Amy O'Neill Houck: On Deadlines and Risk Taking

This past weekend, I participated in the Juneau Douglas Little Theatre’s 24-Hour Miracle. It’s a mini theatre festival where four plays are written and produced in the space of twenty-four hours. The playwrights each meet their cast and their director at 8 pm on Friday evening. A theme is chosen from a hat, and off we go. A script is due by 8 am the next morning. Saturday night, at 8 pm, the plays are performed.

A few months ago, when I was first asked to be one of the writers, I told Geoff, the producer, that while I was thrilled to be asked, I didn’t think I could be productive in the middle of the night. Truthfully, the idea of letting down a director and cast if I ended up staring at a blank page all evening was terrifying. But he asked again. And again. And I got to thinking: maybe this is one of those things that I’m just supposed to say yes to. So I did.

What is it about deadlines that can often help, rather than hinder creativity? Again and again, I’ve found that writing with a limited amount of time is an opportunity to produce work that wouldn’t happen otherwise. Maybe it’s similar to sitting in a workshop or a class—you’re given a prompt, and you only have ten minutes to write a poem. Out comes something you didn’t know was in you.

Driving home from the beginning of the 24-Hour miracle, with the faces of my cast in my head, I got an idea for the setting of my play. As I fussed about making tea and setting up my work space, characters came to life in my head. Suddenly, I wasn’t faced with a blank page like I feared I would be. I started to make notes about characters. I knew what the climax of my story would be, and unlike my “regular” writing life where I’m creating nonfiction, I had the freedom to make everything up. For the 24-Hour Miracle, I was also lucky enough to have a couple of generous friends check on me during the night. I shot them pieces of the play to get a reality check. I persevered. I had fun. I even got a little sleep.

The success of having a deadline and writing towards it often makes me want to strengthen my resolve about my own non-deadline writing. How do we give ourselves the push that outside pressure does? If I say I’m going to finish an essay, but the only person I’m accountable to is me, I’ll often find excuses to work on other things. For some reason, it’s OK to disappoint myself over and over, but I’m loathe to disappoint someone else. If we can’t muster that drive for ourselves, can we trick ourselves into having it? Many writers do this by forming writing groups or simply having a writing buddy. You meet regularly with your group, and you give each other deadlines. I have friends who commit to submitting a certain number of times per year—they don’t do it alone, so they are accountable to another writer. Submitting to journals means you have real, actual deadlines with the added bonus of possible publication. It sounds like a win-win. If your piece isn’t accepted, you have something to polish and send elsewhere, and you’re still writing.

Another “real” deadline is fast approaching that anyone can try. November 1st marks the beginning of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in a month—the length of a short novel. The goal is not to write a finished novel; it’s about having an intense writing habit for 30 days. You’re doing it with a big virtual crowd, and in many cities including Anchorage and Fairbanks, there are in-person gatherings during the challenge. It’s a marathon of writing, with a huge payoff in developing both skill and practice no matter how close you get to the finish line.

Amy O’Neill Houck, our guest blogger for October, recently finished her MFA in creative nonfiction at UAA. She lives in Juneau, and occasionally writes feature stories for The Juneau Empire and The Capital City Weekly. Amy works at Perseverance Theatre, and in her off hours, she teaches ukulele and knitting. Usually not at the same time.

1 thought on “Amy O'Neill Houck: On Deadlines and Risk Taking”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I'm catching up on posts backwards and read Cinthia's just before yours, Amy, and am struck by the overlap in great advice re: deadlines and fast, urgent writing and the need to take risks. Good to you for saying "yes" and thanks for sharing this inspiring post with us.

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