Don’t Do It

Tackling a ghostwriting project is daunting. Most of my clients are A-list celebrities and during the first meeting, while they think they’re
auditioning me, I’m auditioning them. Do they play well with other children? Will they listen to me? Stars are not very good at that. Will they tell the truth about themselves? They’re not very good at that either.

When the client hires me and we start the in-person interviews, I leave each meeting with a load of tapes. I get home and I stare
at them with dread. I have to transcribe them which is tedious and takes forever and I can’t farm them out. Besides the fact that the information is confidential and sensitive, I need to study the client’s speech patterns, favorite phrases and the rhythm of their sentences so I can write in their voice. It’s a skill all its own.

Gathering the highlights of their lives goes along smoothly – until I begin to probe them for more sensitive material. The stuff that draws
in the reader. The celeb is afraid of this, of the blowback and shaming on social media, but without the nitty gritty, the book will die on the vine. One client insisted on using the word, “Secrets” in her title but I couldn’t get her to reveal any. Another one got an instant migraine when I asked about her parent’s divorce. The meeting was over – which brings me to next important ghostwriting skill – reading the room and deciding how much the client can handle on any
given day. What should I ask or not ask? It all depends on what they’re maneuvering in their lives. Maybe she’s shut down because she got a bad review, caught her husband cheating with the nanny and she’s suffering a public divorce. Maybe she’s open because she fell in love or got an award. These are important considerations for me.

With so many people to please, like the agent, the manager, the
PR people, the publishing editor and the celebrity herself, when I finish one of these books, I am totally spent. In the days following the submission, I try to release the anxiety I’ve been carrying for months. It hangs on like a bad habit as I go from writing every day to not doing anything in particular except figuring out how to do nothing in particular.  

This is the point of this blog. “Not doing” is something I need for my mental health. When I had just finished one of these trials by fire, I was on the phone with my mother, telling her how exhausted I was and how strange my life felt now that I was finished. “I have to take some quiet time,” I told her, ”but I forgot how to do nothing. I need to work on that.”

Three days later, a letter from my mother arrived in the mail. She wrote, “I make sure I do at least two unpleasant tasks a day to keep
up my discipline.”

I wondered if writing that letter was one of her unpleasant tasks, but what she had said was no surprise. My mother was my mother, the same person she had always been. The idea of “not doing” was a foreign concept to her. On the rare occasion that she and my father went on vacation, if they were sunbathing or having a cocktail by the pool, they called themselves “lazy bums.” My father never took a nap without announcing that he was going into the bedroom to read the newspaper. My mother loved to read novels more than anything in the world but she wouldn’t allow herself to do it during the day
when there were more important things “to do.” I’m not sure what was so important, but relaxing, napping, sitting down with a good book or having a chat with a friend were not on her To-do list.

It seems that with each generation, the following one rebels and does the exact opposite. That’s certainly true for me. Instead of a To-do list, I have a “Don’t-do list.” Here’s a sample of what it looks like:

Don’t underestimate the benefits of not doing anything.  

Don’t ever see yourself as a lazy bum.

Don’t judge yourself for resting.

Don’t manufacture unpleasant tasks.

Don’t fill up every hour of every day with “stuff” to do.

I’m not suggesting that you procrastinate or not do things that have to be done. Quite the opposite. I wrote a memoir some years back for Wendy Walker, executive producer of the Larry King Show for seventeen years. She got up at 5 AM to tune into the Eastern news cycle and she worked all day with forty staff members across the  U.S., contacting newsworthy people and producing shows. She got about two thousand emails a day (I’m not kidding) and she answered each one as it arrived.

I do the same with a fraction of her number of emails, but when I’m through, I surrender to my Don’t-do list. I don’t rush around and chase my tail. I don’t judge myself for sitting on my bed for hours, guilt-free. My bedroom is my safe space where I can do or not do whatever I want. I knit, I read, I play games on my phone and I watch TV. I don’t have to answer the phone. There are no rules and nobody gets to be there unless they get a specific invitation from
me. Any cat, however, is welcome.

I’ve discovered that “not doing” is a great way to get answers to difficult questions. When you clear your mind and stop trying to remember something, when you don’t do anything in particular, the very thing you’re seeking just might waft in. Here are a few more things on my “Don’t-do list:

Don’t doubt yourself.

Don’t underestimate yourself.

Don’t judge how you look.

Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. That never ends well.

Don’t waste time with people who don’t appreciate you.

Don’t be afraid to be afraid.

When my students ask me how to get motivated to write, I tell them, “Don’t search for inspiration. Begin to write and let inspiration find