Rarely spoken of but universally experienced, burnout is probably the reason the statistics about writers look so bad. Hundreds start writing, dozens make it to submission, and only a few end up getting published—and much of that elimination process is actually self-selection: the “strong” survive, while the “weak” gradually fade from the pool.
It’s that binary there that’s sticky, though. What makes one writer strong, while another writer is weak? General wisdom says that writers write, and a successful writer is one who never stops writing, not even for birthdays and national holidays. And if you get sick? Well, sit down, shut up, and write about it, because writers write, damn it, and that’s how you can tell who is serious about this work. If you’re not serious, well, you’d better go home, because you won’t make it if you don’t treat it like Serious Business.
There’s some truth in it. Publishing is serious business, and if you don’t recognize that, you probably won’t get very far. But the ‘never complain, never quit’ attitude might be hurting us as much as it helps us. In the last year, I’ve seen several writer friends disappear off the face of the internet. I’ve had friends leave publishing altogether. I’ve had others get seriously sick or seriously depressed, and I’m sure there are still more I don’t know about because they haven’t publicly admitted that they’re struggling.
I’ll say it here: I’ve struggled.
The last year has been incredibly difficult for me, career-wise. And it was no picnic in the six months before that. I stepped back from blogging, I went quiet on Twitter, and I started wondering if all this heartache and struggle was what I actually wanted.
It is, but it’s taken me awhile to realize that. And recovering from burnout is a process, not an event: I have yet to magically wake up one morning and say, “Ah-ha! I feel good about my creative life once again!”
But I’m reaching the point where I want to write again. I realized recently that I miss writing, and I found myself thinking about a new character’s life choices, wondering why she wants to make the choice that will instigate a whole new book. In short, I was tending tiny plants that will, one day very soon, become a towering tree of a project—and I’d planted the seeds, without knowing it, in the dark winter of my burnout.
So how did it happen? Well, I’m not an expert, and I’m certainly not fully recovered yet, but I have noticed a few things that have helped me start to recover.
1. Put a timeline on it. Tell yourself, “I’m on vacation from writing (or a particular project, or a friendship that’s troubling you, or WHATEVER) until X date. I won’t do it, think about it, or feel guilty about not doing it or thinking about it until that time.” And then hold yourself accountable. Whether that date is one day or one year from now, give yourself that time to actually recover. Don’t spend your free time worrying about how much you’re not getting done.
2. Cultivate another part of your identity. One trouble with recovering from writing burnout is that, as writers, BEING a writer is such a big part of our identity. It’s not just what we do, it’s who we are. And if we’re not writing, we’re not just failing as a writer, we’re Failing with an emphasis on that capital F. We’re neglecting a vital part of our selfhood, so that when we do take time off, we feel adrift. But the truth is, each of us is much more than a writer: we’re friends and lovers and painters and bikers and who knows what else. Take your time off to develop some aspect of yourself that makes you happy. Discover another side of yourself.
3. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t beat yourself up for not writing. And don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up about writing. The key here is to cherish yourself in your time off. Take time to do things you might not do when you’re not on vacation from writing: take a bubble bath when you get home from work. Do yoga in the morning when you’d normally be writing. Go to a movie on Saturday instead of staring at a blank white screen. Actually use the time you now have to recuperate and relax, and don’t just use the time to make yourself feel worse.
Those are the things that have helped me. Have you experienced burnout? And if so, how did you recover?