How To Recover From Writer Burnout
Images via Sebastian Sørensen and Suzy Hazelwood
It's the first month of the new year, and many writers see this as a chance to reinvigorate their writing lives. Set new goals. Create new projects. Discover and submit to publications they want to get into. Even make new writing friends. We're about to take another trip around the sun, and there's plenty of time to burn for our creative endeavors. Both morning flame and midnight oil.
But some writers don't feel excitement at returning to the blank page. You may be hit with anxiety and despair at the thought of writing, even if previously it used to excite you. You may be working on a project that seems like it'll never end, and just the thought of the next sentence makes you want to tear your hair out or down a whole bottle of Carlo Rossi.
You might be suffering from burnout.
Writer's burnout is when the ignition starts, but you know at any moment your car could break down in the middle of the road. Or continuing to forge ahead even though your tires are bald, causing your vehicle to lose traction and send you fishtailing.
I never thought burnout could happen to me. But I was a 23 year old woman who thought I wasn't completely human—I was a broken goddess with her head buried in a cold hole. I thought I could escape reality and dive into my writing and ignore all the warning signs around me.
I loved writing. It was the anchor to which everything in my life was attached. And I thought I'd never get tired of it.
Well, I was wrong. Surprise. And once I finally got to the point where I was so shredded I could barely piece a sentence together, it took me years to recover.
Don't be like me. Learn from my mistakes.
Just stop writing right now and breathe.
Feel the tension that you've been holding in and release it. Release everything. Release the hold you have on your mouse and keyboard. Close out of your Word file or Google doc. The writing can wait. Feel that knotted up, spiny sense of doom that threatens to become a wound? Just let it go.
I know many of you are on deadline and have projects due. You feel as if you can't take a break. Your body and mind are screaming that you have to put your ass in the chair everyday. That's what many of the greats say, don't they? That every second wasted is another second tossed into a fire, burnt ticking time left to bubble into nothingness. I can already see several of you forming thought-bubbles.
Other people get to take breaks, you may think. They've earned them. Literary writers who wear tweed and are privately wealthy off their investments. Teenagers who win literary scholarships. But not you.
No, especially you. You may be on deadline, and you may have the walls of your office littered with "Just Write" posters, but creativity doesn't work like cranking out widgets at a factory. It requires rest, relaxation, data synthesis, and daydreaming. If you're feeling burnt out, it's entirely possibly that your creative well has run dry, because you haven't taken the proper time to fill it.
You are not a perpetual motion machine, and nothing in the universe can power itself indefinitely. Recognize that the science doesn't support the delusion that you have to ram your head into a wall until prose spills like candy out of your split skull.
So just stop. Go outside. Have a coffee or a beer. And put yourself in a state of mind where you can do what I'm about to write about next.
Recognize You Are Doing Something Wrong
...and don't beat yourself up about it.
Burnout means that something went wrong in your life. But it does not happen because of a moral failing, or because you didn't put in enough effort. Toss out puritanical ideas that you are "not good enough" because you are experiencing feelings of stress, fatigue, and distress when it comes to your writing life. It does not mean you are bad. It does not mean you are weak. It means something in the machine that is you is not operating properly.
For the best results, address this as a mechanical failure. When your car needs new brakepads or windshield wiper fluid, you probably don't scream at it for being a bad car. (If you do, you might want to get that checked out.) You simply fix it, so you can continue to drive without issues.
It should be the same for you as a writer. And the less time you spend feeling bad about it, the more time you'll have to simply work on fixing it.
If you feel bad because you're burnt out, and then push yourself harder, this will only result in worse burnout. It will create a vicious, self-destructive cycle of downward spiraling. Which sounds fun and edgy when Nine Inch Nails makes songs about it, but when you want to be a writer, this will either doom you to quitting completely or condemning yourself to an intense mediocrity. Burnout can also make you more prone to illness. It is not a neatly contained phenomenon. It will seep into every part of your being.
The human brain and body is a complex machine, but it is still a machine. It requires the proper amount of input (fuel) to produce output (writing). This often requires the above section—taking a break.
Realign Your Purpose
Remember why you became a writer in the first place. If I had to take a wild guess, it wasn't so you could beat yourself over the head and hate yourself while you contorted your body in front of a keyboard. It probably wasn't so you could get $20 by writing copy for SEO articles about spinal taps, or get into Twitter clique fights, or to write something that you don't even believe in.
When you decided to become a writer, it probably wasn't because you liked the act of putting words onto paper. The act of writing itself, devoid of the substance behind it. You probably wanted to put your specific thoughts onto paper. You wanted to educate, help, and inspire people.
It's easy to become burnt out when we don't understand our purpose. And it's easy to become burnt out when we stray from it. If we understand what we're doing and why, and feel passionate about it, we can have nearly unlimited untapped energy to draw from to continue forward (as long as our physical needs are met).
Spend some time remembering why you became a writer in the first place. What it felt like. What you wanted out of it. Really take some time to figure this out. You may have to dig back deep into childhood. Ask yourself if what you're doing now, in your current life, is helping you to achieve that.
Stop Doing Things That Don't Matter
For a long time I jumped at every opportunity for exposure. I wanted to be a successful writer. I wanted to create as many intersecting lines into the world as possible, so I said yes to almost everything. Articles, interviews, podcasts, requests for short story submissions. And it is good to do some of that stuff. It is good to put yourself out in the world, test your limits and flex your tensile strength.
But you have to recognize that everything you do comes at a cost. That for every article or podcast you do, it's taking a little time and energy away from something else. Sometimes that's worth the cost. Maybe you're chomping at the bit, begging the universe to send you a weather beaten moth of opportunity. Maybe the opportunity that became available to you is exactly what you wanted, and it's worth setting aside some other things for you to do it. Maybe you'll have a few late nights at the office, a few less date-nights, do less bar hopping with friends, spend a few less hours scrolling through the black wool coats on Poshmark. As long as you can make that decision with full understanding, that's okay.
Writing articles for LitReactor takes time away from my fiction. But I do it because, not only does the pay keep me in mid-shelf whiskey, I enjoy it. I'm able to write what I want, and in the process, maybe help some other writers. Part of the joy of being a writer for me is the ability and opportunity to help others. I understand that.
But if you're doing something you don't want to do, it will affect the projects that you actually want to do—like a rotten spore that begins to spread across the pulsing nervous system of you. Nothing about you happens in a vacuum. Everything you do affects everything else. And do enough things that you don't want to do in your writing life and it can shut down your entire system. Burnout.
If something matters, it will align with your purpose. If it doesn't, it won't. Simple in understanding, oftentimes difficult in execution. That's why you have to keep your purpose crystallized in your mind at all times.
Fix Your Life
I've said this many times before but it bears repeating. Your actual life needs to support your writing life. If it doesn't, you will always be met with resistance when it comes to writing. And this resistance can end up wearing you down to the point where writing eventually feels impossible.
Before my own experience with burnout, I slept little and I ate poorly. I didn't have healthy, supportive relationships that respected my writing time. I dealt with depression, mental illness, PTSD, and an eating disorder. And instead of trying to fix those things, I crumpled those experiences up and tried to throw them to the bottom of my brain. I thought as long as I wrote, and was able to continue to write, none of those things would matter. I could continue to flow inward into my stories, eating poorly and drinking until I got sick and letting myself become heartsick.
Everything you do affects everything else.
You want to ignore the shitty things going on in your life, because ignoring them seems easy and fixing them seems hard. You think you can store them in a place where they can't touch you. But you are not a soul in a meat suit. You are a body, constrained by bone, flesh, and nerves. And the thing that is you is part of that system. And inside that meat suit also exists the subconscious, the abyss.
If you damage the meat-suit, you damage the abyss. You damage your connection to it. And maybe one day you'll wake up and like me, find that everything that comes out of the tunnel between you and it is distorted and broken, like the last sputtering blips of a broken signal.
It can take years, decades even, to fix the parts of you that feel inadequate. The damage that nibbles at your exterior shields. The bad habits that cause worse relationships. The self-destructive tendencies that you can sink into with comfortable regularity. You have to fix your self-esteem, and then you have to go buy healthy food, and you have to steer away from the masochistic parts of you, and work to educate yourself to get a better job, and blahblahblah. Sounds exhausting and prole just typing it out.
But if you want to be a great writer, and you don't want to risk burnout, that's your job. To fix the things that keep you from writing as well as you can. And to keep fixing them.
Write Something Different
Maybe what you need is a little fresh blood in your writing life. An injection of sparkling-black creative plasma. Creativity is fluid and mercurial, and as our tastes and experience level change, so does the source from which our creativity flows. Creativity doesn't always adhere to genres, to rules, to what's acceptable to your friends and parents.
Like I've said before, your subconcious is the abyss. It is the dark sea which inside floats bio-luminescent specks of data. A lifetime of data that you've acquired both from your life, and the programming encoded into your DNA.
If you want to write something that's fresh and feels exciting, you'll have to tap into the abyss. It's easy to get stuck in a writing rut, and tread through well-worn roads of creativity that lead away from the deep parts of your subconscious. To the deep, rich, heart-throbbing center of it. Sometimes you can do that by switching context. Sort of jolting yourself out of habits.
If you write horror, maybe try a romance. If you are writing fiction, try a non-fiction essay. If you've never written a sex scene or a murder scene, try that too. Do you normally do first person? Try third. Add in a dash of humor. Go off on a wild tangent. If you see an interesting character on the horizon, chase after them and ask what they have to say. Sometimes these things that seem arbitrary or silly become the most pivotal thing about your writing.
Write what you told yourself you couldn't. Dance with the devil of your fear and you may find that exhilaration and vigor follow.
Burnout is a multi-tiered problem, and one doesn't reach it with one simple action. It is a series of actions, that send you tumbling down a path that inevitably leads to a screeching halt. Getting out of writer's burnout often requires a multi-pronged approach. It requires tenacity, creativity, and a deep introspection into what got you there in the first place.
Something in the list above may help. And maybe nothing will. But if you want to escape burnout, I know that you can't continue doing the thing that got you there. You have to follow your purpose and your joy, even if you don't know where the path is. And if you don't know where the path is to begin with, you have to look for it. You can become the writer you want to be. You can go into the next year with excitement, instead of trepidation.
Okay, enough of that. Go figure this out.
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