In his famous poem “To a Coy Mistress,” Andrew Marvell wrote the following lines in the mid 1600’s:
Marvell was evidently an early incarnation of what we would call a ‘motivational speaker’ in the twenty-first century. In this poem we see him creatively harnessing his communication skills to try to get his girlfriend into bed. And even though I wouldn’t want to equate sleeping with Andrew Marvell with writing a novel, he is raising the valid point that time is limited, no matter what you are hoping to accomplish.
As a writer, this means that there will come a day when the universe will actually put the ‘dead’ in your deadline. Can we use this stark existential reality to assist us with overcoming writing blocks? Maybe.
Everyone is different, but it is true that a bit of time pressure works for many people who might otherwise dilly-dally and fritter their time away instead of writing. If the deadline is in the distant future, however (as death might seem to a someone contemplating writing a novel) it might not generate the necessary adrenaline discharge to bring resistant hands to the keyboard.
Doctoral students often struggle with motivation and productivity problems because they tend to have a long-term, uncertain deadlines for their dissertations. Writers who have no external deadlines at all must learn to utilize motivational resources that are not connected with the fear of missing a deadline. Perhaps if we knew with certainty that we only had a couple of months left on the planet more of us would get cracking, because deadlines with definite negative consequences in the near future seem to work best.
On the other side of this coin, I’ve also known writers with the reverse problem. They were so acutely aware of the passage of time that they lived in a state of constant anxiety and guilt about not producing enough. This inner turmoil then made it harder to write. They needed to relax and get the fear of ‘Times winged chariot’ out of their minds so they could concentrate on the task at hand. One might imagine that Andrew Marvell’s coy mistress may have been less coy and more responsive to his amorous advances if he wasn’t going on and on about her impending death all the time.
So, where does this leave us regarding utilizing alarm about deadlines and death to assist with encouraging the flow of words? ‘Different strokes for different folks’ is useful to keep in mind, but a general rule of thumb is that deadlines that are close at hand and that involve meaningful consequences work best for motivating writers to write. Long term deadlines that are vaguely defined are less effective, and generating excessive deadline fear can backfire.
We may never know whether Andrew Marvell eventually got lucky with his mistress by employing his carpe diem argument, but at least he got a good poem out of it. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, we mortals don’t generally know when Time’s winged chariot will pull into our driveway, so just in case, it might be wise to work on your coy writing project a little bit every day.