Your big, for-all-the-marbles essay is due tomorrow. You haven’t even started it. Cue the woe, the surrender, the Carole King. It’s too late, baby. Even an all-nighter isn’t going to save you now.
But here’s the thing: it might.
Sometimes that impossible deadline is just what you need. Sometimes you can pull a rabbit out of the hat. A really, really impressive rabbit.
Here are a few success stories. Let them be your jet fuel.
1 Mary Shelley writes Frankenstein
One cold and rainy evening in May of 1817, in a villa on the shore of Lake Geneva, four English writers gave each other a dare: write “a truly scary ghost story” and present it to the group by morning. The four were the Romantic poet Lord Byron, his doctor John Polidari, a young writer named Claire Clairmont and her step-sister, a 19-year-old novelist named Mary Godwin (soon to become Mrs. Shelley). The air was charged. Everybody was a little in love with everyone else. It was like Fleetwood Mac in the recording studio for Rumors.
The women had the most to gain in showing up the men. Godwin started writing and then, around midnight, lay down and had a nap. In a kind of fever dream, she had a terrifying vision of dead flesh resurrected. She popped up like toast, sweating. Then she realized: What terrified me will terrify others. She got up and started writing. By morning she had a draft of “The Modern Prometheus” —better known, now, as Frankenstein.
(Did she win the bet? We don’t know. Polidari was also brewing something pretty good. It became, when he finally polished and published it two years later, the first modern vampire story.)
2 Joan Didion writes “Self Respect”
The December, 1961 issue of Vogue was ready to go to press. The cover was designed. It announced a story called “On Self Respect.” Only problem was, that story didn’t exist: the writer assigned it had dropped the ball.
The editor summoned to his office his bookish, 21-year-old new research assistant. She’d recently won an essay contest at Stanford but otherwise hadn’t published a word. Could she get him a story, on that subject, with that title, to the exact length of the hole in the magazine, by tomorrow morning?
Joan Didion delivered what many consider the best essay ever to appear in Vogue — the first brick in her reputation as a pioneer of creative nonfiction. Her piece fit not just to the word count but to the exact character count. As if the space had been hers all along.
3 O. Henry writes “The Gift of the Magi”
It was already December 10 and the New York World newspaper needed a Christmas story for its Sunday supplement. It gave the job to columnist William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry.
The editor sent an illustrator to Henry’s dire little apartment in Gramercy Park. “What’s the story about?” the illustrator asked the writer. Um, it isn’t about anything, Henry replied — I haven’t written it yet. “Well what should I draw?” Henry looked around the sparsely furnished room. “Draw a young man and woman sitting in a place like this.”
Then O. Henry crossed the street and settled into his favorite booth at Healey’s (now called Pete’s), a Prohibition-era speakeasy pretending to be a flower show. And there, with a whisky bottle and a notebook in front of him, under the watch of the swordfish in the wall, he knocked out his masterpiece, “The Gift of the Magi.”
People have wondered: How could a guy marinating in booze and cigar fumes produce one of the tenderest little love stories ever? That was O. Henry’s best twist.
4 Martin Luther King Jr. hatches his “I Have a Dream” speech
The night before the March on Washington, on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. paced the lobby of the Willard Hotel in D.C. Much was riding on tomorrow’s speech. It would be covered live by all three TV networks — a first for him. He wanted to deliver something great. “Gettysburg Address”-level great.
King had scratched out some ideas but not actually written much. In the hotel lobby, he took suggestions from his staff. Then he rose and said, “I am now going upstairs to my room to counsel with my Lord.”
Around midnight he had an outline. Then he started writing in longhand. He wrote and tinkered into the wee hours, periodically running bits of the speech past advisors. One of them persuaded King to cut a line King liked. “This ‘I have a dream,’ business, a bit over the top, no? “It’s trite, it’s cliché, you’ve used it before.” So King nixed it. Around 4am King called the speech done and went to bed.
The March on Washington speech turned out to be rather memorable. But it might easily have failed, had King not second-guessed his own second-guessing. Up on stage, King was struggling a bit. Just not quite connecting. The great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was standing right up front. “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!” she shouted. And King called an audible, right into history.
5 John Lennon pulls an all-nighter to write “A Hard Day’s Night”
In April of 1964, the Beatles were on a roll. Paul McCartney had just knocked it out of the park with “Can’t Buy Me Love,” a global number-1 hit. Now the band needed to write the title track for their new movie, which thanks to a bit of hipster-doofus genius by Ringo had a name: A Hard Day’s Night.
Paul had just had his triumph; John felt it was his turn to make a chart-topping A-side. “Let me do this one,” he said.
On April 13 he disappeared into his writing cave. “And he came back the next day with it,” McCartney would recall.
Like King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Lennon’s tune benefitted from a day-after edit. He’d written the lyrics on the back of a birthday card for his son, Julian. Everyone had a look, including Maureen Cleave, a journalist for the Evening Standard who was working on a piece on the band. One of the lines went: “But when I get home to you, I find my tiredness is through, and I feel alright.” Cleave called the weak line out. Lennon took out a pen and made the fix. “I find the things that you do will make me feel alright.”
The band recorded the song three days later. It won a Grammy.