MIDNIGHT OIL (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

When I was in my twenties, I used to stay up late - two o'clock, three o'clock, five o'clock in the morning - working on creative projects. I didn't need to go into work until eleven, and the place was about ten minutes away, so I could wake up at ten-thirty or even quarter-to and have time for a shower and a change of clothes before rushing out the door. The solitude, the quiet, the darkness outside gave me a kind of focus and clarity that I didn't get during the daylight.

About six years ago, I got a new job. This one started early in the morning (particularly during "the season", a glorious smorgasbord of time-and-a-half that stretched from early spring into the middle of the fall) and was an hour's drive when the traffic was kind. I knew the instant that I got the job that I couldn't be pulling any more all-nighters, and so I spent the three weeks before my start date gradually moving my bedtime from three or four in the morning to midnight, to eleven p.m., to ten, and setting my alarm at ten-thirty, nine, seven, six in the a.m.

It took my body a while to adjust to that; I don't think I did much of anything, creative-wise, during my first couple of months there. Eventually I was able to squeeze in design work in the three or so hours every evening between when I got home from an eleven hour shift (plus an hour each way on the road) and when I went to bed. But that never really gave me a chance to unwind - it was work of one sort or another from rise and shine to lights-out - and I didn't realize how exhausted I was, how much I was running on fumes, until I quit the job to make Hollandspiele full-time.

From that point on, I owned my own time, and this made a huge difference. There's so much more to do with the day when you're not spending it behind a desk in a windowless room. It's something I've written about before, the pleasure of living life at an unhurried pace, of getting a couple of walks in a day, of seeing a first-run movie in the morning for five bucks a ticket, of making sandwiches for lunch, and spending a couple of hours in the late afternoon to get dinner ready instead of grabbing fast food or nuking a TV dinner (tonight was roasted beets, gold and purple; angel hair with a garlic sauce and tofu meatballs; brussels sprouts, halved and cooked in a pan with oil and onions).

Here's the thing, though: because my time is my own - because I don't need to be at any particular place at any particular time - lately I find myself starting to go to bed a little later, and a little later, working once again until one or two or four in the morning. That special solitude I had in my twenties, that kind of focus and energy, it's very much back in play. Design problems that I had struggled with start to solve themselves, and I get more and more of those little light bulb moments that make everything fall into place.

I had what I considered to be a rather brilliant idea last night regarding Shields & Swords Ancients that elevates the decision space quite nicely, and two nights before that I smoothed out one of the most persnickety of bumpy knots that was causing Westphalia to be a little flat. It's even spilled over to my graphic design work - last week at two in the morning I radically reworked my approach for the Antony and Cleopatra counters, and I think it's some of the sharpest, cleanest, most appealing counters I've ever done.

I'm not exactly a slouch during the daytime, but my work in the wee hours is of another caliber completely. The problem of course is that if I stay up until four or five in the morning, I'm not going to roll out of bed until eleven or so. And, sure, it's not like I need to be somewhere - but it's hard to go to a movie in the morning when you're not on your feet until nearly noon. So we go in the afternoon, but that means we're not getting home until five or six, and not eating dinner until seven or eight - the whole lovely routine gets thrown off something fierce, and maybe we're squeezing in one walk instead of two, or skipping it when the temperature is particularly discouraging. Forget about spending an afternoon at a park or museum or whatever.

Suddenly everything feels just a little rushed, and that's just a little exhausting. Now, it's not like it's all-nighters all-the-time, but there's been enough of them that it's been difficult to get my sleep cycle onto anything approaching a reliable schedule. And this is probably exacerbated by the winter, which makes me want to stay in bed longer anyway: short gray days and long black nights often have me feeling like my get-up-and-go got-up-and-went. Except, of course, in those silent hours after midnight, when everything perks up, and ideas spring forth from my brain, effortlessly, seemingly of their own volition and fully-formed, like Athena.

Part of it too is that my creative energy tends to come and go in cycles. I'll have periods of intense energy and inspiration, followed by days or weeks where I don't do much other than run playtests or lay out counters or bag up wood bits. Right now, I'm in one of the longest and most sustained periods of creativity I've seen in a while. There are reasons for that, which I might talk about in a later blogpost, but I'm content right now to ride this wave as far as it wants to take me, even if that means more late nights and groggy mornings.

That's worth staying up for, I think, but there's something also to be said for spending time without any particular sense of obligation or urgency. The right fit is somewhere in-between of course, and maybe once I've gotten a couple of these projects off my plate I'll ease back into the old routine.


  • I know exactly what you mean! I have always done my best creative, troubleshooting-type work in the same timeframe and for the same reasons. My very best work was done when I did my day job during office hours, came home, and went to bed. Then I woke up at two or three in the morning, and worked until about 7 or 8 am on my own stuff and enjoyed a leisurely start to the day as a result. I was never so rested or happy or productive as I was back then. There were glitches, however. If someone wanted to get a hold of me or do something, my phone would ring in what was MY “middle of the night”. I realized that this beautiful existence of mine that I had discovered was not compatible with… well, the whole rest of the world, really. I couldn’t sustain it and went back to normal. But now, I call my own shots and have the flexibility to choose my own schedule.

    In fact, your post got me thinking a lot about how despite the freedom to set my own work times, I have still sort of “fallen into” a schedule that doesn’t actually work best for me. I’m going to make some changes, to target that sweet spot again. Hope my results are as good as yours!


  • Yes, Tom, I agree. I normally always stay up to 2 or 3 (or so); and that is the best time for creativity and game design. My wonderful wife and I both agree that this is the happiest time of our lives, because we have the time and freedom to devote to our hobbies.

    Bob Shurig

  • Wow an experience parallel to mine … the power of the silence !

    enrico acerbi

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