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?