many) times I will meet a writing deadline? I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, please feel free to leave a comment if you’d like! Any veterans that feel inclined to share tips or advice? Fellow beginners who want to commiserate? I’d love to hear from you.

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