Journalists are deadline junkies. Even if they don’t start out that way, they soon find themselves needing the stimulus of a deadline in order to get anything done, and most of them find it all but impossible to write a piece before it’s due.
I’m no better than the rest of my colleagues, but at least I take my own deadlines seriously. If you tell me a piece is due on Tuesday, that’s when you’ll get it, absent some hugely compelling reason to the contrary. Illness qualifies, and the upper-respiratory bug with which I’ve been doing battle for the past week caused me to blow the deadline for a piece I was supposed to write about Bright Young Things, the film version of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Fortunately, I knew this particular deadline wasn’t set in stone, so I warned my editor via e-mail, who wrote back to tell me that I could turn it in as late as Monday, when the magazine would be going to press. I needed all the rest I could get, so I decided to put off writing the piece until first thing Monday morning, hoping that by then I’d feel decent enough to turn out something sufficiently readable.
Even when I’m healthy, I often have trouble sleeping the night before an unwritten piece is due, and I felt perfectly frightful when I went to bed on Sunday. I tossed and turned throughout the night, sleeping for two hours at most, and awoke at six a.m., three hours ahead of the alarm clock. My head felt as though someone had pumped it full of budget-priced concrete, but there didn’t seem to be much point in trying to go back to sleep, so I crawled out of bed, turned on my computer, and went to work, grimly certain that I was in for a long day of pain and suffering. I was wrong. Two hours later the piece was finished, and even in my blurry state I knew it was good–perhaps one of my best.
Every writer can tell you a dozen stories like that. Some pieces come easily and others don’t, and you can’t tell in advance which way the coin will fall. In my own case, the mystery is heightened by the fact that I rarely suffer from writer’s block. My first professional gig was as a music critic for the Kansas City Star, and in those days we still filed our reviews at 11:30 for the next day’s paper (an old-fashioned practice that the New York Times has just revived). I was terrified the first time I had to hit that unforgiving deadline, but within a few weeks the fear had worn off, and ever since then I’ve trusted in my facility. Nowadays it’s not uncommon for me to turn out three pieces in a single week, some as long as five thousand words, and I never doubt that they’ll be of professional quality. What I don’t know is whether they’ll be any better than that. It’s strictly up to the muse.
Journalists aren’t exactly artists, but in this respect they resemble artists, who know that a professional can’t afford to wait for inspiration. Of the many George Balanchine quotes I tucked into All in the Dances, this one is my favorite:
Choreography, finally, becomes a profession. In making ballets, you cannot sit and wait for the Muse. Union time hardly allows it, anyhow. You must be able to be inventive at any time.
Note that Mr. B said “inventive,” not “inspired.” He knew what all artists know, which is that the only way you can ever hope to experience inspiration is to seek it regularly, ideally every day. It’s like a bus that doesn’t run on a regular schedule: the more often you come to the bus stop, the better the chances that you’ll be there when it arrives.
I’m used to this, as well I should be, but sometimes I get vexed at the muse when she pulls a fast one, the way she did yesterday morning. Of course I’m glad that particular piece came off so well–but why on earth did I have a good day when I was feeling so awful? It offends my sense of order. In a better-organized world, an artist would be able to earn inspiration. He’d get up bright and early after having gone to bed at a reasonable hour, eat a nutritious breakfast, sharpen his pencils, go out to walk the dog and help an old lady across the street, and return to his desk secure in the knowledge that the muse would descend at ten a.m. sharp. Fat chance. To be sure, regular habits are good for artists. They make it easier to be inventive on demand. But inspiration, unlike invention, won’t come when it’s called. It’s a cat, not a dog. If you can’t live with that knowledge, you’re better off pursuing some other line of work.
Those of you who are religious will doubtless see the analogy here: inspiration is like grace. You can make yourself more (or less) worthy to receive it, but Somebody Else is in charge of pushing the button that causes it to descend. This suggests that instead of grumbling about the arbitrariness of the inspiration that came to me early yesterday morning, I should have offered up humble thanks to the Muse of Journalism for choosing to cut me some slack on a bad day. But did I? No. “Gratitude,” Lord Chesterfield told his son, “is a burden upon our imperfect nature.” Unwilling to assume that burden, I e-mailed my piece to Washington, crawled back into bed, and slept until noon.
No doubt the muse will pay me back double one of these days. Or maybe not. Like I said, you never know.