One of the many reasons I envy Goddard students is that they have deadlines. Every semester four of these dates loom large in the mind, tricking it into working ten times harder than it would. Deadlines are magic—and, like magic spells, function only when you believe in them. Fifteen years ago, when my teachers told me, “Your story is due in three weeks,” I believed it in every part of my brain. These days, if I tell myself, “Your story is due in three weeks,” my subconscious mind—the part that regulates bodily effort—replies, “Sure, whatever.”

The South African scientist and sports medicine doctor Tim Noakes is known for, among other things, his theory of the “central governor,” an alleged mechanism in the brain that induces tiredness. As Noakes’s theory would have it, it’s not muscle fatigue that makes you collapse after a marathon; it’s your central governor signaling that the effort is over and you can relax. According to him, had you set out to run a 50-mile ultramarathon instead of a 26.2-mile marathon, that same central governor would have doled out bodily energy appropriately and signaled the muscles not to fatigue for another four hours. Similarly, the theory suggests that climbing a mountain on a clear day leaves you less spent than climbing it in the fog, because your brain can see where it’s going, and subconsciously calculate the correct expenditures of energy.

I’ve been attempting to finish a novel before the end of this spring. Back when I started it, I set a deadline of 21 June 2018. Every morning I would labor on the manuscript, but some days I quit after only three hours. Even when my schedule allowed for the luxury of remaining at my desk, I spent those extra hours reading or socializing. My deadline was too distant to see acutely, but not only that; it had a fatal flaw. It was self-imposed, and therefore arbitrary. While my students were in the enviable position of rushing to meet recurring deadlines officially codified by an institution, I was failing to trick my central governor into treating my flashing red countdown clock as anything but imaginary.

I’ve been experimenting with a solution to convert my torpor to energy: I tell everyone who will listen that I must turn my novel in on June 21st. The more people I tell, the more likely my brain will be to believe my reputation is at stake, and foster the conditions necessary to preserve it. I think it’s working. Thirty-eight days remain until June 21st. Yesterday I wrote for nine hours. Nine times thirty-eight is 342. Noakes says the central governor performs math on its own, without help from the conscious mind; still, it’s nice to realize one new page per available hour between now and the solstice would double the novel’s current length.

To the list of people I’ve told so far (my fiancé; various friends; strangers on Instagram; my literary agent when I saw her at the launch of Reiko Rizzuto’s beautiful new novel Shadow Child), I now add every reader of this blog. I appreciate your help. If I ever finish this thing, I’ll thank you in the acknowledgments.

 

Deadlines
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John McManus is the author of four books of fiction: Stop Breakin Down, Born on a Train, Bitter Milk, and his latest story collection, Fox Tooth Heart, forthcoming from Sarabande Books in October 2015. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, McSweeney’s, American Short Fiction, The Oxford American, and Electric Literature, among other journals and anthologies. He is the recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award, a Creative Capital Literature grant, a Fulbright Scholar grant, and the Fellowship of Southern Writers’ New Writing Award. He grew up in Blount County, Tennessee, and now lives in Virginia. McManus is a professor of creative writing at Old Dominion University in Virginia, and he also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Goddard College. He is contributing editor for Fiddleblack, a literary journal dedicated to creative writing with a strong sense of place.

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2 thoughts on “Deadlines

  • May 15, 2018 at 1:19 pm
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    John, just a reminder your novel is due on June 21st.

    Teryle

  • May 14, 2018 at 5:42 pm
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    It was so great to see you at my book launch, John! And here is something else to consider: there to celebrate me were Goddard faculty members, Goddard alumni, Goddard students AND a new incoming soon-to-be G1 student I met while she was trying to decide where she wanted to study. (Plus our agent, who John mentioned, is the Visiting Professional in Vermont at the next residency.) And also, agents, editors, publicity and market people, writers, friends, lots of Hedgebrook women, and readers who I had never met. It takes a huge village to be a writer. For those of you reading this who are from Goddard, your village is built in and it will hold you up as long as you want, for as long as you participate in it. Good luck with that deadline, John!

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