Deadlines Are Your Friends

“No one owes you a reading.”

Ralph McInerny, late Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, had a problem.  It was early 1964.  He had a growing family.  He had just purchased a house and found his teaching income from Notre Dame and a branch of Indiana University in South Bend was not enough to make ends meet.  “We…were overextended.”  What to do?

Ralph loved writing and usually wrote short stories for the magazines.  But he would get them rejected time and again.  He was thirty-four and decided to get serious.  He did so by setting a one year deadline.

“I decided that I would write for commercial markets, not just sporadically, but determinedly, every day, and keep at it for a year, after which if I had not sold anything I would admit to myself that I was not really a writer.”

That deadline forced Ralph to hone his craft within a specific time-frame.  His method caused him to focus, sleep less, make do with what space he could commandeer in the new house.  He put his family and teaching career first.  His writing would come after hours, having fulfilled his primary duties as husband, father and provider.

He set up a writing space on an old workbench in his basement.  He taped the sentence at the top of this post on the wall above the bench, a reminder of the need to keep pecking away at his typewriter and master the skill of creating an interesting story.  “No one owes you a reading.”

For the next year, from 10 at night until 2 in the morning, Ralph wrote.  And wrote.  And shipped product.  And continued writing.  And continued mailing manuscripts.  Eventually he learned what a story is and isn’t, where to cut fat that did not serve the story, the basics of plot, intriguing characters, etc. In short, the kind of writing that keeps readers coming back for more.

This one year deadline and the pressure of not being able to make ends meet served Ralph well.  He began selling stories and generating income.  His after-hours work on his second career was a good example of what in self-development circles is called “working the margins.”  You work during the day at your primary job but you use the time you have after work and obligations are met to develop your other vocation and, hopefully, earn extra income.

Ralph passed away in 2010.  He taught over half a century at Notre Dame, but he’s probably best known for his Father Dowling mysteries.  He wrote many other novels and philosophical works but he made his bread and butter writing mysteries.  And all because he set a one year deadline in his thirties and kept to it.


  • How have deadlines forced you to stretch and develop in a way you could not have done otherwise?
  • Have you ever set a clearly defined goal with a time limit for its fulfillment?
  • Have you experienced the satisfaction of meeting deadlines that were set by your boss, noting how it showed you that you were capable of more than you believed?

Suggested Reading:

I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You: My Life and Pastimes (Ralph McInerny)

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (David Allen)


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