Writer Burnout: What To Do When You're Done
I love my job. I do. I'm a writer, and, like I say on Twitter, that means I write things. All kinds of things. I write essays and columns. I write novels. I write articles about the arts scene in Charleston, South Carolina. I go to all kinds of galleries and shows. Once I met with a yoga company and got to play with acrobats. Next week I'm going to an indoor trampoline park with my daughter so I can write about the experience.
It's a great job. There's no doubt in my mind about that.
But...it's still a job. And as such, like with any other job, sometimes a girl can get a little tired. A little overwhelmed. A little stressed and confused and frustrated. And sometimes, a girl can get so utterly burnt out that the thought of sitting down to work makes her want to puke.
Yeah, I'm talking from experience here. So let me tell you what happened, why I think it did, and what I did to get past it, to get back to this crazy writing job I love.
Burnout vs. Writer's Block
As writers, we hear all the time about the dreaded "block." You know: when you sit down to write and nothing comes out? The ideas stop flowing? Oh, man, I haven't run up against that yet, but it sounds awful. I know there've been a million columns written about that topic through the years, so I won't even begin to address what I think I'll do when I hit that eventual reality, but it sounds like a total drag.
Burnout is different. Burnout is when you have too much to do and not enough time to do it. When the stress of your to-write and to-read list weighs you down. It's when you have a bazillion ideas but no clear direction in which to take them. It's when your brain hurts, all the time, and your eyes grow weary and your back grows hunched from too many hours in front of your keyboard.
Burnout's painful in its own special way. The voices in your head (you know — the ones begging you to tell their stories) don't go away. Instead, they grow louder, until they're shouting, incapacitating you, making the physical act of writing impossible because you just need QUIET.
Ever wind up there? If not, I hope you never do.
How'd I Burn Out?
I've been contemplating this question for a while, mainly because I don't want it to happen again. The simple answer to how I burnt out is this: life intervenes.
You see, not only am I a "full-time" writer (i.e. I have no other income-producing job), but I'm also a wife and a mom. As a mom, I've stepped into roles as Soccer Team Mom and Classroom Mom, and as the "friend who works from home," I'm often first on the call-list when a friend's daily childcare plans fall through.
This is all great, and I love all these different roles. I love being able to help my child's class, and my friends. But it can get fairly busy. When my mom/wife jobs get busy, and the work assignments start to pile up, then the work I love the most (writing books!!) begins to fall behind.
I also have really high expectations for myself. As a novelist, I haven't made it yet, not by far. Sure, I have a couple books out, but a few of my other writerly goals keep slipping further and further away along the horizon. I've no agent, no advances, and two books I love and for which I cannot find homes.
In late March/early April, it all came to a head. An agent who had a full manuscript said no. Soccer season picked up, eating up our Saturdays, as did field trip season with my daughter's school. Work assignments got out of hand, with a few freelance articles all coming due in the same week. And finally, to top everything off, I read through the first draft of my third zombie book and the ending sucked! Really! It was awful! One of my main characters was weepy and whiny. Another went balls-out crazy when there was no motivation for it. The story rambled, adding in unnecessary characters and story lines that made no sense whatsoever. I wanted to be done with the series, to put the zombies to bed forever, but instead I faced a lot more time fixing things.
Oh my God, I was miserable. I hit the wall. I never, ever, EVER wanted to sit down at my computer again. But the voices in my head kept begging me to write their stories. Oh well, I thought. Fuck them all. I'm done.
So How'd I Fix It, Since Obviously I'm Still Writing?
Well. When burnout strikes, the best thing to do is to take a finite break. I say this from experience. And with honesty. Because it worked for me.
At first, I tried to plow through. I tried to keep at it. Ray Bradbury said a writer should write every single day, so that's what I tried to keep doing.
It didn't work. I wrote garbage. Drivel. I wrote the kind of stuff that would never see the light of day, and I felt like I was spinning my wheels. Like I was wasting my time.
And it was AWFUL; painful and disheartening. It made me angry. I was ready to quit. Fuck them all, like I said.
One night, I had a meltdown. It was ugly. I cried, whining to my husband that I hated everything, wanted to quit, and would never write again. He looked at me, at the pitiful pile of goo I'd become, and he said, "It sounds like you need a vacation."
"A vacation?" I said. "I can do that?"
He laughed and reminded me that anyone who has a job gets vacation. I was no different. The timing was perfect: we had a trip to New York City coming up two weeks later. So I made a decision: no more writing until after that vacation. Two and a half weeks without worrying about work. I gave myself full permission to ignore the fact that I was a writer for two and a half weeks.
It was the best decision ever. During the two weeks of prep-time, I focused on my family, on our upcoming trip. I shopped for supplies, cleaned the house, packed our stuff, guilt-free since I had no other work to do for once. I didn't even think about writing. I didn't think about that whiny, awful main character. I didn't think about the rambling story-lines or badly written prose. For once the voices in my head shut off and I was able to relax and breathe and not write.
It was beautiful.
When we got to the city, I was still on break. I hadn't thought about my book in ages, nor had I wanted to. But then, it happened while we waited for a subway deep in the bowels of Manhattan. My husband and daughter were playing Rock, Paper, Scissors, as I stared down the subway tunnel, lost momentarily in my thoughts. Thoughts which suddenly took form...and suddenly told me how I should actually end my series. Where, when, and how the characters should actually find their answers. And it was so clear, and so bright, and so perfect.
I spent much of the rest of the weekend planning. The voices were back, telling me exactly what to do, and I loved them. I let myself be inspired by the city, by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park and the filth and grime of the subway system.
I was ready to write again.
On my first day back to work I deleted 30,000 words from the end of my manuscript. I didn't cry as I did it. I didn't mourn the loss of time. I simply...tried to make it better. And suddenly, just like that (snap your fingers there, okay?), I was having fun again.
Life's been busy since, don't get me wrong. The end of the school year and the promise of a summer with my daughter at home certainly has the pressure on to finish this book, once and for all. I still don't have an agent or a book deal for those two presh-us novels. And I've been super-busy, helping to cover a major arts festival here in Charleston.
But I'm having fun again. Sitting down to work is something I want to do again, not something I feel like I have to do. Writing is (for the most part — there are still bad days, but there always will be) what I love.
Well, you know, this is what worked for me. A break, with a definite end. I didn't leave it open; I knew when I was going back to work. I think that gave me the freedom to really relax and regroup.
So. Writer's Burnout. It happens. If writing is your job, you're going to get sick of it. You're going to stress out. You going to get sad and frustrated and angry.
Sometimes, you're just going to need a vacation.
Don't be afraid to do it. Take a break. Give yourself a breather, and I promise: when the time comes to sit back down at your computer/typewriter/notebook, you're going to love it again.
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