Pearl Habor Day

Those of you with some knowledge of history (or calendars with notations) recognize today as the anniversary of a “date which will live in infamy.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

But aside from the historical event of 1941, when our navy harbored in Hawaii was bombed without the warning of a declaration of war, does this date have any other significance for you?

Perhaps not.

It certainly does for me.

When I was a senior at the University of Oklahoma, majoring in professional writing, I took a novel writing course taught by a scary, intimidating curmudgeon called Jack Bickham. His course required us to write an entire novel manuscript in one semester, with absolutely no coaching or feedback along the way. You listened to his lectures and you wrote like a fiend in every spare moment you could find, and you sweated bullets because you had no idea whether your idea was feasible or your plot was viable or your scenes were comprehensible or your characters likable. You got one grade in the course–the final grade.

And the due date was always Pearl Harbor Day.

You lived or died on that single submission, and he would announce the deadline with an evil chortle. Somehow, because he tied it into the “date of infamy,” it loomed even larger and more horrible than ever. At least it did in my imagination.

Are you thinking he was cruel? Not really. Although he scared his undergraduates to death, it was good for them. He made the process of writing that student novel as realistic and real-world as he could. Because that’s the way most novelists actually work. On spec and in the dark. Gambling on an idea without any guarantee that an editor will ever buy it. Writing alone in the small hours of the night without feedback or encouragement.

Later, once a writer becomes established and sells a few books and gains a reputation, then it’s possible to land contracts on the basis of a well-written outline and sample chapters.

But until then, you have to pay your dues. By taking a risk. By stretching yourself past your comfort zone. By working hard, long hours. By not being satisfied until you make a scene work. By having the guts to face those plot holes and spongy parts of your manuscript and fixing them before you ever dare submit to an editor or upload to Kindle.

Bickham made us work hard because writers always work hard. He made us afraid so that we could learn to face fear and realize it couldn’t defeat us if we stood up to it and delivered.

It meant a lot to me back then to show up to class on Pearl Harbor Day with my manuscript. And since then, when this infamous day in early December rolls around, I remember the people who lost their lives in 1941 … and I remember how I gained a small measure of pride and self-respect for having met Bickham’s notorious deadline.

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