Surviving deadlines

Why do I write? Because I like pens and the smell of fresh paper. I love new ideas and dictionaries. And I write because it reminds me of my father.

James Eric Lamb was the weekly garden columnist for The Friend and Die Volksblad in Bloemfontein, the heart of South Africa. Once a week, dad had a deadline. He sat down to write. Mom dutifully rolled up the tablecloth to the middle of the dining room table. Supper on one end, his old columns, pens and ideas spread across the other half. The tension mounted. “Do you have any ideas, Eva?” “Spring bulbs!” offered my mother. “Haul out last year’s favourites. Your columns, not the bulbs!” Frenzied attack of scribbling. Black lines criss-crossing through badly constructed sentences. And then a dash for more coffee. The enamel coffee pot hissed and spat on the Esse stove. It delivered a thick dark medication to the one who needed heightened creativity. “It’s starting to take shape!” announced the Scotsman who knew Free State soil. The rose king who loved writing. “Eva, read this and tell me what you think.” She was his loyal and steady backup. “Eric, I think it sounds fine.” “No, but what do you really think?” “Perhaps the introduction is a bit long,” she said, yawing.

“You’re probably right.” Another strong coffee from the protesting coffee pot. The project. The deadline. And then the nervous laughter. Something funny in what he wrote … his belly trembled with mirth before his laughter had time to erupt. Laughing at his composition was a safety valve. It was necessary. And it was normally after this that it finally came together.

“That’s it. Done. I’m off to bed.” Lights off. The scribbling lay on the dining room table. At 6am mom would decipher and transcribe the column into her neat handwriting and deliver to the editor. And a few days later The Friend arrived. Dad turned the pages with precision, straight to his column. He reminded me of a surgeon visiting his patient after surgery. Did it go according to plan? Any gremlins, like infections, marring a beautiful end result? On confirmation that all was good, he glowed with pride. It was worth it. He cut out the column and put it in his scrapbook. Until the next week.

Do deadlines bring out the best in columnists? If anything, a deadline forces me to write. To write as well as I can in the allocated time, revising as many times as the deadline allows. And even changing words (to the annoyance of sub-editors) just before print.

I like Carla Carlisle’s final column for the Country Life UK in 2012. “I long to change the world and I love to write about life, but the time has come to give in to the desire to live it.” She quotes William Safire on column writing, who likened deadlines as standing under a windmill, no sooner do you feel relief that you have ducked a blade than you look up and see a new one coming down.

I felt the same tension in the three years as a weekly columnist for the Mercury, Independent Newspapers and Talk of the Town, Avusa Community Newspapers.

There’s probably a balance between “living” and “writing”. 50/50. Closed in a dark room all day over a computer, I don’t see life and probably lack Vit D. I need to experience my five senses. Get some sun. Live. And have something to say about it all. Perhaps I’ll change the world, once a week. Or once a month, depending on the 50/50 ratio. I want to survive deadlines and write until I drop. Just like dad.

Image – Jenny Goodrick