It is a supreme moment of artistry.
You have just sat through two hours of interminable drawling rubbish spouted by councillors who should have retired years ago, but somewhere in the middle of it all nestles the story which might make a lead.
You have taken pages upon pages of shorthand on the matter, jotting quickfire notes in the margin to signpost the most outrageous quotes.
It is 10:30 pm, but you charge back to the newspaper offices and let yourself in, a latchkey hack, with a view to filing a story with promise.
But here’s the thing: the Newsdesk turns into a pumpkin at 11pm.
By that time the paper must be ‘put to bed’ – or in plain English, prepared for the presses. All night long those presses will roar, out there on some industrial estate. They will print the papers which will be baled and despatched posthaste to newsagents, ready to bring the county its morning news.
So: to get your story onto that front page you have 30 minutes to translate the shorthand, distil the story, select the juciest quotes, ensure you avoid litigation, and – above all – absorb the readers utterly, to the last par.
This, my friends, is Extreme Writing. And it is a buzz like no other.
Adrenaline concentrates the mind and the skills. There is no second chance: you write without a safety net. And you are writing for publication not next year, but in less than 24 hours.
I urge you to try it.
For journalists are not the only Exrreme Writers: novelist and former journalist Alice Thomas Ellis spoke to the Independent about the pressure to complete her collection of memoirs, A Welsh Childhood:””I had to run like hell…..I was idling along and then the deadline started to loom.”
When the Independent interviewed her, she had 18 months previously agreed a deadline with her publishers. She was interviewed in July 1997: the book was due in November of that year. At time of interview, she had written one and a half pages and had a research trip to Mexico planned.
And just four months to go.
And playwrights? Dow they practice Extreme Writing?
The curtain will go up, inexorably, on the planned first night. One would have thought, wouldn’t one, that the owner of Drury Lane Theatre would be concerned when he was supposed to have written the script for a play opening in a few days; and had as yet failed to do so.
Not a bit of it.
It was in 1779 that the most Machiavellian tactics were used to persuade Richard Brinsley Sheridan to complete the final scene of what he considered his finest play: The Critic.
The plot concerns playwright Mr Puff, who invites critics Dangle and Sneer to a rehearsal of what he think of as a great tragic drama of the kind very fashionable at the time.
Of course, it’s just a chance for Sheridan to use his razor-sharp wit to parody the tragic drama; Puff’s is grandly entitled The Spanish Armada.
Just weeks before curtain up, the last scene remained unwritten.
Sheridan’s partners were extremely uneasy, a thespian in Sheridan’s company, Michael Kelly, reported, and he and the other actors confessed themselves au desespoir.
The man who was to play Puff, one Mr King, was also stage manager, and was the unfortunate charged with extricating the script from the great man.
But whether he was frightened or just could not pin Sheridan down, the days passed: and still, no script. Things were getting desperate. Finally, Sheridan’s father in law and partner hit upon a scheme.
Two days before curtain-up, they called a night-rehearsal. And just to be sure Sheridan attended, he was invited to dine with his father in law beforehand.
The moment they had the playwright on stage, King whispered to him: might he have a word in the second green room? He had something to tell the great man which was very much to his advantage.
Sheridan accompanied him, and found the room set up with the greatest comfort in mind: a table, with paper, pens and ink; a warm fire in the hearth; a comfy armchair at a table; two bottles of claret, and a dish of anchovy sandwiches.
As he surveyed the scene he heard the door shut stealthily behind him, and the key turn in the lock.
The message was plain. And to his credit, Sheridan set to, finished the wine and the sandwiches, and completed the play that very night.Kelly reports that “he laughed heartily at the ingenuity of the contrivance.”
There is nothing like a deadline to focus a writer. It removes the precious urge to navel-gaze, and gives wings to the fingers as they fly over the keyboard with the equivalent of a large cannon at one’s backside.
Long live the deadline, I say: Vive l’echeance.