As I often say when I begin these posts, it’s been a while since I put something together for this blog. Why? Because rather than talking about writing, I’ve taken to heart the idea that you must write instead of speaking about or dissecting the act of writing. There are tons of blogs about writers and the issues of being a writer, but the time put into them takes away from the act of creation. Still, every once in a while, a post about what is going on, what projects I’m up to, and insights into the writing process come across my desk and I think “Hey, when the hell did I update this blog last?!”
Since I started freelancing for Tor.com (one of the best gigs in the world by the way), I’ve had less time to do my own blogging, but I want today to talk about something very important. I want to talk about burnout.
People use that term all the time: burnout. Being fried. Running out of juice. Whatever you call it, writers and creative types talk about being too burnt out to work, unable to come up with any kind of ideas to go forward. I, like other people, have experienced this from time to time. Usually, something will snap me out of it and I will go on about my work without a problem. But lately, I was having a problem. I hit a patch of funk so deep there was no way out of it and I didn’t know what was wrong. And here’s the crazy part: it started when I started getting successful.
I’m not talking like I’ve sold a book kind of successful (though please holy baby snow leopards let that happen sometime soon). I’ve been blessed lately with several opportunities to work on amazing projects that are fulfilling and challenging and that are giving me the opportunity, as a writer, to stretch my legs and try new mediums with new people. It’s been exciting, and difficult, but overall it’s been a wonderful experience. All of this work, however, has put my life at a very hectic pace. As I’m on disability from my job, I’ve been getting up in the morning, doing a little eating, watching a bit of television, and then writing. I sit in front of my laptop for hours at a time and try to write. And for a while, the whole process was working. I was producing a lot of work.
Over time, it stopped working. I started to slow down in productivity. The work I was producing was getting worse. And my deadlines would get closer, which would mean I would have to rush to get things done. My anxiety started to climb over the feasibility of getting things done and when I would squeak past deadlines, I would barely take a break afterwards before diving back into my work. Eventually, the anxiety became so crippling that I woke up one morning this past week unable to look at my laptop. There was no way, I told myself, that I could get all my work done. There was no chance, I thought, that I could even create anything that could be successful. It became a deep, dark hole of scary depression that I did not want to dance down. I didn’t have a choice — the monkey on my back that writers seem to inherit took me for that ride.
Today was the worst, however. I woke up this morning having slept for nearly twelve hours. I had been unable to sleep the night before due to my anxiety and when I woke up, it was evening. I was confused by the weird sleep schedule, stressed by the work I’d not been doing all day, and furious at myself for getting into this funk to begin with.
In a tizzy I wrote on Facebook “Hates being slowed down due to not ‘feeling up to’ something. It’s vague and hard to describe but no less the case.” And a friend of mine replied that she explained that feeling as the need to recharge.
And I sat back and thought: well, shit. This is it. I’ve worked myself into a burnout.
The fact is, her comment reminded me that I hadn’t done anything to recharge my batteries in weeks. Sure, I’d watch some television and I’d rest. But mostly, I was working. And when I wasn’t working, I was focused on working. I would go out and have lunch with my father, and be thinking about all the work I had to do. And I’d go out to see friends, and be worrying about what I could be doing at home at my laptop. I would eschew going out for events because I had to write things that were on deadline, because I had projects to complete. I had turned aside tabletop roleplaying opportunities, chances to go out to do fun things even by myself, all because I had these projects. And the stress of that kind of pressure I was putting on myself to perform was destroying not only my love of my work, but my actual capability to produce. I had removed the things that recharged my life and let me enjoy what I was doing.
So I forced myself out of the house. I went to see some friends for karaoke. And sure, for a little bit, I was thinking about the projects on my desk. I thought about the chapters in my novel that needed revision, the prep for the upcoming gaming convention in a few weeks that wouldn’t work itself out. And then, two friends of mine showed up and announced their engagement. And I remembered that life comes before work and that life is as important as the legacy of writing I’m going to put out into the world. I promptly forgot my work for a little while and focused on the night ahead of me. In the end, I had a marvelous time.
In the cab home, I spoke with one of the women who was at the party. She had a game idea she wanted to write. And when I started to talk to her about game design and writing, I felt that old spark of creative fire I had before. I remembered why I enjoyed doing this. And I remembered that chaining myself to my computer wasn’t going to help me find inspiration for my work. I couldn’t slave-drive myself to get results. My writing could not be whipped out of me and there is a difference between enforcing discipline in my craft and punishing myself with some kind of self-imposed creative forced march. Somewhere, I would start to hate my work and I had to remember that life had more than just eating, sleeping and writing.
Recharging is any little thing that helps light you up inside. Whether that’s reading or going out walking or playing with cats or seeing your friends or going to a show. Whatever it is, it needs to be done to keep the creative juices flowing. Otherwise you start to get frustrated, the taps close and you’re suddenly wondering why the faucet of creative ideas just started turning into the barest trickle. To be a good writer, you need to take care of you. Get up, take breaks, and don’t forget that the rest of the world exists.
Lesson learned. I’m taking tomorrow to hang with my best friend and tonight, before I go to bed, I’m catching up on some of my favorite graphic novel right now (B.P.R.D.) before I get some decent sleep. I’m going to do chores in the morning and when I sit down to work, I’m going to make sure it’s after I’ve stretched and gotten some sunlight. Bizarre as it might sound, I’m going to try looking after myself more and hope that encourages my muse, or my daemon as Elizabeth Gilbert likes to call them, will look after me. I write this in the hope that, anyone out there feeling the same in their work might see the similarities in my experience and heed perhaps the call for self-care. We have ourselves to look after as custodians of our work. Let’s take the time to do it.