Deadline Blues

Just a quick post to let people know I’m not dead.

I’ve been slaving under a vicious deadline here — the actual due date is next week, but to get the gig done I have to gear up and head down that long, dark tunnel of Deadline Hell two weeks prior.

In my old life as “just” a freelancer, I would effectively cut myself off from society and friends and even fundamental hygiene (wearing the same clothes for days on end) in order to meet a deadline. My entire reputation rested on the fact I have never missed a due date for copy in my career, and delivered “A” list quality manuscripts. (This has pissed off most of my colleagues. Halbert even said it was “criminal” to have never missed a deadline, and made everyone else look bad. And, in truth, most writers occassionally miss a deadline here or there… but to my mind, part of being a professional is a hard-core dedication to keeping your promises. In essence: Be where you said you’d be, when you said you’d be there, having done what you said you’d do. Period.)

As a bachelor freelancer, I could get away with being a recluse for a week or longer. I’d just disappear.

I learned to quickly get into a groove, too — eat, sleep, dream and focus on the job at hand. There’s actually a kind of freedom in that… a luxury of forcing the world to go away, to ignore the hubub of modern life and everything else that would under other circumstances be a desireable distraction.

I’m no longer that carefree bachelor, of course, and haven’t been for years. So I’ve had to adapt, by calling up that groove quickly during whatever snatches of time I have available.

It’s a different way of working, but — again, as a professional — you just learn to get ‘er done. I still keep odd hours (went to sleep around 4 am last night), since I insist on never working tired, and nap frequently. (I also rely on my unconscious to come up with ideas and headlines while I’m asleep — a tactic I learned from David Ogilvy and have used for twenty years successfully.)

I could go and on about how I deal with deadlines… and maybe later I will, when I have more time… but for this post I just wanted to share a thought that I never consider unless I’m actually deep in Deadline Hell.

It’s this: As confident as I am that I can get the job done, at a level of quality consistent with what I’m capable of and with what the client rightly expects… I still suffer crippling bouts of doubt and anxiety during the creative process.

This used to freak me out. I’m sure it’s an emotional state close to what folks feel when they have a complete nervous breakdown… a sense of failure, of futility, of desperate panic and near-physical collapse.

Yet I find it funny, and even a bit invigorating now. The first few times I went through it — before I understood what was happening — I took it personally. I figured I was just inadequate, and a piss-poor excuse for a professional.

Then I discovered that ALL the best writers (as well as most other “creative” types) go through this identical stage during the process of crafting something new.

It’s like birth pangs. I won’t pretend to know what women actually go through during birth… but I’ve had women writers insist that at least the panic, the desperation and the physical exhaustion are the same.

Learning this calmed me down considerably. Nobody’s ever died from the angst of creating something. But — not understanding that the process was temporary and necessary — people have committed suicide because they couldn’t handle it.

So I’m telling you, as others told me: Don’t freak out. ALL writers go through a period of brain-twisting insanity while crafting good stuff under deadline pressures. (I haven’t tested this, but if you’re not going through at least some discomfort, you may not be pushing yourself hard enough. Naughty writer, cheating your client.)

It’s like exercising. I have a vicious trainer who takes great pride in concocting sadistic sessions that shoot my heart rate up to “running from Godzilla” levels… and if I didn’t undertand the process, I might avoid exercising altogether. But knowing the “no pain, no gain” rule, I have learned to just buckle down and face my lazy-ass demons and do what needs doing to stay in shape.

I even enjoy the exhaustion of pushing myself physically, once I’m into it.

So, yeah, I’m unhappy right now. Right after posting this, I will drag myself back to the job at hand, and go through what must be the twelfth edit of the copy to date (with another twelve to go).

Part of me would rather slash my wrists and be done with it… but my “greater” self just laughs off the desperation.

And here’s the punchline: Because there IS a deadline, this all will soon pass.

It HAS to.

That’s why deadlines are the writer’s best friend. Without them, there would be no logical end to any gig, and I can’t even imagine allowing this panic and sense of failure to last a second longer than it has to.

The deadlines I set are reasonable, and based on my long experience of what is necessary to get the job done right. Sometimes, it can be overnight. Other times, with heavy-hitting big league clients, it’s six weeks.

But the instant the job is sent off… I’m back to my normal fun-loving, embrace-the-world self.

Creativity is a harsh mistress… but for those of us who’ve chosen her, the grief (once understood) is worth it.

Stay frosty.

John Carlton

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  • Bernie says:

    John, another timely message. I would have to agree with you that there are definitely birth pangs involved in the creation process. Having recently entered the online world I am realizing that the “gurus” maybe hyping Internet ease just a wee bit.

    Most people are probably somewhat like Bheethoven, who supposedly sweathed through each and every note as he wrote his symphonies.

    Although there are a few Mozarts (he is supposed to have been able to write his finished symphonies upon the first draft) these savants are rare as a penguin in Miami beach.

    The nice thing is that both Bheethoven and Mozart exhibited “Mastery” in their chosen profession. You need to know yourself, who you are and what it takes for you to get the job done. Ultimately you are on your own and if it takes you two, three, five or ten times the effort that is okay, as long as you know where you are going.

    All the best,


  • BrettFromTibet says:

    I almost had a nervous breakdown today, going through the harsh learning curve of mastering Flash and web programming. I almost wanted to throw in the towel, but a little bit of introspection told me to hang in there and it will all pay off – my ship is on course. This message was good medicine… very timely! You write some of the most inspiring stuff I have read on the web! Thanks and stay frothy!

  • BrettFromTibet says:

    It’s also reassuring to know that even after twenty years of doing this, that you still sometimes have to do twenty rewrites of the copy to get the level of quality you need.

    (I get frustrated because the copywriting process often seems sinfully slow, with an obsessive-compulsive amount of word rearranging.)

    I had assumed that veteran copywriters were so quick, they could just sit down and write pristine copy in one or two passes.

  • Dan says:


    Thanks for having the balls to share that. For a while I thought I was the only one experiencing those feelings.

    Interesting thing though…

    I have a friend who was the director of the guitar program at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, one of the premier music schools in the US.

    He told me that he got to hang out with Allan Holdsworth when he was there giving a clinic. Holdsworth is recognized throughout the world as one of the most technically proficient guitarists ever. A true virtuoso.

    In fact, the great John McLaughlin (a true guitar master’s master) has admitted that Allan Holdsworth’s playing is so genius and advanced, even HE can’t figure out his licks.

    Anyhoo, so here’s the best living guitarist in the world giving a clinic at MI. My friend said that Holdsworth was so nervous he was shaking. And at 10:00 in the morning he was chugging beers trying to relax.

    So my friend approaches him and says, “Allan, are you OK?”

    Holdsworth replies, “I’m really nervous. You must have some monster players here. I’m not sure I’m good enough to be teaching these guys.”

    So here’s one of the most talented, proficient and highly educated guitarists of this century having doubts about his abilities before a gig.

    I guess regardless of experience and skill level, we all go through that to some extent.

    I guess you just gotta put your head down, charge forward and stop listening to those thoughts telling you that you aren’t good enough.

    All the best,
    Doberman Dan

  • John,

    Again, the wisdom from years of experience conveys itself on your blog.

    I find that my best copy is written on “hard” deadlines, those with a specific date and time that the project must be completed.

    When I encounter a “soft” deadline…I often discuss firming that deadline up a little with my client. It shows the client that I work to complete projects, my time is valuable, and that I respect the fact the client actually wants to use what I write in their business as fast as possible.

    Then, I can do the best work under a firm deadline as well.

    Nice post John.

    Joseph Ratliff

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