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By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
When I was a junior in college at I.U. my youngest sister was a freshman, and it was great for me to do big-brother things for her that year as she moved into her dorm room and tried to navigate her new surroundings. I didn't have anything to do with her making friends or dealing with her roommate, of course, but I was a great resource in helping her figure out her academic responsibilities. God knows I was a total deadbeat about my own studies, but I figured I knew enough to at least point my sister in the right direction.
And when it came to writing that first college essay — something that terrifies most college students — I was a terrific help. Even at a young age I was a pretty forceful and confident writer, and in college I established a bit of a reputation as the guy who could help exasperated students complete those first papers on time. Among my circle of acquaintances, I was in demand as the "last-chance" guy who could help punch out a paper when the deadline was looming.
So the night before my sister's first paper was due, she called me in a panic. Her paper was all over the place, and the more she worked on it, the worse it got. (A familiar lament.) I went over to her dorm room that night and we talked about what she was trying to say. That was my trick — I'd ask the writer to tell me, in plain language, what the point of the argument was. Don't dress it up in "essay" or "college lit" language, I'd say — just tell me what you think. And she did, directly, simply, and her points were valid and strong. Okay, I said, when she had finished. You're halfway home. Now all we have to do is transcribe what you just said and put it in the paper in essay form. Easy.
And it wasn't easy, but it wasn't insurmountable, either, and after bending a few sentences to her will, my sister's paper started to take shape. And it was her paper, not mine, with her arguments and her specific style. She finished it pretty quickly after the key had turned in her head, and when she got the paper back the following week, she was delighted that she got an A. So was I.
Now, jump to a few weeks later — it's Saturday morning, around 7 am, and my sister wakes me up with a phone call. Thinking there's a family emergency, I snap awake, but she assures me that nothing's wrong. "I have a second paper due in three weeks," she tells me, "and I just want to run a few ideas by you." This settles in for a moment.
"Three weeks, the deadline is in three weeks?" I croak out. "Yes," she says. A long pause. Okay, I'm hungover, it's 7 am, it's Saturday, but even if I was stone sober and wide awake, this would still be incomprehensible. "Call me in 2 weeks and 6 days," I tell her, and I go back to sleep.
Obviously, my sister was a different kind of college student than I was, more committed, more responsible, and I quickly learned that she was also the exact opposite of me when it came to deadlines. She hated feeling under the gun, and she never did her best work with that pressure hanging over her. If she waited until the last minute, she knew that her work would always be inferior. She only called me for that first paper out of absolute, total desperation.
As for me, Good God — I've never done anything that wasn't last minute. I don't know if it's irresponsibility or chronic procrastination or a deep-rooted love or chaos and disorder, but the fact is, I need the lash of the deadline to get anything done. And it doesn't matter if the deadline is a week away, a month away, a year away, I will still wait until the absolute final moment to get the thing completed.
I've written over 200 articles for the Reader and I would guess that of that number, 5% or so were completed well in advance of the deadline. That's about 10 or 11 out of 200, and I can tell you that they are really easy for me to pick out when I re-read my work. (Which I do way too much of, by the way.) They're easy to pick out because they're usually the lamest and most boring things I've ever had published. The sentences are perhaps constructed better, and the over-all effect might be a little more professional-looking, but man oh man, they are profoundly joyless to read.
That doesn't mean that my last-minute, caffeine-fueled, desperation writing is inherently superior, of course, but there's no doubt to me that it's always livelier. Whenever I run across a shock-effect laugh line from one of my previous articles, I know it's something that sprang out of those last gasps before the deadline. It's a peculiar pressure I put on myself, and while I'm well aware that I don't always pull the rabbit out of the hat, it remains the only true method I know when I'm creating anything.
I should probably acknowledge that my reliance on deadlines could be symptomatic of a larger and perhaps more unpleasant underlying condition: maybe I'm a hack. Maybe I'm just not good enough as a writer. I admit that there are times when I let myself off the hook when I re-read some of my stuff; I say, Hey, Not bad for the last-minute. It's like a pre-emptive strike against potential critics; you always have some little qualifier or excuse for why you can't do your best.
This is my last deadline for the Reader for quite a while, for I'm taking some time off to — spoiler alert — concentrate on another deadline that's reached the "critical mass" stage. Once I complete that (in typical, flop-sweat fashion and at the absolute last minute), I'll try to make a return here. I'll call the editor the day before the next issue drops and I'll work straight through to the publication cut-off time to complete it. Even months in advance, I can predict the harried, dead spring finish for that article.