Writing’s a 24/7 job

Night before last, I woke up in a sweat.  I couldn’t get back to sleep because I was having an anxiety attack about my next book.  Oh, it’s nothing new — I have these from time to time, and sometimes I’ll lie awake for hours, mulling over what’s wrong with my plot, whether I’ll be able to fix it, whether I’ll meet my deadline.  When I finally do fall asleep, that anxiety follows me in the form of dreams.  Mine usually involve showing up at school for a test and suddenly realizing: I FORGOT TO ATTEND ANY CLASSES!  But I know what those dreams are really all about: how the writing is going.

No matter where I am or what else I may be doing, this job is never far from my mind.  I’m either worried about how my last book did, or I’m worrying about how my next book is taking shape.  I can be sitting on a beach on vacation, yet I’ll never really relax because I know that there’s a half-written novel waiting on my desk and I have only a few months to finish it.  I can’t remember the last time I really, truly let go of the job.  Six months ago, I was sitting on a sailboat in Turkey, surrounded by ancient ruins, yet this little voice kept whispering, “Why aren’t you working on your next book?  You can’t afford to sit back and have a good time!”

It’s hard for any writer to complain about this job.  Winter winds may be howling outside, but we get to work in nice warm offices.  There’s no hard labor, no heavy lifting.  Yet because our work is mental, because the writing of a book takes months, we can’t really set it aside at the end of the day when we get up from our desks.  The work hangs over us, even while we lie on the couch watching Star Wars for the 57th time.  It invades our sleep, distracts us from conversations, makes us impatient with our children.

Sometimes I love this job.  Sometimes I hate it.  But I have to say this about it: it’s never, ever boring.

13 replies
  1. Susan
    Susan says:

    Tess, I too have the “haven’t attended class and now have to take the final” dream, and the closer I get to a YA deadline, the more often I have it. Maybe because we were such nerds in school (you have to be, don’t you, to some extent if you end up being a writer) that’s why we have this dream. My husband tells me he has flying dreams. I’ve never had one of those. I’ve had the falling dreams, where I wake up when I go “splat.” Those are even worse than the “haven’t attended class and now have to take the final” dreams. I seem to have the falling/splat dreams a day or two before the actual deadline. :o)

    Enjoy your holidays–if nothing else, convince yourself you’re “working” as you soak in the dialogue, gestures and situations that holiday get-togethers birth.


  2. struggler
    struggler says:

    The ‘guilt’ you refer to Tess, when you’re on holiday, is not unique to writers. I have been self-employed for well over 25 years and I’ve hardly taken a day off sick because I have usually felt that I could tough it out when I’ve had a fever or a headache and have been worried that a day off simply meant a day’s lost income. Similarly I often take small holidays because I can’t generate new business while I’m sunning myself on a beach somewhere thousands of miles from home (well, my office). The benefits of being self-employed include freedom of time allocated to work and being in control – in theory! – of your income, but a lot of successful self-employed people tend to work more and longer longer hours than their employed counterparts. The trick is to remind yourself that not only is your income absolutely YOURS by right and earned by blood, sweat and tears, but also any time off is something you have earned and indeed should carefully plan for in advance because the creative mind is in danger of burning itself out if it isn’t given the rest it deserves every now and then. And of course it gives you the opportunity to meet new people and experience new environments which can only inspire you to do new things when you get back to the PC.

    The brain is a muscle that needs to relax regularly in order to give of its best.

  3. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    I hear you, Tess! That’s exactly what I feel most of the time, too. Well, luckily I don’t dream – wether good or bad – but when I’m awake I constantly think ‘I should write’ when I’m not doing it and ‘I should write faster’ when I’m sitting at the computer, writing slowly. The only time I ever don’t think about writing is when I’m on vacation and there is an ocean between me and home. Usually when I’m in the western US. Maybe it’s just because I’m too busy running up and down hills and canyons, and too tired at the end of the day. 😉

    Maybe I should be glad that I’m not alone in worrying about writing, but it’s not a good prospect, when even bestselling authors don’t stop doing that when they are successful. :-/

    Merry christmas and a good start in 2008!



  4. knaster
    knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    Like any other stressful profession, you always have the “coulda, shoulda, woulda” syndrome. It’s not uncommon. Unfortunately, it sometimes consumes us 24/7 and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.
    Being a well-known and respected writer as yourself, you are constantly thinking of that previous or next book. Normal, normal, normal! Unfortunately, anxiety and panic is a way of life. Popping a Xanax may stifle the feeling for a while, but dependency can set in.
    Did you have these feelings when you were practicing medicine? I would assume so.
    Try, try, try to think of the upcoming holiday season and have fun with family and friends. I know, better said then done. We know you, Tess. Burnout in inevitable. But you need time for yourself. Please promise us that you’ll at least try.
    Have a Merry Christmas and a happy and health New Year.
    We have your back!

  5. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    I have that same dream, Tess!

    Amazing how much school screwed with our psyches.

    Hope you can give it a rest and enjoy the holidays!

  6. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Try not to let things stress you out. This time of year is full of distraction but thats why writers need to heed the words of others at this time. The shoulda, woulda, coulda syndrome as its called is something that needs to be watched otherwise you’ll stress yourself out and do yourself a mental injury.

    Think of what you’d say to a patient at this time. You’d say, sod it, youve got the rest of the year to worry about things, just take it easy, sit with friends and family, relax and things will begin to ease off and you’ll be better to tackle things after a break.

    Sound advice if only people would listen to it. The more you stress yourself, the more difficulty you’ll have with the next project and the harder it’ll be to complete. Whilst IM not saying that your quality should lapse you do need time to recharge your batteries in order to make sure its the best it can be.

    We all suffer a stress or strain at times, its remembering to let others help where they can that makes the difference. Think of how shooting with your son is going to help explain a scene that you have in a future project, or how the vet with the donkeys is going to be another option. Take the time to sit down and observe. Look at nature and how it adapts and try to make things a bit easier on yourself.

    Hope you have fun and remember whilst the house is always warm in heat, its freezing compared to the heat of the human heart that make it beat that little bit faster.

  7. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    I almost died when you said that! I have the same dream, and it usually surfaces whenever I haven’t been writing for a while. Unfortunately, that’s been lately. 🙁

    It’s very true… this is unlike any other job in the world. We ARE the job, it’s never on the side. We have to keep notepads next to our bed, so we can jot down notes we thought of in our sleep; we have to carry around pens and paper with us at all times, just in case something strikes us; and our mind is never really FULLY on anything other than our writing! It’s exhausting, it really is…

    But we wouldn’t have it any other way!

  8. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    ha ha tess-you make me feel normal-i have that “didn’t attend class” dream and haven’t been in school since ’73-i also have the dream that i can’t get where i’m going and being back on my old job and being left behind when everyone else is going out on a big raid-and the absolutely weird dream that i’m overseas and don’t have the right currency-and i’m not a writer just a retired old bag

  9. Sharklet
    Sharklet says:

    Hiya Tess,

    From an editor who has never witten a novel, and never normally has time to read or write blogs, much to my shame, as I’m in technology and should make the time. I have an answer to one of the isses you’re laying awake at night wondering about – what you should do next.

    I’m writing to you after having just finished Vanish , which I really enjoyed. It deserved to win an award and really left me thinking about the characters and I wanted to know more about people they were and who they knew before. You should write the back stories, and revisit the subject of human trafficking and of couse organised crime and how much govt agencies get mixed up in it.

    I could cricise bits of the plot in Vanish – like would Jane Rizzoli really have not recognised someone pretending to be her mom on the phone? In fact the whole thing did end too fast. Then i read your last post and all the responses about the pressure you’re under, to churn books out twice a year etc.
    Personally, i can’t read em that fast. Though i travel in budget and business, well once in first, by upgrade.
    My pioint is that I think Vanish was a good thriller but also had the potential to be a lot more A sequel is needed and is very timely because the UK govt has now decided to outlaw men who pay for prostitutes, as Sweden has already done, mainly in response to the huge numbers of women being trafficked for sex in UK. There are 30 UK cases a year busted – and those are just the ones we know of.

    So,please revisit this subject Tess, you kept me agog, and I think you should stand up to your publishers, demand 14 months up front and tell them you want literary billing foro this subject, because it’s damn important. How many women are locked up, beaten and murdered by these monsters?
    Dickens would have chosen thse subjects too, if he were alive today, so don’t worry about the money or the publisher three much. Negotiate the time you need to make that illusory line between literature and pulp fiction blur away. Or you could always turn it into a film script with the bits of the story you left out added. That will be a cracker if you take that path and I am more than happy if you need an inexperienced joint author.

    And enjoy Christams and have a wonderful 2008.
    Best, Sharklet

  10. Tess
    Tess says:

    I always love reading the comments — and the suggestions! Yes, I do think we girl nerds (and boy nerds too, no doubt) have anxiety dreams all our lives, and since we were probably the kids who were never late with our homework, our dreams usually involve school. Because that’s when we learn what real anxiety is all about.

    Joe, thanks for the nice compliment on the WD photo!

    Sharklet, I do think that many, many books could have been made better had the authors been given the time to perfect and polish. That probably explains why so many authors get the most lavish praise for their first books — because they’ve had enough time to work on them, without a deadline hanging over them. After that, the demands of publishing force one to write differently. Faster and with far less of a chance to polish.

  11. doomer
    doomer says:

    Other people had that dream in college too? Huh. The other dream that used to really freak me out was the one where I had forgotten that I had signed up for a class, so never showed up or took the the tests, wrecking my GPA. On the flip side, I really like the dreams where I’m flying 🙂

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