Writing burnout. It happens.
Burnout is beyond block. Writer’s block occurs when a blank wall descends in your brain, and you can’t think of anything to say or write. If there is such a condition, it is a mild one. I’ve gone so far to say that it does not exist.
Burnout is a physical condition, one I consider to be real, and it affects the whole body. Headaches. Nausea. Lethargy. Nothin’ doing. Goin’ nowhere. In PJs all day. Maybe not even getting out of bed.
Unfortunately, burnout exists in all professions. The word ‘burnout’ seems to me to identify a form of non-clinical depression that the sufferer – and/or their friends and family – associate with the sufferer’s main, often income-earning, job.
Writing Burnout Tip #1: Name It
You are burnt out when your body halts you in your tracks and says, “I’m not doing another thing until you change what you’re doing to me.”
Your body has had to grab your attention by shutting you down because you missed all the warning signs leading up to the burnout.
If you find yourself asking, “Why is it that, not only can I not write one word after another, I can’t even put one foot in front of the other?”, the next thing to do is to turn your puzzlement around. The question itself is the gateway to answer, “Because I’m burnt out.”
The diagnosis is the first step on the path to wellness, because now you know what to do.
Writing Burnout Tip #2: Unplug
Unplug from the energy-depleting writing activity.
Notice that this tip is a fudge. Your body has already halted you from doing what you were doing. However – and this is important – because you burnt out in the first place, you might be tempted to continue to throw yourself at the activity. (Hey, I know the type, and it takes one to ….)
Know this: your body has told you to stop writing. You need to stop writing what you’ve been writing.
Writing burnout is scary if you’re a professional writer who depends on your writing income to live. It’s even likely your need to pay the bills prompted you to take on too many writing assignments in too short – or over too long – a time. So for me to tell you not to write for some period of time will only make your need for money and your anxiety about it worse.
But you don’t have a choice.
Take a walk. Take a long hot bath. Garden. Play Solitaire. See your friends. Grouse with other writers who are suffering or have suffered burnout.
Do anything except fall into the sinkhole of the Internet. See Creativity, The Web, and The Artist’s Way.
Writing Burnout Tip #3: Keep Writing
Didn’t I just say, “Don’t write”?
Not quite. I said stop doing the energy-depleting writing activity. But you can write all sorts of other stuff.
If you’re a blogger and suffer blogger burnout, write poetry instead. Or journal about your burnout. If you’re a novelist and hit a novel wall, try a children’s book. Or write an op-ed piece on your most passionate political or social topic.
Writing drivel counts as writing. If all else fails, write drivel.
Writing Burnout Tip #4: Put Yourself on the Path to Health
If burnout is a form of temporary, non-clinical depression, then we all know that a good diet and regular exercise are the keys to getting a handle on it. In addition, for writers, the most powerful medicine is reading, reading, reading.
If there’s medical marijuana, why not writing marijuana?
I could see the responsible use of marijuana as a way to treat writing burnout. See 3 Ways Smoking Weed Makes Me a More Successful Writer by Sadie Trombetta.
I don’t have a problem with taking mind-altering drugs. I do have a problem with taking smoke into my lungs. So maybe marijuana brownies would be the way for me to go. However, for my mental creativity and physical health I do yoga.
Writing Burnout Tip #5: Keep a Writing Calendar
This is my most important tip, because it’s the one that keeps me on a steady but not punishing writing track.
I’ve come up to the edge of burnout, but I think I’ve been generally able to avoid it by keeping daily track of my page output for the projects I’m working on. And having kept daily track of my output for so long, I have a real sense of what for me is my daily/weekly/monthly capacity.
When I’m immersed in a project I simply lose track of time. If I didn’t keep daily track, I wouldn’t realize why, at various points, I have to give myself permission to walk away from my desk.
When I first began writing, I gave myself a minimum two-pages-a-day requirement and sometimes struggled to meet it. These days, ten pages a day is no big deal. But ten pages a day for twenty days in a row ….? Such an output would lead to burnout for me if I kept at it. So if I see a significant output in a relatively short period of time, I give it a rest.
Here’s my most recent writing calendar, a revision of Tied Up, first published in 2013 and now re-edited. My calendar is far from fancy!
I tackled Chapters 1 – 4 on March 3 then didn’t do anything further on the manuscript until March 11.
Between March 3 and 11, I stewed about the story while doing other things, which for me counts as revising time.
The last date on the sheet is March 14 next to Chapter 17. The story has 24 chapters. Since it is now March 19, I know I finished my revisions yesterday, namely on the 18th.
What does this calendar tell me? Nothing other than it took me 15 days to do the revisions. Before beginning I recall telling someone that the edits would “take a weekend.” Uh. So I was wrong. In this case my calendar did not keep me on track with any output. Rather it served as a reality check on my estimation of the extent of the editing the story needed.
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen