The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer (or, What I Do When I Don’t Have To Write)

I don’t.


If I don’t have to work I’m not going to work and if I don’t have to write I won’t write. This is as it should be but frequently isn’t. Because writers aren’t supposed to have time off. No, they must always be writing at all times. Holidays and vacations and time off is for less stressful occupations like brain surgeon or construction worker or drivers of trucks laden with dynamite up treacherous mountain roads. 

I prefer roads laden with cafes, preferably French ones

The “you must always be writing” BS is the type of BS you get fed when you’re young, the whole “you’re supposed to be tired and stressed out and miserable 24/7 bullshit” that just allows you to be exploited and abused by the people who engage your services. What’s that? You planned a weekend away at the cottage or cabin? We’ll guess what? Surprise weekend rewrite!

This was the life I lived the first five or so years of my professional career. Like Ponce de Leon I was Constantly On. Weekdays, weekends, holidays. Always. On. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, I told myself; a truly toxic attitude to have in all walks of life. You don’t sleep when you’re dead, you’re dead when you’re dead. And what do you leave behind, honestly? If you were by any small margin considered a success all you did was make other people wealthier than you ever were. 

On that note when the producers of the Mixtape series (whom I’ve known almost thirty years and are one of the rare positive working experiences I’ve had in the last 22) said it would take a bit to get back to me on the latest draft of the pilot and another episode, I said “great, I was hoping to spend next week at the pool anyway” and left it at that. And that’s what I did. 

I’ve come a long way, baby. One show I worked on a while back was based out of LA so they would always call unannounced to give notes when I was sitting down to dinner on the east coast. It got so annoying and predictive that after the first two times I stopped answering. Let them go to voice mail and deal with it the next day. Did they fire me? No. Did they start scheduling calls like normal people do? Yes. 

Now the only times I willingly visit LA is for vacations

“But Brad”, you say. “If you’re not Constantly On you can bet there’s going to be younger, hungrier writers waiting in the wings. If you make yourself unavailable they’ll just hire those young and hungrier writers.” To which I reply; “You’re absolutely right, and with time and experience those hungry young’uns learn the same lessons I did; that being a successful writer is as much about not writing as it is putting butt in chair and hammering the keys. It’s about the books you read, the movies you watch, the museums and art galleries you visit, the travels you take. It’s about hiking mountain trails, getting lost in strange new cities, it’s about surviving a week in a country where English is not the primary language. It’s about experience. Experiences make you a better writer and an all-around better human being.”

So I say eff it, take that holiday. Give yourself the week off. If they have a problem with it, if they threaten to fire you or hire someone to replace you they’re telling you in advance that they value your work so little that they’re already planning to screw you over anyway so eff them first. 

It says a lot that nearly a quarter century into this business I still find it difficult to unplug from work. Finishing a project nevere really means finishing it; there’s a part of it that will rattle about in your brain for weeks, if not months later (I.e. that second draft of the novel I finished writing in early April that I hope I can resume working on in September).

But it’s not as difficult to turn things off now as it used to be. I think fear of losing the plot threads keeps you anxious, and that isn’t always a bad thing. Until it becomes anxiety and you run risk of burning yourself out. I did that once early in my career and once I emerged from that spiral I vowed never again would I sacrifice health and well-being for work. I set a Monday-Friday schedule, I took my weekends off – I didn’t even turn the computer on – and found that not only did my work not suffer, it actually improved.

What also improved my word; getting far, far away from it. Like, Stockholm-far.

In the professional trenches you’re going to find no shortage of people who will engage in some kind of power play with you, just to see how much shit you’ll take from them. In my experience it’s always helped to be friendly and upbeat positive, yet establish boundaries. They want to talk; schedule it. They want work in progress pages; tell them a flat out no. You don’t want to be abrasive, but you don’t want to be a pushover either, pausing your dinner to take notes and have discussions. My computer shuts off at five in the afternoon every weekday. Earlier if I can manage it. I don’t p[ower it up until 8am the next morning. Anything that pops up after business hours can wait until business hours resume. 

The point I’m making here is for all you writers aspiring and otherwise out there in meatspace; you do yourself a greater service by not being available at any waking moment. Not answering the phone or email puts you in a power position. Answer them on their schedule they’ll expect it always. Make them wait they’ll get used to it.

I’m getting older, with hopefully many more healthy, productive years before me. Yet on the day I lie on my deathbed looking back on my life I’ll be really, really pissed off if all I remember is the work, the deadlines, the toxic years of needing to be Constantly On. Nobody goes to the grave wishing they’d worked more or earned more; I don’t need to be at the end of my life to realize that either.

Oslo at dusk: a hell of a lot more beautiful than staring at a screen.

What’s most important in life is to be happy, most would agree. But the things that make you happy can – and should – change. You should never settle for the road more traveled because it’s familiar—especially if something, someone, or a group of someones no longer serve you on that path. I turned a huge corner when I realized I didn’t need to work myself to the bone to be happy. I didn’t need to always produce or Always Be Closing. Hustle is important but at a certain point you reach a place where the return on that hustle diminishes to the degree where you’re just grinding metal. And while I can say, honestly, I don’t work as hard or as much as I used to, I feel I work better overall because of that.

So on that note I’m hopefully getting back into more regular updating this website again. Not because I feel I have to but because I want to and because I like to. We’re moving ever forward with the Mixtape TV series development, I have the aforementioned novel to resume work on, and there’s stil the matter of the week-long vacation coming up at the end of this month. I’ll also be launching my much-delayed newsletter this fall, so keep watching this space.

14 thoughts on “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer (or, What I Do When I Don’t Have To Write)

  1. Man did I ever need to read this right now. Have been busting my ass trying to write a story, feeling unproductive and uncreative because I also work a 9-5 job that’s been crushing the life out of me. But I always seem to get my best ideas when away from the work I’m trying to do. Do you ever use notebooks if and when inspiration strikes?

  2. Loved reading this, Brad. It’s why I’ve been taking a brief from my podcasts. Sometimes the burnout gets so high you can barely function sometimes. But on the flipside, I have my wife, my kids, my friends and family, I have burgers on the grill and a lake not far away. Can’t be working all the time!

  3. I used to be the same way, always working, always grinding. I was productive but I wasn’t very happy. Then I joined a writer’s group and spent as much time critiquing others’ work as I did on my own and found the process a lot more enjoyable, which is why I’m more of an editor than a writer now.

  4. Sean – I used to keep a notebook on my nightstand in case I awoke in the middle of the night with an idea i needed to write down. I used to carry a smaller pocket-sized notebook with me when I was out and yadda yadda, needed to write it down. But over the years I moved away from the obsessive note-taking because I found in general 90% of those notes and ideas were crap. Better to train your brain to recognize a good idea and keep it safe than writing it all down. If it’s a good idea it’ll stick with you. if not, you’re better off forgetting it.

  5. Aaron – sounds like you’re doing it right. Burnout is the greater threat to creativity than *not* being creative. Burnout makes you hate the idea of putting pen to paper, or voice to podcast.

  6. Lizzie – good on you for the move. Editing is tough but the part of the writing process I enjoy a fair bit. Best left to the professionals through.

  7. I was actually told by a writing teacher that if I wanted to be a success I had to write every day. Holidays, vacations, you name it. I’m almost tempted to send him this article ha!

  8. Well-written piece, Brad, and totally understandable. We don’t think about writers or artists getting burnt out; I imagine inspiration is as much of the process as execution. But I wonder if you speak here from a position of privilege. Do younger, less proven writers have the option of not picking up the phone or answering the email? You have a fair number of credits under your belt so maybe you have the luxury of being unavailable that others don’t? Not an accusation by any means, just a thought.

  9. I absolutely do speak from a position of privilege, Andrew, and hold no shame in admitting it. But I would point out that all of the above does apply to the up and coming artist as well. While the hustle is real, I’ve seen many writers burn themselves out so fast and so young that they face an uncertain, terrifying future where they simply cannot function. They can’t create, they can’t handle the workload. They either give up or toil away miserably. Think of stress as an untreated back or neck injury. Yes, you can get along for the most part but that pain flares up the more frequent as you move through a career. There’s no harm in setting a schedule and sticking to it – but any artist should make sure to schedule time off in there somewhere.

  10. Lovely bit of writing here, Brad. I think creatives in particular allow themselves to suffer because they’re told from the beginning that they’re supposed to suffer. It’s reassuring to hear from a professional that’s not the case. Overall I get the sense with you and your writing that you enjoy the writing part a lot more than being a writer with all the writerly expectations. Is that fair?

  11. Maya – fair and quite accurate in fact. I love writing. That’s my favorite part of it. All the other stuff – interviews/publicity/promotion – does take a back seat to the writing part of it. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the latter, because I do. But not as much as cracking those first pages of a new story, of having a schedule set and knowing what I’m going to be doing with myself for the next several months.

  12. Food for thought, definitely. Have you read of or heard of what they’re calling “hustle culture”? What you describe your earlier years as being fits in with a lot of it. there’s been mounting pushback against that toxic work culture recently, so this blog post seems to be of a piece with that. Curious to know your thoughts.

  13. Hey Matt — I was and was not aware of hustle culture as a definable thing. Meaning I was aware of the practice (because I’ve lived it) but not the internet nomenclature (because I try and avoid internet culture as much as possisble). Yes, I think it is what I’ve described, and yes I think it’s quite toxic. And I’ve willingly participated in it. The last third of Magicians Impossible was written while I was dealing with a severe back injury so I could only sit for an hour tops before the pain became too much, and I’d need at least a couple of hours lying flat before I could resume work. But I had a delivery deadline that I had to make, and that overrode everything else. Now I wouldn’t allow it to get to that point. I don’t want to say I’m against hard work and long hours because those are a fact of life. but if someone/some organization is impressing upon me to both accept and embrace that hustle, that’s when I’d start looking for another job. Nobody goes to their grave wishing they’d worked more.

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