Deadlines -- Peter Leyland

                   Autotelic Experience: How meeting a deadline can be a creative spur


People often complain about deadlines. They generally don’t like them. They might have a busy schedule, they might have family responsibilities, they might even complain that they need more time for the creative element in their work to flower. I would argue, however, that deadlines can help us with that creativity, particularly in writing. I am thinking of the serial writers like Dickens and Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. An example of Dickens creativity comes in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4)). Sales of this novel were poor. There were only 20,000 of the monthly numbers being sold compared to 50,000 for Pickwick Papers and 60,000 for the weekly The Old Curiosity Shop. Under pressure from his publishers Dickens salvaged the situation by introducing the comic character of Mrs Gamp about half-way through. The character of this nurse, who carried an umbrella and who combined midwifery with the laying out of corpses, was a caricature for the times and Mrs Gamp was so successful that she achieved a position quite independent of the book. I well remember that my grandmother used to call her umbrella a ‘gamp’ over a hundred years after the book was published.


I am no Dickens, but I have examples from my own experience of how writing to deadlines aided my creativity. In the 1990s I wrote a regular column for an educational journal, G&T Update, for which I was actually paid. The editor, Jane West, now a writer of stories for children and adults, was very encouraging with my writing and when she decided to leave the journal, she said that for her final edition I could write about anything I wanted.


I seized on this. I had the idea that everyone could be a teacher of gifted and talented children and that all it needed was the creative spark, in other words allowing those kids to do their own thing. In my article, Every child has the potential to be a gifted and talented pupil, I used the example of the bass player Jack Bruce who at the age of 14 had written a string quartet. When he showed it to his music teacher, however, she summarily dismissed it as being full of mistakes. Nevertheless, Jack Bruce went on to find his true creative fulfilment playing in a freeform style with a band known as Cream. They often began live performances not knowing what was going to happen.The famous bass riff in Cream's Sunshine of Your Love was said by some at the time to be out there just waiting to be discovered.


Creativity, as I said in the article, could be seen on many levels. For instance, while looking for a stimulating way to teach about shadows in my science lessons I had come up with the idea of shadow puppetry, something I had seen on a visit to the The Museum of the Moving Image in London with my daughter. My Yr 6 class were reading Alice in Wonderland at the time and I suggested we retell parts of the story using home-made theatres and cardboard puppets, and writing scripts. 


In the article I described how I had never done anything more successful. For a week we dwelt in a welter of cardboard boxes, card, tracing paper, coloured acetate sheets, writing paper, wooden sticks, pens, torches, projector lamps, and a series of magnificent performances. The Red Queen roared as characters were gleefully executed, Tweedledum and Tweedledee danced across the screen, "Get your hand out of the way!" someone shouted and the Cheshire Cat grinned. Everybody was involved at their own level, the practical, the imaginative and the resourceful. Did you know that shadow puppetry was first used by Bedouin tribesmen when they wanted entertainment in their desert tents? Well now you do. Creativity was all around. 


Which leads me to how I wrote a book about teaching. Jane West, who by now had become a great friend, gave my name to a publisher that was planning a series of books for teachers and they wanted one about teaching gifted and talented children. I was happy to oblige and given a four-month deadline poured all I knew about teaching children into writing the book: ‘So you want to be a better gifted and talented co-ordinator?’ it began, ‘It’s cool to be clever…’ Using examples from my teaching, I discussed how given the right encouragement every child could be able in something or other. The challenge for teachers was to find what that something was. 


The book was published, and I was invited to various conferences to promote it. A number of copies were sold and I received royalties’ cheques. That was welcome but what I had discovered was that writing to a deadline had made me creative. There is a book Flow (2002) by Mikhail Czikszentmihalyi, who wrote about what he called Flow, a state in which people become so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. He describes the autotelic experience, from the Greek auto meaning self and telos meaning goal, giving a number of examples: the rock climber who looks back to see what she has achieved; the lawyer who is so involved in contemplating challenging cases that she forgets to have lunch and only realises she is hungry when it gets dark; the teacher who really enjoys interacting with children and finds that moment when the light goes on.


Notwithstanding all these theoretical ideas, I had found that there was nothing like the buzz from seeing a book with one’s name on it. Once I had finally left classroom-teaching I wanted this to happen again. I was by now teaching literature courses for the WEA and had been invited to present a talk about my course, The Detective in Fiction, at The Reading Festival of Crime Writing (2010). There I had shared the ‘green room’ with writers like David Wilson, author and now a professor of criminology, and Lindsay Davis who is a writer of historical crime novels. When David suggested I write about the ideas I had talked about at the festival I thought, well why not?


This led me to the Writers and Artists’ Year-Book, and to writing letters to numerous publishers. I had some very nice replies, but they were all along the lines of, ‘We don’t do that sort of thing’ followed by advice on who I might try which always seemed to lead nowhere. It seemed that my chosen idea was such a niche one that it wouldn’t fit into anything printed before or since. I’m sure I am not the first writer who has discovered that.


So, what was that sort of thing you may ask?  Well it was simply that I wanted to write a book about how the fictional detective was an archetypal character, like the revenger in Jacobean tragedy, and that most detectives shared certain characteristics. We could find these, I would argue, by analysing four of the most famous detectives, Holmes Poirot, Wimsey and Marlowe. The detective in fiction course had become my most popular one and I really wanted to write a book about it. No-one was knocking at the door, so I decided on self-publishing.


Returning to my theme the problem for me as a self-publisher was that there was no deadline except the expectation that I had set myself that I would write it. I had already sent the statutory three chapters to the publishers who had not shown any interest – Chapters entitled Antecedents, Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe had tripped off the keyboard, had been sent out and had been returned. But I was determined: I wrote 10 more chapters in an ‘autotelic’ trance. I enlisted friends and family to help: my wife read it through; Jane West, my former editor, proof-read it for free; my daughter got a friend to produce a series of covers; I paid for ten ISBN numbers; I found a printer and hey I had a book!


Now I was a self-published author the next problem presented itself. Although I had a box of beautifully printed books, I had to market them. As Jane said to me: ‘I’ve now sold 7,000 books through self-publishing and my view hasn’t changed, the writing is easy compared to the marketing.’ I am sure there are creative ways to do marketing but as a writer it is often difficult to sell yourself. We do not all have the courage of the writer W.H. Davies (1871-1940) who having lost a leg in a railway accident limped from house to house selling copies of his poems. 



The marketing of my book The Detective in Fiction is another story and this blog was supposed to be all about deadlines, so I’ll end on that note. When I was thinking vaguely about what to do for a blog this month I read Debbie’s piece, Of Apathy and Awards, where she mentions deadlines. The idea germinated and here it is. Is this how creativity works, I wonder?



References to my articles and books:


Working in the Shadows in Questions March/April 1995


Be a better Gifted and talented co-ordinator: Leyland, P. (2006)


Every child has the potential to become a gifted and talented pupil in G&T Update, May 2007


On the Road, a walk through the self-publishing process in Writing Magazine, July 2013


The Detective in Fiction: Leyland,P. (2016) 



Umberto Tosi said…
I concur! I wrote for newspapers and magazines for decades, and books under publishing contracts, all with deadlines. Sometimes I hated them and thought how lovely it would be to set my own, but found out otherwise creatively. I still set them for myself, but it's never quite the same.
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Peter, informative post.

Like you, I think deadlines are important, especially self-imposed ones.

Something I've learned is setting deadlines in days (rather than weeks or months) instills a greater sense of urgency. So, even though you may have two months for your article, tell yourself you have 60 days and start counting down. This can help with motivation and get you finished ahead of schedule. :D
I think the difficulty of setting your own deadlines is what made me appreciate NaNoWriMo, where there are externaal deadlines - thought they are more like goals or targets, with no sanctions for missing them! Nowadays I always rush to get new novels in my mystery series finished and published because there are actually readers nagging me for the next one (not very many readers but some!). I've been working on my family history memoir without a deadline of any kind, and I just keep going back and making tiny edits to the detail and am never any closer to publication.
Griselda Heppel said…
Fabulous post - so much richness here I don't know where to start. Except that I NEVER get so involved in a task as to forget to have lunch. I mean, whaaaat?
I am sure you are right about deadlines though. To give oneself a deadline and then keep to it requires iron discipline. Your theory about fictional detectives is fascinating, though in Jacobean tragedy we know who's done the wicked deed from the start. The task of Vindice, or Antonio, or whoever, is revenge more than detection, and frequently revenge is unnecessary because the evil ends up swallowing itself. But what Jacobean tragedy shares with detective novels - and I've never thought of this before - is the theme of a world in disorder which by the end of the play has been put back into some sort of order again. Brilliant idea for a book and all these publishers have missed a trick in not grabbing it.
And Dickens - the supreme master of writing to order in a way that stimulated his creativity rather than stultifying it! Am ashamed to say I haven't read Martin Chuzzlewit, though the BBC did a beautiful serialisation of it about - gulp - 15 years ago. Well worth getting hold of.

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