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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After A Long Hiatus….

After A Long HiatusI’ve taken quite a long sabbatical from writing regularly on this blog.  One post in the past sixteen months has been it.  I now intend to return to at least semi-regular, if not regular, contributions to this page.

Much has happened in the past year and a half.  Our eldest daughter married a fine man from the Plains.  Both are now happily ensconced in the Deep South, surrounded by salt water and palm trees.  My wife, Kath, and I visited them a month ago.  A great trip.  They are well.

Our youngest daughter, happily married for the past two years, has moved with her husband, another son of the Plains, thousands of miles away to new tasks.  They, too, are surrounded by palm trees and salt water.

Our vacations will be superb!

Here in northern New York, we recently sold our one hundred and one year-old Victorian farm house and have a smaller apartment close to work.  We are content.  Our home of fourteen years served us well but, with our two daughters married, it was more house than we needed.  So we sold to a fine young family with adorable children.

Candidly, sheer busyness accounts for my writing hiatus, a good bit of it anyways.  But more than that, I’ve learned some things over the past year and a half.  My reading has increased in breadth and depth.  I’ve had the good fortune to be mentored skillfully and have been forced to reevaluate many of my cherished prior commitments about life, human accomplishment and foible, God, reality, and lots of other things.

I hope to share the fine authors and thinkers who’ve helped me grow.  They’ve not been easy on me.  And won’t be easy on you either.  But then again, as a mentor recently admonished me, “Do not be seduced by low-hanging fruit.”  What has value must be extricated at cost and time.

Or, as Sara Groves sings on her newest record Floodplain, “Love is a diamond hidden in mountains, covered in danger and dirt.”

Let’s do this.  Thanks for reading!

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Drudgery, Persistence, Creation, Art

Tom ClancyThis past week, the world saw the passing of writer Tom Clancy, bestselling author of the Jack Ryan techno-thriller novels.  He was 66.

He began writing, as many of us do, while busy at his day job, head of his own insurance company.  He published The Hunt For Red October in 1984 and has been writing successfully ever since.

I read an interview today where he said that the most important quality a writer can possess is persistence.  He counseled writers not to try to commit art but simply to tell the story.

It is a common temptation to romanticize the creative life.  The Muse kisses us and we’re off, effortlessly bringing another work to life.

But that is just that: A romantic notion.  Those who are busy in the work of creation will tell you that if you wait for inspiration, you will have few offerings, if any.  In fact, inspiration tends to come as we set our hands to the plow and begin.

Drudgery is something of a dirty word in our day.  It need not be.  The great pianist, Ignace Jan Paderewski, when being praised in a gushing way for his genius by a certain lady said, “Madame, before I was a genius, I was a drudge.”  In other words, great performance can only come through endless hours of practice, out of the limelight.

Drudge?  How unromantic.

But drudgery, persistence, dogged stick-to-it-iveness, whatever you call it, is the explosive secret weapon, the indispensible ingredient in the toolchest of the creative.

So…do the work.  Inspiration comes to those who are busy at their craft.  The Muse kisses foreheads glistening with sweat, tasting of salt.  The very act of creating a work that outlives you and ennobles, challenges, and inspires others brings inspiration in the midst of the drudgery.  It is the artist’s secret.

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Reading and Its Importance For Writers

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“You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” (Stephen King)

When I first read this quote, I thought it a little harsh, candidly.  But as I’ve chewed on it over the past year or so, I think it is a statement of reality.

I’m a voracious reader.  If you’ve visited The Upside regularly, you know that.  So I am not intimidated by Stephen King’s perspective on the importance of reading as preparation for effective writing.  Why?

I am a musician.  I play guitar and piano.  In fact, I’ve been playing guitar since 1976.  I acquired my chops by learning the songs and imitating the styles of my heroes—Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Phil Keaggy, etc.  Imitation, in writing as in music and an array of other disciplines, is the way we learn and then cultivate our own voice, our own style.  What we see modeled, we emulate.

So, is King’s observation fair?

I think it is.  His excellent and hilarious book—from which the above quote is taken—On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, details his own development as a writer and the importance reading played in his own life, inspiring him to write.  It is an insightful and easy read.  Just the other night, I laughed myself to tears as I worked through about eighty pages.  Stephen King is one of the most unpretentious writers one will ever meet.

Confession:  Though I’ve read most of his book on writing, I’ve not yet read one of his novels.  But I’m sure I will.

But why is reading important for an aspiring writer?  Simply this.  For one, you are exposed to information and perspective which you’d otherwise have not considered.  But more to the point, reading is apprenticeship.  An apprentice learns his or her craft, whatever it is, by sitting at the feet or standing beside a master or mistress of the same.  We learn by what is modeled to us.  To avoid reading is to diminish perspective and stunt growth in skill.

It is interesting to me that John Wesley once told the Methodist ministers under his leadership either to read or leave the ministry.  Was he being harsh?  Uppity?  Not at all.  He just knew that failure to read was to leave oneself vulnerable to the prison of a very narrow perspective: One’s own.  Same with King.

Illiteracy is certainly a problem in our land.  And, to be fair and charitable, reading does not come with ease or delight to all.  But you must keep at it.  We have at our disposal these days all sorts of vehicles that deliver us information—books, blogs, websites, audio and video files.  Whatever you do, if you are a communicator with an audience, you must learn and process information, perspective, and style.  There are no shortcuts.

So…if you’re not reading and learning and growing, begin now.  You’ll be pleased with the results in your writing and in your life.

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What Are You Reading These Days?

A Year of WritingI’ve often asked my friends in conversation as well as my readers on social media this question:  “What are you reading lately?”  I’m always fascinated by the responses.  I’m an avid reader in many different subject areas.  So here are a few that I’ve read or been reading this past three or four months.

A Year of Writing Dangerously (Barbara Abercrombie) – I first laid eyes on this gem a few months ago on a short vacation out of state.  Set up in the format of a daily dose for every day of the year, this fantastic little book gives daily fuel and inspiration for those of us who like to write.  Included in each day’s post is a quote by a renowned author.  I just bought it this afternoon.

The Kill ArtistThe Kill Artist (Daniel Silva) – This breakout novel first introduced the world of thriller fiction to the engaging character, Gabriel Allon, veteran Israeli intelligence officer and world-class art restorer.  Silva has given us fascinating protagonist in Allon, a psychologically conflicted veteran of various wars on international terrorism.  Read everything by Silva.  You won’t be disappointed.  By the way, Silva is President Clinton’s favorite fiction author.

Spirit of the DisciplinesThe Spirit of the Disciplines (Dallas Willard) – Recently deceased author Dallas Willard, philosophy professor at USC, shows us that our lives are lived in the body and that success in any pursuit–in this case, Christian discipleship–is predicated on the bodily (active) habits and practices we form and adhere to.  Fantastic read for those looking to improve their Christian commitment but equally profitable for those looking to master the gifts and talents they’ve been given.

The Creative HabitThe Creative Habit (Twyla Tharp) – Twyla Tharp is a veteran dance choreographer for, among other institutions, the American Ballet Theatre.  Set in the hustle and bustle of the New York City theatre culture, she shows that discipline and routines, far from stifling the creative impulse and creative persons, actually enhance creativity.  An excellent choice.

Zen In The Art of WritingZen In the Art of Writing (Ray Bradbury) – Famed novelist, Ray Bradbury, of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles fame shows that writing is about passion and child-like wonder.  Find something you love and hate and write about it, counsels Bradbury.  This little book of short essays will enhance your approach to writing and life.  I have a fellow writing colleague who reads Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes every October to remind himself why he’s writing in the first place.

Okay, friends.  What are you reading currently?  Tell us!

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WonderA few years back, my wife and I attended a party for some friends who were about to move 1300 miles away.

I had a nice talk with a friend I’d not seen in a while about our children.  One of his sons, fifteen at the time of our exchange, is a budding writer.  He wrote his first book when he was twelve, two hundred pages worth.  At twelve.  His father beamed with pride and wonder at the level of imagination and creativity his child poured into his writing—the worlds that emerged from his unencumbered thinking and exploration of ideas and marvelous possibilities.

I told him that he and his wife obviously did something right simply by allowing the imagination of his child to flourish and express itself.

What a gift…..

I am intrigued and fascinated by the title of a book by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked For Wonder (see above).  Not money.  Not intelligence.  Or fame.  Or any of a thousand pursuits we’re told will give us a happy life.  But wonder.

Are you able, like Einstein, da Vinci, Steve Jobs or any one of thousands of children you’ve seen, to let your imagination run free?  To think outside the rigid boundaries of what is acceptable or standard and find creative and beautiful realities, solutions and contributions to your world?

Ask for wonder…and watch what happens.

And Billy…keep writing!

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Habits of Successful Writers

Writers and Their HabitsWriters are an interesting lot of people.  They often have the strangest habits.  They are all unique and quirky.  I’m fascinated by the stories writers tell about how they ply their trade.

Consider Ralph McInerny, for instance.  McInerny was a philosophy professor at University of Notre Dame for over fifty years.  He emerged from academic obscurity as the writer of the famous Father Dowling mysteries, a series so engaging that it was eventually made into a television series starring Tom Bosley of Happy Days fame.  He wrote other novels with different protagonists and settings, as well as numerous philosophical treatises, an adjunct of his day job.  He was a prolific and multifaceted craftsman.

McInerny became focused on writing in the early 1960’s.  At that time, he was teaching at Notre Dame, had a large family, and had just bought a new home.  As a result, he was financially overextended and needed to earn extra money to make ends meet.  He’d done some writing before, selling stories to magazines, but had never taken the idea of being a writer seriously.

So, facing a recurrent financial squeeze, he set himself up into an apprenticeship in writing.  Each night after the children had gone to bed, he went into his basement and pecked away on a manual typewriter from 10 PM to 2 AM.  Every night for a year.  Though pooped after a long day, he said about going to his subterranean writing desk, “It was as if the sun came up and it was a new day.  I just loved it.”  He tells the story of his writer’s apprenticeship here.

He did this for a year, having determined from the outset that, if he didn’t sell anything by the year’s end, he’d find a different way to moonlight.

He published over fifty books before he died three years ago at age eighty.

I’m inspired by hard work like this.  Here are some curious habits of some well-known writers:

  • Ernest Hemingway wrote every day for six hours.  Sober.  His average output being about 500 words.
  • Truman Capote always wrote reclining on a couch.
  • Stephen King writes ten pages a day.
  • Dan Brown rises at 4 AM and writes.  Seven days a week.
  • George Will writes his editorials with a fountain pen.
  • Vladimir Nabokov wrote his novels on index cards.
  • Daniel Silva writes all the first drafts of his novels in longhand on yellow legal pads in pencil.

What writers inspire you in your creative tasks?  What are their habits?

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