by Stephen Jay Schwartz

My life is run by two lists. One is the day job list, which cannot be set aside. I run a thirteen-state Western Region for my sales job and my travel and daily activities are dependent upon the schedules and daily lists of dozens of other sales reps and distributor representatives. This list weighs me down.

List Two is the everything else list, which includes ALL of my writing endeavors and obligations, as well as my personal business issues, medical, housing, kids’ school obligations, bills to pay, and the never-ending “honey-do” list. This list weighs me down.

In addition to these two enormous lists, which I keep as separate computer files, I generally write a Daily To-Do List, which combines the twenty or so most important things that must be done each day, culled from List One and List Two.

I used to experience great joy crossing things off these lists, but the trick has grown old. I no longer find happiness in the process.

I’m over-committed and I have no idea when it’s going to end. I will have to experience a complete lifestyle change for the deluge to stop, and I don’t see this happening for a long, long time.

I used to be able to juggle a week’s worth of commitments in my head. Each week I’d do a quick review and prepare for everything that would happen in the next seven days.

Now I focus on what’s supposed to happen today only. I see exactly what’s in front of me and nothing more. I’ll go through my entire Monday without realizing that Tuesday morning I’m boarding a flight to Minnesota. And that ain’t good, because sometimes I need an extra couple hours in my day to launder the underwear. God forbid I should need a little dry-cleaning done.

My creative commitments are insane. Judging two major competitions simultaneously (aka, reading hundreds of novels and short stories), researching and writing a new Hayden Glass novel, writing a short story on assignment, doing panels and speaking engagements…it’s crazy. And I know I’m not alone – most authors I know are just as busy, and most of them are juggling day jobs, as well.

At a recent sales meeting I learned that when people focus on more than three goals their chances of succeeding at anyone of these goals falls dramatically. When you have more than seven goals you might as well give up. You can’t do everything and do everything well.

Point in case – what the fuck is going on with my writing? Where is my third novel?

When I wrote Boulevard and Beat I had two major commitments. The day job and the book. That’s where my head was. Worked during the day, wrote at night. I finished two good, solid books that way. Since I’ve been published I’ve allowed myself to be torn in a hundred directions and the end result is…no book.

I have made one major addition to my commitment bucket, however. I’ve decided to make my family a priority. So now I have three major responsibilities – the day job, the current novel, and spending time with my family.

So, what happens next? I fill my schedule with so many commitments that one of my three important goals gets axed. I’ve learned from experience that I cannot risk endangering the day job, so that one stays. I’ve also learned that taking on any new responsibilities is not worth alienating my wife and kids.

And thus the thing that gets the shaft is my writing. Because, when I’m REALLY working on a novel I spend four or five hours at it every night, after the day job. Another eight to ten hours each day of the weekend. Which means there’s no time for anything else, except work and whatever I can schedule with the family.

Like many of you, I don’t like to say no. I love being available for all the cool things that being an author affords us. I love being the guest speaker at an event, even though it means I’ll spend two weeks preparing for it. I love being part of the committee responsible for bestowing one of the great writing awards to one of my fellow authors, even though it means I’ll be reading five hundred novels in four months. I love being asked to contribute to publications with original short stories or poetry, even though the process will take valuable hours and days away from the work I put into my novel. I always want to say YES to these opportunities.

But there’s only one me, and the gap between when my last novel came out and when my next one launches is growing ever wide.

These are good problems to have, I concede. I’m fortunate for the good fortune. But I’m scattered, and I wonder if the process has caused the good work to suffer. I wonder if focusing on twenty goals is killing the potential for success of goals one-two-three.

No wonder the years are passing by. There’s no time left to contemplate, to think, to reminisce. Not when there’s so much to do.

There. Blog done. Check that off the list.


19 thoughts on “DAILY FORECAST

  1. David Corbett

    Dear Stephen:

    h\Here I am at 5:15, reading your post first thing so I can, yes, check it off my list. I have felt so bad neglecting your posts, because I too am over-committed. I agree, I think it's a general affliction among writers. And when the day job is actually several mini-jobs, it's even more nuts.

    What I also hear, however, is a joylessness and a hopelessness, and that's unsustainable. Something has to give, and you have to decide what that is. I think the writing perks are part of writing. As Alex had said, we can't just write anymore, we have to remain visible. I have to put aside my novel for another writing project that's come in the door. Just has to be done. I'm frustrated but, as you say, that's the daily juggle.

    But I feel for you. Somewhere in that tumble of tasks there has to be something that grounds you, centers you, reminds you why you're doing it all. I think family is so crucial for you. Make sure that always gets done. Next, your creativity — give yourself at least a half hour, or an hour if you can. The several hours you shoot for may not be reasonable. Think of it as prayer, a way to reconnect with your creative and spiritual self. Then attack the demands of the job.

    I know you don't do them in that order, but however it works, make it work. You lost your father, don't lose yourself.

    And don't take two weeks to prepare a talk. That's more generous than you need to be for that kind of task. Cut away the deadwood. Shed the inessential. Begin to ask yourself: What can I let go of? And let it fall away, grieve a little bit, then embrace what remains.

    Now — go have a productive day and a great weekend. You're a good man, a wonderful writer, and a loving father and husband. Start from there.

  2. Rebecca Cantrell

    I hear you, Stephen. Remember when our first books first came out and everything was shiny and new and we had time to work and all the promotion stuff was fun and interesting and we were sure it all mattered and would lead to us selling more books and having more time to do the writing and everything else we loved?

    I miss that, too.


  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Steve, I say this with all affection and as someone you know is wired exactly the same way you are.


    What the hell are you doing judging even ONE contest, let alone two? What are you doing writing a short story? David is right, there in no way you should be prepping for a speaking engagement for two weeks, and by the way, if they're not paying you enough that you actually feel good about it the morning that you get up to go do it the answer is NO. You need to learn this word and practice it on everyone who speaks to you in the next week. NO. NO. NO.

    I'm sorry for the outburst, but it's going to take me the whole day now to recover from the sympathetic pain of your overextension. I've so been there and you MUST stop this.

  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    David and Alex –

    Thank you so much for your outbursts of affection and concern. I'm with you, man. What can I say, I'm still a newbie at heart. I'm still just so damn excited to be here, to be asked to participate in the process. I've decided that I have to finish the commitments of the contests – I said "yes," and now folks depend on me to keep my word. Those commitments will level off after January. The short story, well, I was asked by a reputable publisher, and other writers involved in the project include authors like T.C. Boyle. So, again, incredibly honored just to be asked.
    What a nutty mess this is, though. I thought I gave away a lot of my time when I was a development exec, agreeing to read screenplays all the time for people who would ask. That was nothing compared to reading hundreds of novels, for free, for the sake of being asked. Just like banging my head against a wall, it will feel so good when I stop.
    Lesson learned. Dues being paid. Next year I'll write a book.
    I tell you, though, hearing the love and concern in your words means a lot to me. Both of you are wonderful inspiration in the inspiration department. Thank you for being here.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    When I sold my first script my wonderful and wise film agent said, "As a writer, all you have is your time. It is gold. Choose carefully."

    When I forget that, I suffer, and so does everyone around me.

  6. Lisa Alber

    Hi Stephen,

    I felt like bursting as I read your post, in part because, as Alex mentioned, you are a bit nuts (in a good way)–I swear I was feeling your overextendedness–and in part because what you wrote reflected straight back at me. I don't know how people live their lives with full-times jobs. I've been at it since July, and I'm still reeling from the lifestyle change.

    And what about the fecking writing?!?!?! It's the activity that drops off the list, unfortunately–because day-job, mandatory, mom's dementia/family stuff, mandatory, errands/exercise/life maintenance, mandatory. Sleep, mandatory. (I don't believe in only sleeping 4-5 hours/night–bad for every part of me. Sleep deprivation=creativity crusher.)

    Time, time, time…That's all I want in life these days.

    Seems like you could give up–for now–some of the writerly extracurriculars like judging contests. That's a helluva lot of writing time right there! The answer, yep, is NO.

    I almost laughed at your photograph. That right there conveys it all.

    Have a great weekend, Lisa

  7. Sarah W

    And I thought I was busy. When do you sleep?

    Hang in there, please, and let your schedule free up without guilt. "No, my time is already spoken for," is a perfectly reasonable answer.

  8. Reine

    Stephen, I hope I never do that. I'm sure I could not anyway, so that would leave out a lot of the temptation. I like what Alex's agent said. I might pay attention to that. I will try.

    How are you going to start to unravel from that ball of string you have twisted yourself into?

  9. KDJames

    What Alex said.

    Geez, Stephen. You should know better. Really. There's a wonderful article Jenny Crusie wrote several years back admonishing writers (and herself) to "Protect the Work." I'd link to it, but then I'd feel just awful if you made time to go read it.

    But please do learn to say NO. That's something I had to learn back when the kids were in middle school and people were always asking me to do something horribly time consuming, yet also somehow sort of pointless beyond the moment. Like five dozen last minute cupcakes on a work night. Not that your extra commitments are last minute cupcakes, but still. It helps to practice the refusal ahead of time, so you're not left stammering and wondering how they got you to YES so quickly. PTA moms are brutal.

  10. Dee

    I slipped into the workaholic world rather gradually in my late thirties. It crept up on me. It was flattering to be asked to take on more, and I was so good at it. I was smart, I was strong, I had come through so much. Not everyone has heard an RCMP dispatcher tell a terrified mother, "It is not our policy to interfer in domestic disputes", and lived.

    I could not see that my relationships suffered, my health deteriorated, my writing stopped, and my life contained no joy. I did more and more and more until I broke. And rebuilding has taken years. Not every thing can be repaired. There is one valuable thing I will never have again–time with my teenage son. Now he is grown and lives far away, and I have too much time to wish that I had made more time for the rituals and routines that bond a family forever. Listen to your friends and your gut. Give your family the gift of you. As soon as you can untangle.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Lisa – your comments reflect my sentiments exactly. All I want to do right now is just chill, or do absolutely nothing at all, nothing but stare at the ocean waves or the sunset or sunrise. Preferably not the sunrise, as I'd like to sleep more than the five or six hours I tend to sleep each night. I've always been such a "doer" – I'd feel guilty for a single "wasted" moment. Now I'm thinking, hey, maybe the Buddhists have it right.

    Sarah – good response. I'll try to use it. I remember when I was twenty years old and I ran into this film producer in a cafe and asked him if I could give him a copy of my college film, which I was conveniently carrying under my arm (at all times). He had this look of pure exhaustion in his eyes and he said, "No, I'm just trying to relax right now. You don't realize that I do this for a living and it's my time off." I remember feeling hurt and rejected. Now, however, I get it. I really do.

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    KD – "Protect the work" – I like that. It was my attitude most all my life, up until I was published. Odd, isn't it, that the philosophy ended there? I'd bet that other authors share the same experience. Suddenly everything I'm being asked to do seems so important, you know. But the most important thing of all is to have another novel in the pipeline. It seems like such an easy concept, but it's the first one to go. Maybe it's because I can do two hundred thousand things in the time it takes me to write a novel, while the converse is also true – I can get almost nothing else in the world done when I'm seriously writing a novel. So, it's easy to justify putting the novel aside, over and over again. And yet, it's so important to "protect the work." I'll take your advice and practice the refusal beforehand.

    Dee – thank you so much for your honest remarks. I can feel the pain you endure from having spent too little time with your son. Believe me, that's exactly what motivates me to choose a night hanging out with my boys over a night hunkered down in front of my novel. I'm at that moment where my boys really want me around, they want and need my attention, and I'm damn sure I'm gonna give it to them. I know from experience that nothing is more important than that. I know there's a balance here, but I'll weight that balance in favor of hanging with the kids. It was weighed too heavily in the other direction when I was writing Boulevard and Beat.

  13. Reine

    Sleep well, Stephen. You work hard for a good cause. I'd like to see you enjoy it more and hoped you might be developing a plan to make room for that. Good night, sweetie.

  14. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Reine – So sorry! I thought I responded to your comment and realized that I missed it! I remember formulating a response in my mind, and then my mind just slipped. Welcome to my world.
    I'll unravel myself from this ball of string by pushing on through, just finishing the commitments I've made. I should find some peace after February, when all these contests are over. Then I'll focus on those three important things – the day job (I'd rather not focus on this, but I don't have a choice), family and writing my novel. I'll push everything else aside. For the most part.
    Thanks for your concern, as always. I love hearing your thoughts.

  15. Reine

    Stephen, I so admire your dedication to your family and think you must be a great dad. Really what else is more important than that? Of course you have another career. What else? I think you'll be okay if you stop thinking you'll miss something. But most of us can't change our personality. You are driven, so – I suspect – the answer is in refocusing your drive onto fewer, and more productive, things. You'll never be happy if you don't do an excellent job, so you will over prepare. Over prepare on fewer things. xo

  16. MJ

    Dude, take care of yourself. We haven't met, but I'm a longtime reader, and a fellow citizen of the world of joyless drudge (though in my case it produced no creative work at all – a lot of legal work for pay but nothing I wanted to accomplish). I'm finally seeing new light due to my law firm's foundering (yay!) and my ability to plan other work, but only a few months ago I was having my therapist say "oh my God, you've lost hope!" and spending my Sunday nights and Monday mornings looking for new reasons that life is worth living. Some Monday mornings, a reason was increasingly hard to find.

    My advice – don't ever get close to being where I was. Save yourself, man. My secret for staying as minimally sane as I was, and for being happier now? "Giving less of a Sh!t." I'm going to put that on a tee shirt "Today – giving less of a sh!t."

    This is how I did it. When something was really important, give a shi!t. When it is "eh," then do what you have to do, not much more, and hope for the best. I have a speaking engagement this week, the (probably) 15th or 16th of its kind in 5 years, to an audience of very non-creative compliance types. I might spend 15 minutes looking at the material the night before. I know the material and my limited time is better spent on things other than refining wit and style to a compliance audience. Wish I could be perfect at everything but I cannot be – we have to pick and choose. When you can't afford to give a full one, give less of one. The world won't stop turning.

  17. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    MJ – that's exactly it – I can't stand to do anything half-ass. Which is one reason it takes me so long to write a sentence. But I take that same philosophy to all these obligations and it kills me. The solution is either to take on less responsibility, or learn to not care so much about every little thing. Giving it only what I've got to give will have to be enough. Save the best for the things I cannot live without.
    Thanks for sharing your story – I can see the evolution of your sense of self through the examples you relate.

  18. PD Martin

    I hear your pain, too! Wish you could find room to breathe this year but it doesn't seem like you will be able to. Hang in there! The next three months will fly…too fast I'm sure 🙂

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