Let's see. I've walked over to the soda machine to purchase an iced green tea (finally, they have diet). Grabbed a salad in the cafeteria. Cleaned out my e-mail inbox. Read -- and responded to -- every query and story proposal in a stack of printouts that has been sitting on my desk for weeks. Caught up with the weather forecast, the other major news Web sites and Joel Achenbach's blog (interstellar microorganisms again). Did some research to check out the feasibility of a new story idea for Weingarten (not feasible). Dealt with a stack of new e-mails that came in since the last time I cleaned out my inbox. Wrote some headlines. Checked out the YouTube Turtle Boy video everyone's talking about. And what do you know? I'm getting thirsty again.
I'm sure there are writers who don't find writing to be a bone-crushing, nausea-inducing festival of self-loathing. I just don't happen to be one of them. Faced with a blank screen and a deadline for even the shortest, simplest piece, I am seized with the overwhelming desire to clean out my garage. Or do anything other than writing (up to and including root canal).
The problem seems to be standards. I have some. And I'm terrified I can't live up to them. I've found that to make myself write anything at all, I have to begin by lowering my sights, and simply try to write something bad. Don't even write, I tell myself, just type.
But, in the end, nothing works except a deadline. As my deadline approaches, the pain caused by the fear of missing it steadily increases until it exceeds the pain of writing.
God forbid I should be attempting something more ambitious than a 500-word column about an article someone else has written. Say, a 2,000-page novel meant to follow one of the most original and important books of the 20th century. It would take a whole lot of green tea and one humongous deadline to get through that.
Ralph Ellison, who happened to be a literary genius, spent 40 years on that impossible mission. And still didn't finish. You could argue that the problem was that Ellison didn't have a meaningful deadline. His first book was so successful, he never had to work again. And, as Post staff writer Wil Haygood points out in the story that begins on Page 22, Ellison had no interest in finishing the second book just to satisfy the millions of readers who expected it of him.
So, he kept typing. As his page count rose, so, too, did his standards. No matter who told him his work was brilliant, it was never brilliant enough for Ellison.
I have no doubt he had a clean garage.
Tom Shroder is editor of the Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.