Are Deadlines a Catalyst or Catastrophe?

I began reading Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa this morning and the first thing that struck me was the foreword:

Unlike many novels, none of the characters or incidents in this book is imaginary. Any one not finding sufficient love interest is at liberty, while reading it, to insert whatever love interest he or she may have at the time. The writer has attempted to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month’s action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination.

This alone was quite interesting and gave the impression of an antithesis to a typical introduction of a fiction book where the author denies any similarities to real persons living or dead and of the circumstances to being a work of fiction etc. Yet the book begins in the fashion of a fiction narrative and the dialogue (typically Hemingway) reverberates from his more established fictional titles. This style of an autobiographical account narrated in fictional prose is new to me. The selective nature of having a theme (game hunting) and setting (East Africa within a one year time span) and encounters based on real life experience, which are transferred to an audience as a story, worked wonders in terms of entertainment, realism and pure literary delight.

Following my previous post discussing the necessity of non-fiction to a fiction writer, and the great responses and recommendations I received there, I’m beginning to better understand some of those insightful comments with respect to reading what you like, the value of non-fiction, and the fuzzy line between the two, namely, creative non-fiction, which I would venture to label Green Hills of Africa with.

Putting this new-found awe aside, what also jumped out at me and got me thinking was the following:

The way… to write (is) as long as you can live and there is pencil and paper or ink or any machine to do it with, or anything you care to write about, and you feel a fool, to do it any other way. But here we were, now, caught by time, by the season, and by the running out of our money, so that what should have been as much fun to do each day whether you killed or not was being forced into that most exciting perversion of life; the necessity of accomplishing something in less time than should truly be allowed for its doing.

And so Hemingway quickly, in the stroke of a brush, interspersed between sentences about hunting, provides the reader with his analysis of what writing represents to him and what he believes by de facto to be a universal truth to everyone else. He does have a point, of course, because writers want to write and they want to write about what they care about – what would be the point otherwise? But calling the reality of life, namely, lack of money as a catalyst to rushing through deadlines as a perversion, is what struck me to be an encapsulating generalization of what writers have to go through to make a living.

There is much wisdom in these words and it is a perversion when a literary work must be rushed. Deadlines can be invaluable to writers to keep them working and a necessity for the publishing profession, be it newspapers, small presses, big publishing houses… the economic world needs its numbers. And dates are just that, necessary numbers that work within an analytical framework in relation to other numbers such as budgets, estimated sales, predicted revenue and all the other blah… But what about the story, is it still art? Probably to the reader, who expects nothing less… but to all those in the in-between chain, it’s a commodity and the writer better provide it on time, or else suffer the consequences of no money.

While I would like nothing more than to provide a thorough review of the book here, it’ll have to wait because I’m only 20 pages into it. I wonder what other gems I’m going to discover reading this… whatever they are, I’ll share them whenever possible. In the meantime, I’d love to know whether your thoughts echo those of Hemingway or whether deadlines pose a little problem for your art and your sustenance?



12 thoughts on “Are Deadlines a Catalyst or Catastrophe?

  1. For me, deadlines are definitely catalyst. Now, if I could only plan my time better ahead of the deadline so that I’m not working like a crazy person at the very last minute, I’d be good to go.

  2. There is a great book about Hemingway that reflects on the relationship between his fiction and his journalism. ( Some of the pieces of his novels are very close to newspaper pieces he wrote. I think he made a distinction between a “story” and “journalism” rather than fiction and nonfiction.

    Deadlines teach us a lot, but Hemingway was a disciplined writer. If you write every day, you don’t need deadlines.

    Nice article.

    1. “If you write every day, you don’t need deadlines.” – That’s a very true statement.

      I’ll look at the Hemingway book, thanks for the tip 😉

  3. I agree with penpoised. I find that I write a lot more productively when I have a deadline. I find deadlines to aim for like a competition or Nanowrimo. Without them I procrastinate too much.

  4. Deadlines are a dreaded aspect of writing, yet they truly can be a catalyst to get thoughts corralled onto paper. Some of my best efforts have been prompted by a contest entry deadline. Oh, and good luck with Hemingway. I never could get past five pages with him. Ssh, don’t tell anyone.
    Happy Pages,

    1. Oh yes, it’s a sort of love/hate relationship with deadlines, right? Well for me I like it because it spurns me on but hate it because I want more time to polish and refine.

      Really? I’m quite an admirer of Hemingway’s works. I do love his minimalist approach and his dialogue construction, which I think is terribly difficult to emulate (even if only to learn it). 😉

  5. I like deadlines; they make me work. Whether that’s the deadline or the simple fact that someone’s waiting to read it is a point for debate. Right now though, I’m writing for performance; either my own company or commission. This means there are interested parties around and, a consummate performer, I do love an audience. I have written novels but slowly because I had only vague hopes for publication and only myself to read it.

    The other thing I’d say is that I don’t consider writing to be an art. For me it’s a craft. Occasionally I might achieve art through the craft 🙂

    Generally though I like deadlines. I have a full time job and also do a but of tutoring. When I have a deadline I don’t get writer’s block. There isn’t time.


    1. I like your response and agree that writing is a craft. The finished product though I do see as a work of art. Simply because it’s revised, perhaps rewritten, pondered over, improved as much as possible and because it’s a part of the person who wrote it… and ultimately, it’s made for someone else to read, admire and appreciate.

      I do understand that deadline help keep the ball rolling. I hear this from many people.

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