Earlier this year, I wrote the entire first draft of 700 Main in just under six weeks. And then I experienced the most vicious case of writer’s burnout that I’ve ever had.
I’d set strict and ambitious daily word count goals, and not only was I writing for my day job from 9-5, but then I would work on my story for several hours each evening.
Then you add my blog, promoting my author presence on social media, going to the gym, freelance work, friends, family, pets…
Yes, I accomplished my goal. But I was so tired and dispassionate that I couldn’t even enjoy my success. I was to the point where all I wanted to do was throw my book out the window and never look at it again.
Burnout is bound to happen. And if you are experiencing it, the most important thing to remember is YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
But understanding the what, why, how of burnout can help to formulate a plan to treat and recover.
What is burnout?
The best metaphor I’ve found to explain this phenomenon is a race car that runs out of gas. You’re going, going, going, flying around the track, and then all of a sudden, your engine sputters and your car rolls to a stop.
Writer’s block is a different beast altogether. You’re looking at the page, and the words just won’t come. You have no idea how to put what’s floating in your head on the actual page.
With burnout, you have the all words and ideas, but you are so tired and overwhelmed that you can’t bear the thought of sitting down to work. Eventually your body can’t keep up with your brain, and writing becomes more of an obligation as opposed to something fun.
Burnout typically results from a few different things that tend to all tie together:
- Fast paced lives
These days, we have so much going on and are pulled in so many different directions. So when life interferes and you become overwhelmed in one area of your life, it’s easily transferred to your writing as well.
- High levels of stress
Everyone is dealing with a certain amount of stress – whether from external sources or from yourself – and stress is the ultimate enemy of creativity.
- Overly ambitious goals
Like I mentioned earlier, I set a goal to fast draft 700 Main by writing 2K words each day. That’s a lot, especially while working a full time job and juggling other priorities. Did I do it? Yes. Did such an aggressive plan contribute to my burnout? Absolutely.
When you have a scene playing in your head, it rarely comes out as perfectly when you write it down. And that can be so frustrating that you want to give up.
See the common thread? It all really had to do with mental health and being centered. But when your mind starts to tire, your body follows, leading to both physical and emotional symptoms.
- Weary and teary eyes
- Severe physical and mental exhaustion
MENTAL & EMOTIONAL:
- Brain pain (yes this is different from a headache)
- Lack of inspiration, passion and/or motivation
- Memory problems
- Decrease in work quality
- Tension in your personal life (ie. bailing on friends, skipping the gym, drinking an entire bottle of wine in one night…)
I cannot stress enough the importance of taking a break. But there are right and wrong ways to go about this, and ultimately, you need to plan your break to get back in the game when you can.
So give yourself a deadline. You get a week off or two weeks or a month. Whatever you need, but mark that date on your calendar and stick with it. During that break, focus on recovering and fill it with healthy and fun activities:
- Get some rest. Sleep is so important here. Use the first few days of your break to really rest up and get your mind firing on all cylinders.
- Take care of your health. Eat better, hit the gym. Get your body feeling good again!
- Read! Anything you can get your hands on it. Read all those books you’ve had on your list and haven’t had time to crack open.
- Decompress. Quiet time to meditate and reflect can be so helpful when burnt out. It can be over your morning cup of tea, right before bed or anytime in between. But just take a few minutes to pay attention to your mental and physical state. Soon, you will see your energy starting to heal.
- Stay away from social media. I can’t explain why but social media creates such an unhealthy feeling of comparison and guilt when I am not writing. People don’t typically share toils and troubles on social, only rainbows and success. While not writing, this is just going to sink you back into burnout’s depression.
- Free-write! Don’t work on whatever project led to your burnout, but if you feel up to it, choose a random writing prompt or just jot down a few ideas. Let those creative juices start to flow again.
- The plate trick. If writing isn’t the only area of your life where you’re feeling overwhelmed, check out this method for getting a few things off your plate.
- Change your scenery. If you can take a little vacation, I’d strongly recommend it, but sometimes that’s just not possible. So if you can’t get out of town, at least get away from your desk and go to a coffee shop to work. You’d be surprised how much this might help.
- Do something unrelated to writing that you enjoy. Get a massage, go bowling, paint a picture. Anything!
- Prioritize your social life. Writers often isolate themselves, but isolation will just make your burnout even harder to treat. Make plans with your friends and family and let them distract you from your writing woes.
And when your break is over and you ready to get back in the writing routine, be sure to ease your way back into it. Maybe instead of 2,000 words per day, you focus on 500. Or try your hand at editing for a while. But writer’s burnout is a disease that can easily relapse, so be sure to continue to take care of yourself.
Living with burnout
As you can see above, there are multiple ways to treat writer’s burnout, and I probably have missed quite a few. The most important thing though is to do whatever you have to do to fall in love with your story again and remind yourself that you really do love to write. And a major plus is that your writing is most like going to be better and more productive after you’ve dealt with your burnout.
So don’t feel guilty for taking a break, for taking care of yourself. Eventually inspiration will strike again. But you have to make sure your body and mind are ready for it.