On Sunday, January 20, 2019, at around midnight, I submitted a short story of mine to the Chicago Tribune short story contest.
Today, I was going through a folder I take with me to work, and found a note, scribbled in the margin of a page I had ripped out and forgotten. The note simply said, “Do the short story contest.” With a thick underline beneath it. The note was written about a month before the deadline at the end of January.
The story I submitted had been floating around in my head for months. It began as absent-minded notes and scribbles in a notebook I take with me to church and on vacation. It was a fun story that I enjoyed thinking about when times got boring, and with so many other projects I had to think about, I was comfortable leaving this one in the margins of my imagination until I had finished the other ones.
I didn’t expect it would be done any time soon, let alone this month.
When I heard about the contest toward the end of December, the story that immediately popped into my head was this one. It came so clear and felt like such a “duh” moment that I didn’t question it. Whereas I spent months on my other manuscripts fussing and bothering about plot holes, dialogue, and chapter length. This store seemed to just pour out of me and onto the page. And when it was finished, I knew it was finished. It felt complete.
That was the power of pressure.
Granted, the pressure was mainly of my own creation, since nobody knew I was submitting to this contest besides myself, and my wife.
But it was this pressure that forced me to write when I felt like doing anything else.
What would happen if I missed the deadline? Nothing. I would wake up and go to work like I usually do. But my laser-focus on completing this short story would disappear. When I say “nothing” would happen, I mean exactly that. The story would not get finished. It would stay nothing, pushed to the bottom of the priority list until years from now.
Having “nothing” to show for all my hard work was a scary thought.
In life, there are no grace periods for the important things, there are no extended due dates. You either get it right, or you don’t.
If I missed this entry deadline, that’s it, I can’t win and I can’t lose, I’m simply there, doing nothing.
If I screw up my daughter’s childhood years, there’s no extension to try and get it right. She either grows up right, or ends up a mess.
If I wake up one day when I’m thirty and realize I’m not who or where I want to be, I can’t ask for a little more time to get it right, or try again. I have to work with what I’ve done so far and make the best of it. Even if it’s nothing.
The world we live in is designed to distract us, to draw our attention from what we want to do, what we should do, and focus it on what someone else is doing, or wants us to do. (Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on who we’re being distracted by, or from.) But the problem is that a majority of those drawing our attention today prefer us to sit in front of our screens for hours instead of anything else. They don’t care what you’re missing, or who you’re becoming, because as long as you sit there, they make money. There are thousands and thousands of articles and blogs about this online, so I always feel as if I beat the dead horse to a pulp when I bring this up.
I saw a quote this morning, actually, that said: “Life is too short to waste time debating politics in online forums.”
I fall into the same trap.
That’s why it felt so unexpectedly refreshing to have the pressure to have me create something for myself, by myself, and of myself. It made me ignore the distractions and sit down for myself, not somebody else.
I sat on my chair.
At my table.
Typed on my computer.
Using the power I pay for.
To write a story from my ideas.
That would fulfill my goals, and make me a better person.
Not somebody else’s goals.
It makes me sick sometimes that I work all day long, to pay for all these things, just to use them in the late hours of the night to become an expert on someone else’s opinion on why such-and-such film was snubbed at the last awards ceremony.
The pressure to focus on my own life, my own goals, beat out the pressure to glide through life.
Nothing written here is revelatory. Everybody knows, or has at least heard, of setting goals for yourself, rewarding yourself, etc. etc. etc.
Anybody who has worked a day in their life knows what having a deadline is like.
But the more I write, and the more stories I submit to contests and to publications, the more ideas pop into my head, and I can’t help but wonder:
“How many of these ideas will I carry with me into the grave? When the deadline for sharing these with the world has passed, what will I have been able to accomplish with them?”
That thought terrifies me, and it scares me enough to forget the distractions and do something about it.