Columns > Published on May 10th, 2012

You’ll Never Write In This Town (Or Any Other Town) Again! 5 Ways To Survive and Overcome Creative Burnout.

In November of 2010, I was laid off from my job of six years along with one thousand of my former co-workers. The layoff didn’t exactly come as a shock. I’d been living with the specter of possible job loss for over a year; my immediate supervisors made sure to remind everyone that if we didn’t work harder than we ever had before, the company would have no choice but to start looking for ways to cut costs. And as with most American corporations, it wouldn’t be management who would take a pay cut in order to save jobs.

When the layoffs finally came, it was a shock. My wife and I had prepared somewhat for the eventuality of me losing my job, but much like the death of a parent, you can never truly steel yourself from such an event. In all honesty, when it all finally came down, it was a bit of a relief; I would no longer have to suffer through the daily threats; I would no longer wake up at 2:30 in the morning riddled with anxiety, wondering if today would be the day that I was escorted out of the building carrying a small box of mementos I had collected over the past years.

It was also a relief, because honestly, I’d lost all passion for the day job. I’d spent the three years prior to the layoff simply going through the motions. Yes, I wanted the paycheck and benefits that went along with having stable employment, but in the same breath, my career as a writer was beginning to take off. I’d published, at this point, over one hundred short stories; I was co-publishing a popular e-zine, and putting out a ton of reviews and interviews. I was on a creative roll and getting way more satisfaction from writing than from the day job.

But when the comfort of the job was yanked away, I creatively froze up. The stress of not having any money coming in locked me up. Thankfully my job search was short lived and I had a new job within three weeks. But now I had to learn the ins and outs of my new job, and this in turn created more stress, and I spent another three weeks not putting a single word to paper.

I kind of found a groove again, but the year wasn’t done with me and as 2011 ramped up, things seemed to move in fast forward. I should mention that none of the changes I was going through—moving into a new house (and because the house was a stripped bare foreclosure, making the house habitable before we moved in), becoming a landlord, traveling—were negative things; they were life changes, nothing more, nothing less. But they were time consuming life changes. I managed to keep my shit together and stick with my daily word count, but by the time October of 2011 came around, I froze up again, and this time it went on for nearly six months.

Every time I sat down at the computer, I’d stare at the screen, and every idea I tried to flesh out seemed hackneyed and warmed over. Even the nonfiction I was writing seemed unoriginal, uninspired. In the first two months, I thought that all of this would pass. That I would sit down one night and an idea would pop into my head that would get me rolling again. Better yet, I figured I needed to give myself a break, and after the holidays I’d feel a little more relaxed.

This didn’t happen.

Next I tried forcing myself to write, which ended up being a huge mistake. Because all forcing myself to write did was depress me and further reinforce the idea that I was creatively done. The months cruised along, I became complacent, letting myself slip further and further away from my hard and fast work ethic, and this in turn pissed me off enough to get my ass in gear and refocus my efforts. But first I had to come up with a plan, or multiple plans to get myself past the burnout hump.

#1: De-clutter and De-stress

I put these two together because mental clutter is a major cause of stress whether you realize it or not.

Do you have nights when you simply have to reach that next level of Medal of Honor? Or you just have to watch that next episode of Madmen or Game of Thrones? Or read through to the next chapter even if the chapter is a fifty page crawl? Do you just have to check in on Facebook or Twitter to see if the tea party idiot you've been feuding with has responded to your last comment?

If you've answered yes to at least two of these things, chances are you're adding way too much undo stress to your writing life.

When I took a look at how I was spending my free time (and, yes, I actually started timing myself) I found that I was spending the bulk of my time watching TV, fucking around on social media or gaming on my iPad. In fact, all three of these things were sucking away well over an hour of my two hours of nightly writing time. How I solved the problem was simple enough: I turned off the TV, I shut down the internet and started stashing my phone. I know this sounds a bit extreme, but at the point I was at, extreme measures were what I needed.

#2: Learn to Say No

When you're a young writer, you'll say yes to just about anything that will promote your writing. You'll guest blog, participate in flash fiction challenges, conduct and participate in e-mail interviews. By saying yes, you're proving yourself as a producer, the type of writer who can be counted on to deliver a quality story or blog post.

The whole problem with constantly saying yes is this: Eventually you're going to find yourself working on a long project, and e-mail invitations are going to keep rolling in; things that at one point you considered absolutely vital to your career, but now all these opportunities are doing for you is cluttering up your time and diverting your energies, and suddenly your project is going to seem farther and farther away from completion; even worse, you find yourself juggling so many small projects that your focus goes out the door.

This was/is the biggest obstacle for me to overcome. The crime fiction community is a small one, and you tend to get to know everyone on one level or another. You become friends with most and you don't want disappoint these friends by saying no. But the one thing to remember is that these friends aren't made of glass. They're going to understand if you have other things going on; most of them will thank you for your time, and move on to the next writer. And if they do happen to get upset, fuck 'em, you didn't need them around to begin with.

#3: Write Outside Of Your Comfort Zone

This has been the easiest transition for me, and the one thing which has managed to jumpstart my fiction writing. When you’ve churned out 300,000 or 400,000 words in the same genre for a five year stretch, you occasionally need to break away from what you’re writing. So I started working on SF and urban fantasy stories, stories that would be considered contemporary fiction. Has what I’ve been producing good? Not necessarily, but then again, I tend to take the Hemingway attitude towards writing:

I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.

And really, that’s the best you can hope for.

#4: Change When, How, and Where You Write

This has been another easy fix for me. The when and where isn’t really an issue for me because I have the same set hours of time in which to write, but how I write is a different story. I’ve always been a keyboard guy. I started writing in high school on an old portable typewriter and I love the feel of my fingers striking the keys. The whole thing was that I had zero desire to sit in front of a computer, so I switched over to writing in a notebook. Doing the bulk of my writing in a notebook has slowed down the process of completing a first draft considerably, but rewrites have become a breeze. Overall, this particular change has been a positive one.

#5: Find Moral Support

Due to the solitary nature of writing, this one has been the toughest for me. It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, but I’m not exactly the touchy-feely type. I’m not one to open up freely about my feelings or even something as simple as the day-in-day-out process of writing. Fortunately, I’m married, and Mrs. Rawson doesn’t mind hearing me bitch and complain about how my latest project is going or about what difficulties I’m having. I also have a small group of writer friends who don’t mind letting me bend their ear from time-to-time with my anxiety ridden bullshit. But for most writers, they don’t have this kind of support system. Most writers soldier through their difficulties alone, but this is why social media and forums like LitReactor are so beneficial, because at the very least it allows writers to reach out to others and let them know they’re not alone in the wilderness.

Conclusion

It goes without saying that these five things aren’t exactly hard and fast rules when it comes to snapping yourself out of a stubborn case of burnout. The creative process is different for everyone, so breaking yourself out of bad habits is going to be different, too. But there are a couple of universal truths that I’ve realized during this long period of close to zero productivity:

A) Writing’s a job—it’s a fun job, the kind of job you have zero beef with going into every day, but it’s a job nonetheless, and some days, you’re just going to want to call in sick, stay in bed until noon, and then watch movies for the rest of the day. And it’s okay to do this once in a while, but if you do it every day for weeks at a time, just like the job that keeps a roof over your head and food in the fridge, eventually the job is going to get sick of you and fire your dead ass. It’s also okay to realize that just like every job, there are going to be days where you flat out hate it.

B) All writers, every single last one of us, are riddled with self-doubt. And no matter how confident you are in your skills as a storyteller, that self-doubt is going to start rearing its ugly little head and muddy up what you’re writing. And I think more than anything else, self-doubt is the writers greatest weakness; the one thing that can drive us to our knees and make us not want to do our jobs, and it’s absolutely unavoidable.

I will say that I’m doing much better now since I’ve made the changes to my writing habits. I’m back to writing every day, although I’m not back to churning out a thousand words a day like I was before, and I’m okay with this. Chances are, I’ll burnout again (hopefully not for a long time, though) and I’m okay with this, too, because at least I’m better equipped at handling it. What matters most, however, is that I’m writing, and when it comes down it, I love this fucking job and I don’t want it to go anywhere.

Image via Varunimproved

About the author

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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