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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.