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Burnout: A Writer’s Dirty Little Secret

I had another post planned for today, but a comment from a blog reader yesterday got me thinking about that dirty little secret that we all face but no one likes to talk about – Writer’s Burnout. I am a professional writer.  I get paid to write.  I spend my days in front of the computer writing (when I’m not shuttling my kids back and forth to school and activities).  Articles, brochures, strategic plans, website content, books.  You name it, I’ve written it.  I even manage to sneak in some time for my fiction projects on a good day.

When I see friends, family (especially family), even my kids’ teachers at school, the first question I get is, “How’s the writing going? What are you working on?”  When I fill out the forms at my doctor’s office, they always ask for profession.  When you put “Writer” on that little line, it generates interest.  I know for a fact that when my husband writes “Sales Management” on his form, the doctor doesn’t pepper him with questions about the employees he’s managing and how the sales pipeline is looking for this quarter.  But put “Writer” on that line, and you’ll get questions.  I guarantee it.  And once people know that you’re a writer, they always have an easy opening question.

Part of me loves this. It makes me happy that I have a job that fulfills me and a job that is sometimes good for cocktail party conversation.  But it also pains me because…  sometimes I don’t write.  Sometimes I don’t WANT to write.  Sometimes I hate writing.  There I said it.  Sometimes I get burned out, and the last thing I want to do is plop down in front of the computer and write.  And then the guilt kicks in.

The guilt is two-fold for me.  First off, as much as I just admitted that some days I hate writing, that’s not entirely true.  We’re more like “frenemies.”  I love writing, I hate writing, I love to hate writing, I hate to love writing.  Writing is like my third grade pal who always knew just what to say to make me feel great about myself, but in the next breath could reduce me to tears.  Frenemies!  Yep, that’s me and writing when I’m burned out.  There is nothing better than a day when the words are flying onto the page and I make myself laugh or I write a sentence that I want to swirl around in my mouth a few times because it sounds just right.  But, when I’m not doing what I love/hate, I feel guilty.  I feel like I’m letting myself down.  I feel undisciplined.

Here’s the other kicker, I feel like I’m letting other people down when I’m in the midst of writer’s burnout.  Lots of people want to know about your job when you’re a writer, but many people don’t actually think it’s a REAL job.  I don’t go to an office.  I can sit around in my pajamas all day (although that might look a little strange at preschool drop-off). And I may or may not ever get paid for some of the stuff I write. So when people ask, “How’s the writing going?” am I really going to say, “Oh, I’m burned out.  I’ve been watching reality TV and trolling the aisles of Target. I need to refuel.”  Even I roll my eyes at myself when I hear the words, “I need to refuel,” almost come out of my mouth.  So, instead I smile and say, “Oh, I’m juggling a couple of projects right now,” and I try my best to change the subject.  I’m the person with the interesting (albeit, slightly fake) job, and I don’t have a good answer. What hope does that give people with “regular” jobs?

As much as I hate to admit it (and I cringe at the words “need to refuel”), writer’s burnout is very real.  Let’s not confuse this with writer’s block.  I don’t believe in writer’s block.  Even if you are a pro at avoidance mechanisms (which I am), you can always put words on the page.  Unless someone chops off your hands, you can always pound out a few sentences.  (Even then, you could dictate a few words.) They might be uninspired drivel, but they are words nonetheless.  And once your brain is working, more words will come.  You might have to edit and rewrite 20 times instead of five times, but you can always complete a writing session.

Writer’s burnout is different.  Burnout is when you are making the conscious choice to NOT write.  You recognize that you could and should write, but you choose not to.  Why?  Because you are tired, drained, uninspired, unmotivated, lazy – or my personal favorite – passive-aggressively trying to ignore writing because what has writing ever done for you?  (Side note: When writing becomes an animate object against which you are protesting, you’ll know you are in the throws of writer’s burnout.)  And believe me I’ve been there.  But there is hope.  Here are some ways to combat it:

1.  Admit it.  This is the hardest step for me.  Sometimes you have to admit that you’re burned out.  For me this usually begins with a plea to my husband.  “I will pay you one million dollars if you write this article for me.”  This is followed by a lot of pacing and staring at a blank computer screen.  And then finally, after much prodding from my level-headed husband, I am forced to admit that I’m burned out.

2.  Give in to the whims – but set a time limit.  It’s okay to give in to the whims of burnout.  Get your brain to a place where you can admit that watching reruns of House Hunters International for an entire evening doesn’t make you any less of a writer.  Go shopping, eat soft pretzels, prune your rose bush.  BUT… set limits.  The danger of giving in to the whims of burnout is that it’s hard to get back on the work wagon.  After the final sentence on a short project is polished, I give myself two evenings off.  Most of my quality writing takes place before my family gets up or after my kids are in bed.  After that short project is complete I sleep until 7 a.m. for two decadent mornings and I watch television or movies for two decadent evenings.  I still work during the day, but two days off from my workhorse writing sessions seem to recharge me.  After a big project is signed, sealed and the check is received, I usually give myself two full days of whimsy.  Sometimes even a week. No writing is allowed.  I read all the novels that are stacked by my nightstand.  I take myself out to lunch.  I clean my house.  Somehow, a self-imposed hiatus from writing seems to prevent writer’s burnout from creeping up on me.

3.  Writer’s groups.  Writer’s groups or even just writer friends are the AA of a writer’s world.  A group with fellow writers is a safe place where you can admit, “I’m Sara. And I’m suffering from writer’s burnout.  It’s been six days since I’ve written anything.”  Your fellow writers can commiserate, relieve some of that guilt you’re experiencing and even spark new ideas that will get you excited to jump back into your writing.

4.  Read. Reading always recharges me.  When I’m burned out, I literally drink up the words of other writers.  Remember, we were all readers long before we were writers.  Pull out that stack of books that’s been calling to you from under the bed and dive in.  Reading great books makes me want to be a better writer.  And then the little slave driver inside my head makes the valid point that I can’t be a better writer until I start writing again.  The whip is officially cracked and I’m back on the wagon.

Until the next time burnout rears it’s ugly head!

What about you? How do you combat writer’s burnout?

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is a great post! I admire your honesty. Critiquing my friends manuscripts and reading does help me to recharge.

    February 22, 2012
    • I’m so glad you found my blog Aubrie, because now it has introduced me to yours. Congrats on this month’s release of Tundra 37. I hope it does well.

      February 22, 2012
  2. Exercising will often do it for me. Gets my endorphins going so it also serves to fire up my brain again. Right now I am struggling with finding time to fit it all in. My colleague at work is out on leave and even though I only work PT, my projects at work are taking up a lot more of my time and effort. Then you throw in the every day stuff and sometimes it is all just too overwhelming. I am working on a post now, but it takes time to write a longer post and more time to edit and rewrite a good one. I guess the one thing we all wish we had was more time.

    February 22, 2012
    • Amen, a2realhousewife. Even when I get up at 5:15 and don’t go to bed until midnight, I still wish for more hours in the day. I guess we’re all just doing the best with the time that we have. Hang in there at work. Is your colleague’s leave over soon?

      February 22, 2012
      • No, I have two more months to go. I want her to do well as she is a wonderful person and dedicated to her profession, but it is difficult to keep up. Thanks for the encouragement. Luckily, I do have some wonderful college student volunteers to help me out. Too bad I can’t get them to do my grocery shopping. 🙂

        February 22, 2012
    • Excercise is actually one of the best tools I’ve employed too. I agree it must be in the endorphine release of this activity & blood pumping activity. I find that hitting the gym or even brisk walks in my neighborhood that I need to stop & write down amazing thoughts & even continue writing on some of those thoughts. I have found that voice notes on my cell phone can be the most adaptive to either environment, but almost NEVER go to the gym w/o taking some pen & paper & putting it near the workout area(s) that I’m going be in. Certain of one thing, I won’t be wishing I had “jotted that idea down” or told myself “Oh, I’ll remember that…there’s no way I could forget THAT amazing idea” when often that was the case in the past.

      John C Freeman

      February 22, 2012
      • Great suggestion, John. Some of my best ideas come to me when I’m out walking in my neighborhood. A good (and positive) coping mechanism for all of us to remember.

        February 22, 2012
  3. I rest and just don’t write at all until I have to. I cranked out a ton of copy last month before I had hip surgery Feb.6…so I am pooped both mentally and physically. I’m still doing some work, and lining up work, but as for *doing* it…meh. I’ve been FT freelance (and my 2nd NF came out last April) since 2006, for the third time. You do get tired.

    February 22, 2012
    • Congrats on your success as a full-time freelance writer, Caitlin. Your books look fabulous. I’m especially excited to check out Malled. It looks your writing style is right up my alley. I hope your recovery from the surgery goes well. Patience is always the hardest part. Any new book projects in the works? Thanks for stopping by.

      February 22, 2012
  4. that should read NF book…

    February 22, 2012
  5. Part of my job entails I do some technical writing, user manuals, business briefs, contracts etc. I’ve found this really dampens my creative fiction writing. I burnt out right in the middle of NaNoWriMo last year. When it comes to business writing, I never seem to have that problem.

    Once the holidays were over the creative blood began to flow hot again. I’m still getting story down on the page a few times a week, but I’ve been currently spending increasing amounts of personal time writing copy for a series of niche markets.

    It’s like a Jekyll and Hyde situation. I’d like nothing more than to settle in and crank out one great story after another. Creating worlds and people and putting them in dramatic situations, but that clinical monster of business writing keeps rearing it’s ugly head and getting in the way.

    February 22, 2012
    • Sounds like the carreer focus is getting into the way of your passion. I’m not a professional expert or even SME (subject matter expert). This is just my first glance assessment in putting myself into your shoes. For the longest time I used WHATEVER MY CARREER/JOB was as the excuse for not writing on the passionate aspirations that I had. It took NaNoWriMo 2010 to help me find that passionate, self-discipline (forced as it had to be) of writing to discover my inner writer’s ability. Not that I had any doubts of my ability, I just didn’t have any goals/targets to shoot for to seek any tangible writing.

      So take a mix of your business writing’s formal process, deadlines, or other tangibles and set yourself some self-disciplined PASSIONATE writing goals. Use the writing as a “therapy” reward to your JOB AS A WRITER and maybe it will help you rediscover yourself as a writer & keep your professional/business writing from becoming a negative perspective in your life too.

      Clinical Monsters are just childish developments of our writer’s minds. We all need to turn on the lights & listen to our mother’s words, “there are no such things as CLINICAL monsters”.

      God bless,
      John C Freeman

      February 22, 2012
  6. Sara,

    As I read your blog-post, “A Writer’s Dirty Little Secret”, I totally identified with all the listed symptoms. I had pretty much already self-diagnosed this as my problem, but as I read your words & began to read the bold, numerized items at the bottom I suprised both of us even further in aspiring (in my own writer’s burnout) to write a reply/comment that began, “Hello, my name is… I’m a Writer Suffering from Burnout” in true AA admittance style. Funny how a mere 7 lines later in your written words you referred to the same analogy.

    I haven’t got any major revelational insights to writing or overcoming those challenges that we all face. I’m simply a one-timer; self-published author whom has a passionate aspiration of completing a book series that should pretty much write itself. The problem with my writer’s burnout & most likely every writer’s burnout is the one thing we all can control/can’t control; our self or lack thereof self-discipline.

    Thank you for your admittance & the coping mechanisms, preventive measures, & redirective tools you listed. Some of these are things I aleady have in my arsenal, but am not effectively using or only partially employing. I’m my own self-destruct mechanism. Failure isn’t something I want to experience & I guess most of my subconcious control of that reality is to prevent the attempt.

    BUT…I want to experience the passionate attempt. As much as I hate to revise 20 times versus 5 times, I know that is what I need. Writing is something that I know is a calling on my life. I’m just another modern day proverbial, Jonah & the Whale; writing being my Nineveh. So thank you for being aboard the ship en route to Tarshish; maybe even the captain of that vessle (though I reserve this position to God/the Holy Spirit, directing you & others in my life recently). As I continue to pray through the recovery process & actively put into practice the things that you’ve preached, I humbly thank God & you for inspiring me to resolve not to allow Writer’s Burnout to become that passive-aggresive force in my life.

    If this were a greeting card for a fellow writer in true THANK YOU fashion, it would have been shorter. BUT…it’s not. It might have benefitted you & others in not passing it by if it were shorter or had better plot development, spell/grammar check, or even literary device revision/review aspects used too, but its just my personal signature of gratitude & prolonged procrastination device that I’ll “write-off” as justifying this as a writer’s session practice device of expressing myself; one I know will never face the editor’s cut or sales/marketing review critcism that even one-time, self-published authors get in response to any reference of “I’m a writer”.

    Thank you & God bless,
    John C Freeman

    February 22, 2012
    • Wow, John. Thank you for a wondeful letter. As I said, sometimes other writers are the best support group. I look forward to hearing more about the next book in your series. Writer’s Burnout will pass. And don’t forget that you had it in your to complete the first book. You’ve accomplished the hardest task – finishing a book. You’ve run the marathon successfully. So don’t ever let yourself forget that you can do it again… and again. Thanks again for stopping by my corner of the blogosphere. Enjoy your breaktime/burnout to the fullest and Happy Writing when you do return to it completely.

      February 22, 2012
  7. The whole series is laid out on the website. I encourage anyone (scratch that EVERYONE) to go check it/them out. I’ve even got a webstore set-up; books *of course*, coffee mugs & business cards for the book series/book ministry (as I often pay reference to God in this manifestation in my life).

    As a self-published author, marketing/sales, product design & product line development all come with the turf. Success is partnered with failure, but the lessons & rewards all go hand-in-hand in true “The Good, the bad; the ugly-Clint Eastwood” fashion. Just roll a tooth pick around in my mouth & squint my crows foot, cornered eyes & you’ve got the mental picture. You gotta have a resolve that you’re going to face that high-noon shoot out & walk away victorious as the better “word slinger” than the opponent you face; writer’s burnout.

    AGAIN, Sara, thank you for stepping on my toes along with your own on this subject matter.

    John C. Freeman

    February 22, 2012
  8. Sarah,
    I have writer’s burnout when I have set unrealistic goals and have jam packed my week. It seems hopeless at times and I am already exhausted but I know I’ll need to stay up late or drag myself out of bed in the morning to get it done. I usually get through this by trying to get to higher ground and writing a list of things I need to do, starting with the smaller tasks first in order to build momentum and get into the “writing groove”. I know I need to do this when I find myself picking at my writing like it’s the last thing in the fridge and I’ve no desire to eat it.


    February 24, 2012

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