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

Like with any other job, sometimes a girl can get a little tired. A little overwhelmed.

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. 

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.

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.

In Conclusion...

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. 

Leah Rhyne

Column by Leah Rhyne

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami May 30, 2014 - 9:13am

I've actually found ways to keep coming up with new concepts for stories, by fleshing out the core concept from poems I write.

Often I might take a break from fiction, to relax with poetry. And then from that poem comes a new story idea.

But an idea is just an idea, the problem is how to flesh out this idea without feeling like the story has already been told like a lot of discovery writers seem to have.

I don't know the answer, I just know what works for me.

Often my writers block comes from straying from the original theme.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. May 30, 2014 - 9:46am

I don't know the answer, I just know what works for me.

Ditto, for sure. I love the idea of sharing what works for us, though, because maybe, somewhere down the line, it'll help someone else. :D

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami May 30, 2014 - 10:39am

I decompress an Aesop. Think about a moral your parents always taught you, and even if you agree with it in theory, find an exception and base a character around that.

That helps me formulate a character arc. I usually thinking of the ending as an epitaph, and then plot the story around several riddles.

Sanbai's picture
Sanbai from the Midwest is reading The War of Art May 31, 2014 - 9:53pm

I...thanks. Thanks for writing this. A vacation. Maybe I should relax a little and just let the next chapter's ending float up...

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore June 1, 2014 - 1:26am

I've always thought forcing yourself to write even when you don't feel like it is bad advice, that the discouraging feelings over the crap results are more harmful than a lack of productivity. But at the same time, I also thought that's what separated the pros from folks like me: that they could still achieve quality results even when they didn't feel like it. I take too much pride in the prose, and with so many other creatively productive outlets, forcing bad writing is a waste of energy for me.

Funny enough, I took my very first vacation to New York specifically to write, and the change in culture and scenery worked wonders at the time. Good to hear you're back on track.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami June 1, 2014 - 8:55pm

Well to be fair I''m the same way too. I truly can't write fiction, when I just don't feel like it.

I notice sometimes they will creep up on you, if you notice a spelling or continuity error in the middle of the draft..

For me the emotions in the writing has to be there, I feel like I have to have rhythm in my word choices. Almost like prose as a form of dialogue.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. June 2, 2014 - 6:27am

That's the thing - for me, normally I can push through. I've been doing this about four years now (holy shit!!), and this was the first time I needed to step away and let some things rest. And it worked wonders, like I said...

So maybe I'm not a pro (:-P) but it helped me out a TON to take that break. I think having it time-boxed helped, too...I didn't let the break extend and extend...so that's a big chunk there as well.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list June 3, 2014 - 10:23am

Writing has always been my way of taking a break from my real life. It was something I used as an escape, but when I started looking into doing it professionally... yeah. That sort of sent me into a spiral. It caused me to stress over everything, nothing was ever good enough, and I sent myself into this horrible depression that made me hate the very idea of writing. So, I took a step back. I spent a summer reading and decompressing. I focused on my revamping my curriculum for the up coming school year (my main career is teaching HS English) and went back to writing as more of an escape/hobby. The quality of my writing has improved and I've re-discovered my love of writing. I still hope to publish in the future.

Pressure can cause people to burn out in any facet of life.