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

Keith Rawson

Column by Keith Rawson

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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Comments

alisia's picture
alisia from Byron, NY is reading The Goldfinch by: Donna Tartt May 10, 2012 - 8:40am

I'm going through my own doldrums right now. This post really comforted me and confirmed what I know I need to do. I write for pay, but I've allowed myself to become inundated with projects. I'm miserable, feel alone and keep doing shit that distracts me from my tasks at hand. Even reading this I was escaping a product review that I needed to finish an hour ago to stay on schedule. I'm going to go back to it, with the renewed sense that this job is important to me. I'm also going to stop dicking around on social media. Thanks for that!

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones May 10, 2012 - 8:49am

Alisia - Social media is my biggest downfall as a writer. I work as a social media manager, so I'm literally on FB, Twitter, Linkedin, Tumblr, Wordpress, etc., all day and it can be a pain in the ass to shut it down after the work day's over, which is why I shut the internet down after five of six at night just so I can get some work done. I know it's a struggle, but you can do it.

TommySalami's picture
TommySalami from New Jersey is reading Killing Floor, by Lee Child May 10, 2012 - 9:15am

Great advice, Keith. It does work. What works for me is to set aside a few hours where I always write. Lunch hour, and after my evening walk. That's writing time, always. It gets your mind right.

Nick Wilczynski's picture
Nick Wilczynski from Greensboro, NC is reading A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin May 10, 2012 - 9:16am

Great article.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones May 10, 2012 - 9:40am

Tommy - I tried the lunch hour thing, and because there's so much writing and editing at the dayjob, (I write and edit 4-to-6 blog posts a day) I actually need my lunch hour to decompress.

Renato Bratkovič's picture
Renato Bratkovič from Slovenia is reading Noir fiction May 10, 2012 - 9:35am

It's a great post, thanks! :)

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson May 10, 2012 - 9:59am

Very brave of you, Keith, telling us your slump started right when we hired you...

Jen Todd's picture
Jen Todd is reading your lifeline and all signs are good May 10, 2012 - 10:02am

I like the tenor of your article.  Thanks. =)

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones May 10, 2012 - 10:08am

Josh - Ha! Trust me, there was no direct corelation between the two.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 10, 2012 - 10:18am

Thanks for B.

Monica Fay's picture
Monica Fay from Los Angeles is reading The Satanic Verses May 10, 2012 - 10:53am

Great article. I think changing things up is a huge key in getting the writing flow going again- I know this because I do it all of the time. 

Switching writing to a notebook is very effective for me. I try to write on my computer a lot because it is just easier than writing by hand then rewriting again on google docs but my words flow better when I have a pen to paper. I try to go back and forth. 

The only thing I disagree with, and this might be because I function a little differently, is #5 Find Moral Support. 

For some reason, when I have too much encouragement, when someone is praising me or telling me to keep writing, keep it up, "you're doing great, I love your stuff", I immediately shut down on the inside even though I am beaming on the outside. I write best when everyone has forgotten me, my blog isn't being talked about or when I am told I can't do something.  It immediately fuels my creativity when someone tells me I am not capable of something or I hear "no". 

Thank you for the following:

"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 can't tell you how much this absolutely hit home. I get anxiety about my writing, even when it is getting a ton of traffic or positive feedback. I often feel like I am the only one who is doubting myself, that all other writers have it come out so easily.  This is why I decided I hate  Stephenie Myers who wrote Twilight. Not because of the content or writing style, but because in an interview she said she never planned on being a writer, the idea just came to her and that she completed the entire thing in a matter of a couple of months, no sweat.   This was absolutely maddening to hear and I don't believe it is true, but it bothered me. For someone to have that success, to have what so many writers are trying so hard to achieve, and then say it came so easily, quickly and that they never had that goal is not only a lie but it is a defeating thing to hear. 

 

Anyway, enough of that. Thank you for the post! 

 

It Isn't Slutty If You're Wearing Pearls blog

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones May 10, 2012 - 11:13am

Monica - I didn't mean for #5 to come off as a dick sucking session, I'm not into that either. When and if I send something I'm working on to a friend, I want honest feedback. (Honestly, I rarely send out to 'first readers'.) What I meant was that all of us need someone who we can bitch and complain to. Sometimes there's a real benefit to getting shit off your chest.

And with self-doubt, I know guys and gals who've been working writers for 20 plus years and still have the same anxieties about their work that they were having when they were first starting out. Unfortunately, I don't think that ever goes away.

EdVaughn's picture
EdVaughn from Louisville, Ky is reading a whole bunch of different stuff May 10, 2012 - 7:48pm

Great post. I've been feeling a lot of self-doubt lately and have been unmotivated. This was very helpful and inspiring.

misterwoe's picture
misterwoe from Kansas but living in Athens, Greece is reading Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer, A Wolverine is Eating My Leg by Tim Cahill May 11, 2012 - 5:07am

Great write-up, Keith. I'm curious to know more about how writing long-hand as helped your rewrites, making them 'a breeze.'

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 11, 2012 - 5:35am

I'm a border line megalomaniac and I have self doubt to the point I almost can't do this. I don't see how a sane/normal person can write anything worth reading.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones May 11, 2012 - 6:44am

@misterwoe - doing line edits in a notebook is a hell of a lot easier than printing off a manuscript. Plus when you're typing out the text it's giving me a third chance to look at what I've written. For me, it's simplified the process and has shortened the amount of time I spend in front of a computer.

@Dwayne - Most novelists are the sanest people you'll probably ever meet. You have to remember, being a writer is a job. It's a fun, creative job, but when you do it day-in-day out, your ego tends to go out the door.

Teri Skultety's picture
Teri Skultety from California May 11, 2012 - 10:41am

Thanks so much for this. Just so many things in this article that are helpful.

 

I do wonder though, does most everyone write on some kind of schedule? I've long struggled with this. I used to write everything out longhand and in recent years switched to the keyboard, but have found that maybe not to be the most productive. Editing was easier with those notebooks write there.

 

#5) Moral Support ~ "but I'm not exactly the touchy- feely type."

 

It could be worse, sensitive Bull in a China shop. Try finding a cheerleader for that, ( or even anyone who will listen. Kudos to Mrs. Rawson.)

 

Great article, thanks for sharing it. It kind of says, "Ways to Get Your Shit Together" only nicer.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones May 11, 2012 - 11:14am

Kathryn - "Get Your Shit Together, Asshole" was actually the working title of the column, but Josh and Dennis asked me to change it. ;)

I work on a schedule because I don't have a choice in the matter. I have a day job, wife, kid, a couple of houses, and a whole bunch of other stuff that demands my attention all day, so I have two-to-three hours (Four on Friday and Saturdays, and typically 5-to-6 hours on Sundays.) a night to get things done, and if I don't utilize those hours, then I don't get any writing done.

Some folks can write willy-nilly and a strict schedule just doesn't work for them.  But I need to have the schedule in order to keep myself focused, otherwise I'm all over the board.

Teri Skultety's picture
Teri Skultety from California May 12, 2012 - 9:49pm

"Get Your Shit Together, Asshole" would have worked too, if nothing else it would have attracted all of the "Is he talking about me?" narcissicists among us. 

 

Hadn't thought about it but I guess I wrote my first book ( however unpublished, it's poetry and short stories from waaay long ago) on a schedule of sorts, from about midnight until two a.m. every day, for all of those kinds of reasons, real world to uphold. That was truly exhausting, though, maybe it was more productive. 

Bravo, on that then!

Americantypo's picture
Americantypo from Philadelphia is reading The Bone Clocks May 12, 2012 - 7:05am

This is a good article. I've been having problems the last two weeks writing anything I liked. The issue is I keep becoming overwhelmed by the number of choices I have to make with a character/story, and freeze up. Used to be I'd just let the story go where it's supposed to but now it's like staring at a menu with a thousand options for the kind of... ugh, I can't even decide on a metaphor. Ha ha.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 12, 2012 - 12:12pm

Don't worry if it sucks. Just write, you can always trash it.

Teri Skultety's picture
Teri Skultety from California May 12, 2012 - 9:57pm

Americantypo,

Re: Duane is correct on that, just write through it, don't even read it if you think it's no good. Keep writing 'til it passes and take what you think is no good, save it, read it later. You never know, and what doesn't seem good now might inspire something good later. Onward!

( if you can't find a metaphor, just tell the truth, it''s not like something else, it's like what it's like.   'eating the cake was exactly what eating the cake is supposed to be like.' although, that might be genius or...lacking in creativity?)

Write through it.

Zackery Olson's picture
Zackery Olson from Rockford, IL is reading pretty much anything I can get my hands on June 7, 2012 - 10:59am

I may have to delete my Facebook and give my iPhone to somebody for two or three hours of hostage time everyday from now on. I've had this problem going on for longer than I'd like to admit here. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that my university studies are extremely demanding and have almost nothing to do with the creative writing that has been my life's endeavor since the age of twelve. I've tried taking an English class here and there to try to keep myself inspired and give myself a break from the rest of the academic stuff I have going on, but the results have been very minimal at best.

 

I really appreciate you taking the time to write this post Keith. It seems to have come at a time when I most needed the assurance that other writers go through this sort of thing.