Last Friday at about 10:30pm, I hit a deadline to turn in a fairly lengthy piece of writing. And I felt mighty. The cards had been stacked against me. This was a week with a major religious holiday and so two days where my kids weren't in school. A week where I was sick with some viral nonsense that left me headachey, congested, exhausted, and sore. A week where I had a mammogram scheduled. A week where I lost my major client and started hustling my tailfeathers looking for new work. (Still hustling, BTW!) This was a week where one of my children sprained her second foot in two weeks.
And despite all of the avalanche of life happening to me, I hit the deadline. So I wanted to take to Twitter to crow that it was because I was a professional, and this is what distinguishes a pro: come what may, you turn your shit in on time. But that's... not exactly true. And in fact, that kind of thinking can be actively harmful.
Using "a pro turns everything in on time always" as a bright-line standard is reductive and fundamentally unhealthy because there are genuinely circumstances where it is one hundred percent not possible to make your deadlines, and it's not something you could've fixed by starting earlier or managing your time better. Honest! I've missed due dates my own self by varying degrees for reasons ranging from "hurricane" to "pneumonia" to a simple "this was a lot harder than we all thought it was going to be."
There's a certain machismo to writing culture that I find deeply uncomfortable at times. It includes a sort of laissez-faire attitude toward substance abuse and mental health issues—like drinking too much and suffering from anxiety or depression make you more valid, somehow. Like Hemingway and Balzac are something to aspire to, that their success came because of their excessive habits and not despite them. Like caring about your well-being is a dealbreaker.
This macho writing culture also includes a lot of subtext about working to the very limits of your capacity, all the time, no matter what personal cost it exacts. I've been in this game for, what, eleven years now? And it turns out driving yourself flat-out is an unsustainable practice for more than a few months, or perhaps a few years. So you have to ask yourself: Do you want to be a writer just for right now, or do you want to be a writer forever?
Ten years ago, I could put in a full day of work and then do an additional night shift of three or four hours of work after my kids were in bed. I can't do that anymore. My brain needs fallow time to produce more and better work. (It probably did then, too.) And I've finally recognized that the work that I do when I have, say, the actual swine flu isn't going to be worth turning in.
So what distinguishes a professional? It's not that you see through space and time and block out the week your beloved great-aunt passes away so you can attend her funeral in peace, no. And it's not typing away perched at the graveside, either. It's not never getting sick, never having a power or internet outage, never missing the plane or getting into a fender-bender. It's not never taking a week off of writing to gaze at a crisp autumn sky and grow closer to the people you care about.
It's what happens after and around that. It's talking to your clients, editors, or colleagues when you need to, and saying, "Hey, is it OK if I take a little longer with this?" Sometimes there's a reason to burn your candle at both ends. Usually there's not. Being a professional means knowing the difference.