Danielle Steel and the Tragic Appeal of Overwork

Based on a tip from a reader, I recently tumbled down an esoteric rabbit hole aimed at the writing habits of the novelist Danielle Steel. Even if you don’t read Steel, you’ve almost certainly heard of her work. One of the best-selling authors of all time, Steel has written more than 190 books that have cumulatively sold over 800 million copies. She publishes multiple titles per year, often juggling up to five projects simultaneously. Unlike James Patterson, however, who also pushes out multiple books per year, Steel writes every word of every manuscript by herself.

How does she pull this off? She works all the time. According to a 2019 Glamour profile, Steel starts writing at 8:30 am and will continue all day and into the night. It’s not unusual for her to spend 20 to 22 hours at her desk. She eats one piece of toast for breakfast and nibbles on bittersweet chocolate bars for lunch. A sign in her office reads: “There are no miracles. There is only discipline.”

These details fascinate me. Steel is phenomenally successful, but her story reads like a Greek tragedy. She could, of course, decide to only write a single book per year, and still be a fabulously bestselling author, while also, you know, sleeping. Indeed, her cultural impact might even increase if she slowed down, as this extra breathing room might allow her to more carefully apply her abundant talent.

But there’s a primal action-reward feedback loop embedded into the experience of disciplined effort leading to success. Once you experience its pleasures it’s natural to crave more. For Steel, this dynamic seems to have spiraled out of control. Like King Midas, lost in his gilded loneliness, Steel cannot leave the typewriter. She earned everything she hoped for, but in the process she lost the ability to step away and enjoy it.

I think this dynamic, to one degree or another, impacts anyone who has been fortunate enough to experience some success in their field. Doing important work matters and sometimes this requires sacrifices. But there’s also a deep part of our humanity that responds to these successes — and the positive feedback they generate — by pushing us to seek this high at ever-increasing frequencies.

One of the keys to cultivating a deep life seems to be figuring out how to ride this razor’s edge; to avoid the easy cynicism of dismissing effort altogether, while also avoiding Steel’s 20-hour days. This is an incredibly hard challenge, yet it’s one that receives limited attention and generates almost no formal instruction. I don’t have a simple solution but I thought it was worth emphasizing. For a notable subset of talented individuals burnout is less about their exploitation by others than it is their uneasy dialogue with themselves.

32 thoughts on “Danielle Steel and the Tragic Appeal of Overwork”

  1. She makes the same claims in this month’s Costco Connection profile, but I call BS. If she were working 20-22 hours every day, over so many years, she’d be, well, dead now. Cal, you know better than I that the brain can’t sustain that kind of consistent mental effort on such an unforgiving schedule, and a body unregulated by sleep makes it even less likely Steel would be able to write coherently. I have no doubt she’s a workaholic, but I think she’s a liar too.

    • Couldn’t agree more. Claims like this have always been made by artist—and now entrepreneur types—and I can’t help but think creating the tireless worker mystique is just really good branding.

    • It is rare, but there are people who are prolific in this way and remain healthy. Some people are genuinely wired a bit differently. Also to fact-check, she said “It’s not unusual for her to spend 20 to 22 hours at her desk”, not that this is her daily schedule.

      I have found that I also get upset seeing people who work like this as it doesn’t seem to be possible for mere mortals like us. But alas, it seems to work, she’s written 190 books and is still going. Enough said.

  2. I have struggled with the balancing act between anti-effort cynicism and burnout for a long time but feel as I have arrived at a more healthy middle way. My two cents:
    – Key stone habits in various deep life buckets already go a long way in keeping burnout in check
    – Set hard boundaries and respect them (e.g. no work after XX:XX)
    – Craft and work has its place but it cannot overcompensate defiencies in other areas, regardless how hard you try

  3. Cal, I agree w/ your pov as advice to the everyman, but, after reading the profile you link to, it seems to me that Danielle Steele is not the everyman.

    Nothing in the profile suggests that she has ever aspired to “the deep life” — wrt her work ethic: “She’s always been like this, even as a kid growing up in France.” (I don’t think the everyman is interested in the “deep life” either).

    I think there are people who pursue creative/thought-based vocations single-mindedly while not needing much more. The profile says she is not interested in money and loves what she does. There are few like this. She seems to be one of them.

    You write “she lost the ability to step away and enjoy it” [her success].
    How do you know this? from one short piece of journalism from 4 years ago ?
    For a STEM phd, don’t you think you might be sounding here a bit “journalistic” ?

    • Charles, read Danielle Steel’s own personal blog. She often highlights her focus on work and her highly limited holiday time. Cal is right that she struggles to step away and enjoy it.

      • Deborah, yes, & agree w/ you about her rushed writing.

        Assessing the Danielle Steele discussed here on a deep life scale is like assessing a hedgehog on a scale for foxes.

        A mature hedgehog might sometimes wish to be a little more foxey, but a transition from hedgehog to fox is high-cost, could easily miscarriage, & might not be viable. May be best to let sleeping hedgehogs lie.

        The mystery question is the rearing of her 9 kids. Per her blog, she may not actually be pure-breed hedgehog, echoing Mickey B.’s comment. She may have managed the balance that is most apt for her constitution, independent of anyone’s external metric.

  4. I really appreciated this post, Cal. I grew up around a bunch of workaholic surgeons. As a kid I could never wrap my head around why anyone would willingly endure what those doctors went through. Though I ultimately decided to go to medical school myself the insane work hours and the culture that promotes such things still bother me deeply. I swore to myself that I would never become one of those people who spends so much time at work that he knows his coworkers better than his own spouse. Reading your post, though, I can see how many of those workaholics that I sometimes demonize probably did not start out that way–rather, they were transformed by their experience. And maybe that transformation was characterized more by the allure of the action-reward feedback loop than by some form of career-centered Stockholm Syndrome.

  5. I think Steel’s behavior sounds like a case of hypographia, a compulsion to write that can be associated with epilepsy. I agree with the earlier commenter, Charles Sheridan, that Steel’s does not sound like the behavior of someone pursuing success, validation, or wealth. But the lessons you draw from her story can certainly still be helpful to the rest of us.

  6. “Indeed, her cultural impact might even increase if she slowed down, as this extra breathing room might allow her to more carefully apply her abundant talent. ”

    Yes. It’s hard to imagine that we are getting her truly expressive depth, but perhaps just the persona of someone addicted to mechanized functioning.

    “For a notable subset of talented individuals, burnout is less about their exploitation by others than it is their uneasy dialogue with themselves.”

    The easy version of that dialogue would be one that involved some mature self-love.

  7. As a lawyer, I went through the routine of burnout from the stress of the job. The book “Stressaholic” by Dr. Heidi Hanna did a lot to explain how you can become psychologically addicted to becoming a workaholic which leads to burnout. Dr. Hanna is a psychologist that got caught up with the workaholic lifestyle and writes about the strategies she used to recover. Exercise, meditation, nutrition and taking time to shut down like Cal Newport advocates is all covered in her book. I found addition help in the book “Resilience” by Donald Robertson which cover psychological resilience techniques. For me personally, the chief stressors were the criminal assaults, death threats, and criminality of my clients. Coping mechanisms like possessing body armor, semi-automatic weapons, trauma medical equipment and learning personal security from authors like Jason Hanson were also instrumental to bringing some peace and sanity to my life. Ultimately, you have to have an employer whose pay check is greater in value than your health, sanity, and freedom from incarceration.

    • I’ve often wondered how lawyers deal internally with defending–per your phrase “criminality of my clients.” I asked one lawyer long ago and he just shrugged and said, “everyone is entitled to a defense.” I still can’t put myself in a lawyer’s shoes though.

      • Lawyers have NOT been dealing well with the criminality of clients. Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant as is divorce. There is a push to teach psychological resilience because lawyer typically burnout and leave the profession within 10 years. I remember reading a case where a criminal defense attorney had to actually kill his own client in self defense and was acquitted. Lawyers get a bad reputation but the public does not know the hell the job puts its people through. The bar association is no help and is wildly impractical defined largely by its politics.

  8. I know that this is an entirely subjective opinion, but while I respect Danielle Steel’s life story and some of the things she says about work ethic, I really can’t get into her writing style. And I strongly suspect that her publication of five, six, or even seven books a year is a significant part of the problem. This despite the fact that she gets ideas years before the book is published.

    One key problem with Danielle Steel is that by her own admission, she rarely reads other books. Why? Because she doesn’t have the time. So she’s so busy producing books that she doesn’t have the time to improve her craft. Steel says that she doesn’t read other books while writing to avoid accidental copying. But copying is not the same as plagiarising. I can’t see how any writer can improve without copying other writers.

    In my opinion, the effect of Danielle Steel’s severe lack of reading shows in her writing style. I have tried several times to get into her novels, but I am always frustrated by the lack of imagination in her prose. Too much use of the passive, too much info-dump, too many adjectives, and so on. By contrast, I have looked up the publication rates of writers that I respect enormously, and they usually publish one or two books a year. Now that in and of itself does not guarantee good writing, but when you add to that their willingness to read voraciously, I can personally see why their works are superior to Steel’s.

    In my opinion, there is a marked decline in quality when the writer emphasises speed.

  9. I’d like to suggest that anyone else who gets lost in their work to the extent that they lose track of time, might be experiencing the phenomenon known as Flow (Csíkszentmiályi). To me, flow is the sweet spot of where ability meets challenge. When time stands still. When one is so absorbed in meeting the challenge that time flies. You raise your head, and the sun is setting. It feels so good!

  10. There’s not much indication in the article she’s unhappy, or that her life is a “Greek tragedy.” I’m not sure how you can read the profile and extrapolate a theory that she got sucked into a cycle of reward-and-success against her own will.

    I think it’s more likely that Steel is on the far, far end of the self-discipline bell curve. I don’t think her habits began after her first taste of success. Success just helped make it possible for her to work the way she prefers to work. In some sense, we’re seeing a more “ideal” version of Steel than if she were an unsuccessful novelist toiling away at a desk job 40 hours a week. That would be the tragedy–someone with Steel’s drive and habits unable to make full use of them.

  11. “She earned everything she hoped for, but in the process she lost the ability to step away and enjoy it.”

    I have a librarian friend who worked for the San Francisco Library for decades and knew Steel personally – by all accounts she was deeply involved with fundraising for the library and my friend told me she was gracious and quiet and adored her seven children.

    I’m not sure she’s the miserable workaholic your article seems to imply.

    • It strikes me as mathematically impossible to produce and raise 7 children while writing for 22 hours every day.

  12. First, I think the 20 hours is an exaggeration. Any long term pro lies about how much time they spend writing or revising. There’s a built-in bias that if it was written fast, it must be terrible. So pros will say they agonized over every word, or did three drafts, or whatever. One pro says he does three drafts, and to the writers, he tells us, first draft, proofreading draft, and copy edits. But the readers hear laboring over revision. * Shrug *

    From what I’m seeing, it sounds like she’s getting into the zone. There’s a specific word for it, which I can’t recall, but pilots also get into it. Essentially, it’s deep work on steroids. The writer dives into the characters and it’s such fun that it’s disappointing to come out of it. It sounds like overwork to a lot of people because to them, writing is hard. But to a long term pro, writing isn’t hard.

    Just for perspective, Zane Grey wrote over 9 million words–on a manual typewriter.

    • Linda: I was just about to come here and say pretty much the same thing. I don’t know if the 20+ hours thing is accurate (I’m sure she does that some days, but even if she does 10-15 that’s still impressive!), but it does seem like she’s “in the zone.” Plus, this is her job! She’s a full-time writer. That’s what she does. (And it’s a myth that “slower” writing equals “quality” writing. I believed that for years too but it’s not true.)

      I know plenty of non-writers, people who own their own companies, etc, who work 100 hours a week. We’ve all heard of people like that, and we don’t even question it. But because Steel is “creative” some think what she says couldn’t possibly be true.

      To add to the Zane Grey mention above: Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, was always writing too. He wrote a million words A YEAR. And when he wasn’t at his typewriter or notebook he’d dictate his novels into a machine. Then his team of secretaries would transcribe them.

      Bob Sassone

      • A million words a year is only 2,740 a day, so if you chunk it down like that it probably becomes manageable, if you can devote the time to it.

  13. Cal, while I am impressed to certain extent, I still believe that struggling for deep work is the best solution to balance work and life properly. In Italy we see many models like Danielle Steel, emphatized as an inspiration to success but as you said, it’s a greek tragedy and ultimately not a sustainable kind of life even if you are thrilled and enjoy typewriting a lot.

  14. You just have to marvel that God made a woman like Ms. Steel. There’s not much you can glean from her life that is applicable to your own. Every now and then, these outlier people will come into public life. Appreciate them while they’re here, producing art for you to enjoy.

    I think about this with Michael Jordan; don’t try to emulate his mindset. You don’t want to be him. If you watched “The Last Dance” then you know how tortured this guy is. Winning basketball, cards, or golf is a compulsion for that man. Just watch him play basketball and live your own life.

  15. People who devote all their life to the same task are too one-dimensional for me.
    I can’t help but suspect that they are mainly working that much because they don’t have any other joys in life.

  16. She has written about 190 novels, but over the space of 50 years.
    She actually only averaged about 3 novels a year, from the 1970s up to 2016.
    Then she sped up, and now seems to average around 6 a year.
    It’s the consistency that amazes me. Perhaps she’s just found a pace and a lifestyle that suits her.
    Of course, I can’t attest to the quality of the work, or whether or not increasing her output has led the quality to suffer.

  17. But maybe work is her way to enjoy! What else is there in life? Some travel, some entertainment, but work is what gives us meaning whether we like it or not.

  18. Title of her new novel, released Aug8: “Happiness”

    Copy-text at Amazon:

    “Sabrina Brooks is a wildly successful bestselling author of gripping thrillers. Unlike her fictional characters, Sabrina lives a quiet life in the Berkshires with her two beloved dogs. But behind this peaceful exterior is a dark, painful past. As a child raised by an emotionally distant father, Sabrina rarely felt love. And as an adult, her marriage twisted into an abusive relationship from which she had to escape.

    Sabrina channeled that fear into her writing, and now she has everything she’s ever wanted. Until the arrival of a mysterious letter disrupts it all, declaring that Sabrina, as the only living relative of her recently deceased uncle, is now the heir to his title and estate outside London. This shocking news forces her to cross the Atlantic and see the manor for herself, stirring up her father’s past and the secrets he kept.

    Determined to sell the estate quickly and return home, Sabrina is surprised by how much she loves roaming the gardens and exploring the historic manor. She can’t help but admire her surroundings, especially with the handsome estate attorney, Grayson Abbott, acting as her tour guide. As she learns more about the family history, Sabrina begins to wonder what life would be like as “Lady Brooks,” and if she could upend the stability she has worked so hard for. Is she brave enough to choose a different path?

    In Happiness, Danielle Steel creates an unforgettable story about inner strength, following your joy, and the rejuvenating power of love.”


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