Toughing It Out

Post Date: February 3rd, 2009

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 115,027.
Page Count for the Novel: 414 pages. (No changes since last post.)

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

— Douglas Adams

So I just met a major deadline. Yesterday I struggled toward that finish line, 12 hours spent in last efforts to edit a manuscript, the culmination of months of work. I felt so deeply for poor, dedicated me, slogging through the fields of footnotes and the no man’s land of Works Cited. I was such a trooper, soldiering on. I slaved.

Then I looked up the definition of deadline.

It was the name of a fence no prisoner would scale unless he wanted to be shot, that man being a prisoner taken by the Confederacy and kept at Andersonville prison during our Civil War. You would think a light pine fence would be no match for thousands of prisoners, but there were posted sentries ready to shoot any man who broke through. When this stockade famous for introducing “deadline” to our language swelled to 32,000 prisoners, far beyond what the acreage could contain, the story goes that the deadline became a simple white line. That and some guns kept the malnourished men in place, racked by disease and weakened by exposure. By the war’s end, nearly 13,000 men had perished.

Except for my ancestor, John Fairbairn. A Scottish immigrant appalled by the slavery he saw in Georgia, he volunteered for the Union Army. He was captured in Memphis and shipped off to Andersonville, landing right after overcrowding hit its peak. He emerged at the war’s end a mere 98 pounds. He had lost all his teeth. Yet he had the wisdom to make it a slow recovery, refraining from the gorging that killed many of his fellow inmates after release. He had the gumption and hope to become a brick layer and a stone mason, to take a soldier’s homestead, and to get married. He raised six children. Thanks to him, my great-grandfather was born. This is a man who persisted well beyond and despite deadlines.

And I thought I suffered so when it came to those…well…dates on the calendar.

It’s not about whether I make the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award deadline (I didn’t) or the NCTE deadline for Teaching Julius Caesar (I did). I am not the sum total of those accomplishments, no matter how much I define myself by them. And I am certainly no martyr for the cause. All that matters after I choose such challenges is whether I walk with gratitude through all the comforts and conveniences of my modern day — into that hot shower, toward that sofa to watch the Super Bowl, along with family and friends who, like me, haven’t known hunger. That was the aftermath of my deadline. John Fairbairn’s life was about surviving a prison that became a concentration camp, and then about keeping the hope and faith to build a new life. I can look back to him and say, as Marc Antony does of Brutus, “This was a man!”

In his Inaugural Address, President Obama told us that “…our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America…For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.”

In the spirit of my ancestor who knew the value of tenacity, hard work, and a dollar, I vow an end to begrudging or bemoaning these deadlines. They are a fact of life, and I should be so lucky that the only kind that threaten me are numerical, calendar sort. In the spirit of my grandparents who struggled to feed a large family after the crash of ’29 and who rationed stockings and butter and anything that would support the war…in the spirit of all those ancestors with gumption, a word the Scots coined as a way of calling out courage, spunk, and guts…. I will get a perspective, a clue, and a clean attitude about just how hard my life is. If I were to listen to the 24-hour news cycle, I might otherwise think I’m at death’s door.

Nope. Just nearing a deadline is all, one of those lines we all have to cross, and not even one written in dirt. Just a phantom fence of this modern life I’m breezing through, carried on a gentle wind I only hope my ancestors sometimes felt.

Much love and thanks to my father, Stephen Fairchild, who hails from this long line of Fairbairns, call them fair-bearers of the tough tasks. He keeps our history alive.

Today’s Writing Goal: Begin on page 414 and keep going. Stay under 530 pages. Send off that stopgap short story waiting in the wings.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others. © Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author. Elementary Tougher Than the RestWho do you know who is “tough”? By tough, we mean someone who is strong inside and out. They have what is called character. They can stand strong when difficulty strikes. They can pick themselves up when things are really unpleasant. For example: a person who loses their job and works hard to find another, or a person who is injured and keeps a good attitude in spite of all the pain.

Write a poem of admiration to the person who you see as a strong role model. You can spell out their name and write a name poem, one line for every letter in their name. You can list several examples of all the ways that this person shows toughness and strength. Or you can tell about one time when you saw this person show great toughness.

Thanks to My Family

Think about people in your family (and by family, it can be people you live with, friends, or any way you think of family) who have given you a lot of help in your life. Who’s been a really big help?

Maybe it was the person who taught you a sport or how to sing a song. Maybe it was the person who helped you up when you got hurt. It could be a person who made great sacrifices in order for you to have things you enjoy. Think of someone who has given a lot to you and who you appreciate.

Write an inscription for a thank you card. This should be a special thank you card, the kind you can’t find in a store. That’s because you will make this card very personal. Write the person an inscription that is one of two kinds:

A Complimentary List.

Title this card, The Top Ten Things I Like About You , and inside write your list, or

Metaphor Magic.

You are a/the _______________. Compare this person to something strong, beautiful, or impressive in nature (such as mountain, flower, sun, ocean, stars). List all the ways that this person is like this beautiful part of nature.

Telling Time

Are you usually on time? Or do you tend to run late? How do you and time get along?

Imagine that Time and you are having a conversation. Tell Time all about how easy or hard it is for you to be on time, and while you’re talking, let Time know anything else on your mind: whether you like having a clock or watch in your life, and if Time is going to change anything, you would recommend that s/he or it change ___________ first….

Secondary and Adult

A Time for Toughness
You have survived many different periods of your life. There were, as Charles Dickens writes, the best of times and the worst of times. Consider one of the worst of these moments in your history. What got you through it?

Write about the toughness in you that helped you survive it. You might not have thought yourself tough at the time, but you’re still here, aren’t you? What was the challenge, and how did you face it? Return to a moment where your toughness manifested.

Grandpa’s Gumption

Who is an ancestor you admire deeply or an older role model in your life, representing a particular kind of courage?

Define gumption as you have seen it in those you admire. Gumption – guts, spunk, courage – is the stuff of survival. Some also define it as shrewdness. Think how gumption has shown itself in those you respect.

Tell an anecdote that is one you could tell for many years and to future generations. Record a bit of history for posterity.

Deadlines and Me

What is your relationship with deadlines? Are they friend or foe? How often do you meet them?

Write a dialogue with Deadlines. Deadlines is the thing, entity, person, or whatever you wish it to be, as long as you have a conversation with it, and your only job is to have a conversation. The only rule is that Deadlines gets the last word.

Bonus Prompt: Tougher Than the Rest

Read the lyrics to Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest,” and if you can, listen to his singing or a cover of this song.

What kind of a character does Springsteen paint for us? What does “tough” mean in this context?

Write the lyrics of a new version of “Tougher Than the Rest.” Take the first-person point of view of someone or something that believes s/he’s tougher than the rest.


  1. bobmust says:

    Hi, Lyn,
    During my engineering career, I worked constantly on deadlines, with the clock tick, tick, ticking. After a while the pressure went away – partly because I knew I could meet the deadlines, partly because by then I was used to them. Did my work suffer? A little. But I got really good at knowing how important various types of mistakes/errors/corners-cut would be.
    So I set deadlines for my writing, too. But I have to watch myself, still. The trick in writing – at least for me – is to be AWARE at all times: when drafting, when cutting or adding, when looking to see if the most seemingly trivial word is the right one or can be made better. It’s easy to say, “I can let that go, sneak by, or an agent, editor, or reader will forgive me this.” With the competition that’s out there, we owe it to ourselves to delude ourselves as little as possible, even when deadlines become a fact of life.

  2. Lyn Hawks says:

    Right! And that requires us to be fairly organized folks, because if you don’t leave a few weeks to mull over the difference between an okay word and the precise word, then you submit work that’s unfinished. I am learning to cool my jets and do several read-throughs aloud before I submit, and just when I think it’s time to print and send, I print one more time and read. Mostly. I do violate the rule when I’m overexcited about a story. How about you? Do you have a standard number of readthroughs before submission?


  3. bobmust says:

    The way I go about it: I wait a few days (the more the better – to make my text seem that of another writer) and go over it in detail, as if a class critique. When I find nothing to take out or add, and I’m changing words to words I’ve previously had in place, I realize I’m going in circles, and I quit. Nothing standard – just that organic feel.