When the Pen runs Dry: Facing Burnout

Some people (such as a few members of my own family) seem to have this idea that writers “just write” or those in creative professions have taken a perpetual hobby of endless pleasure. That’s for hobby writers. In reality, it’s a mental workout with its rewards and efforts. Other than writing, there’s constant pitching, deadlines, marketing and promoting yourself, and networking. Yet, you don’t want to lose the joy of creating. It’s two sides of the same coin. Your passion and your business side of things.

Almost everyone falls in love with the idea of following a creative passion. And, perhaps, having that creative passion seduce you to an ultimate dream. But, just like a thriving marriage, your creative passion requires commitment and dedication; those are the foundation to a fulfilling, enjoyable marriage. I’d say that the pen life isn’t that different.

The pen life can make you exhausted at times. It’s no different from any other activity.

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Image: balletforadults.com

We see the professional ballerina take a graceful leap across the stage. What we don’t see is the time commitment, hours and years of practice, feedback from instructors, studying techniques, and perfecting them. That’s significantly different from those who take dancing purely as an escape hobby.

As a writer, it’s a time commitment, study of writing, analyzing other writers, working through a manuscript or piece of writing when you’re not in the mood, researching publications, writing those pitch letters, taking the best approach and strategy, meeting deadlines, and so on. My husband knows not to disturb me when I set time for my writing. I pencil in my writing time in my calendar just like any other commitment.

With that, I also reap the excitement when my characters take life on their own and the story gets better. Or, I discover a way to make my arguments speak beautifully through the words of the right interview subject. There’s the immense satisfaction of creating. I enjoy escaping into the world of my characters and their lives. Discipline and time management allows that enjoyment to take place.

Then, there are times when I’m close to facing burnout or exhaustion. I feel sluggish, mentally exhausted, unmotivated, overwhelmed, and maybe discouraged. I try not to reach this point. Here’s what I discovered causes burnout or dry spells.

Lack of Exercise, Healthy food, and Self-care. That can certainly affect your mind. Take a break and go for a walk. Do some yoga to calm your mind or regain focus. Eat healthier. Don’t feel ashamed of self-care such as going out to coffee with a friend or getting a massage.

I don’t know how I thrived during my college years with eating mostly at restaurants, lack of sleep, parties, socializing late night, and of course studying. If I lived the same way today, I swear I’d end up in the hospital! That wasn’t healthy. Even today, as a writer with a small child, things can get very busy. It’s easy to lose balance or take your own health for granted. Valuing your health should be a priority, so that you can function optimally.

Type A Personality. Nothing wrong with that. You’re driven, ambitious, hardworking, and have high expectations for yourself. On the other side, if you don’t watch out ambition also has a side effect of anxiety, defeat, and burnout.

Chronic Illness, Pregnancy, Life events. There was a time I battled an illness and had to leave teaching. It was life changing and frustrating. It takes its toll on you. I recovered like the warrior I am. The recovery took many tears, defeats, trying again and again, and kindness from people.

Years later, when I became pregnant, I dealt with constant fatigue with all the changes that happen with pregnancy. On top of that, I had hyperemesis gravidarum, that same pregnancy-related condition that the Duchess of Cambridge had. It’s pure hell of constant vomiting and sickness. I remember feeling out of place in my own body. Headaches, morning sickness, and constant exhaustion while trying to carry on with my life. Those who know me well know that I don’t like to be still. I admit that I feel guilty for “doing nothing” even if it’s self-care and rest that’s desperately needed. This is where I need to give myself permission to rest and accept the changes in my body.

You maybe dealing with other life changes such as chronic illness that either you or a close family member faces, divorce, a new baby. Embrace self-care, support from friends and family, and seek therapy. There is no shame or guilt.

Haven’t processed your past wounds or feelings about a topic. Personal experiences or issues, social concerns you are passionate about can give you plenty of material and messages to speak to the world. Not giving yourself enough time or space to process them ends up with murky, unclear writing. Also, respect your boundaries. There are reasons why you may not be ready to write about that topic yet.

Poor time management and organizational skills. I recently heard a writer say at a writer’s group that he prefers to write when he feels inspired and doesn’t have a schedule or timeline. I wasn’t sure whether to tell my honest opinion since I was a newcomer to the group. The group leader gently cautioned him against it and asked him what he has written lately. Nothing for months. The same project that’s going no where. I added, “From my experience, I cannot wait for the muse to start writing. The muse (creative inspiration) is like that flaky, unreliable friend full of promises but never shows up when expected. You cannot count on the muse.”

For some people, using calendars, to-do lists, weekly goals is common sense. There are people out there who are very disorganized. It isn’t a sign of apathy or laziness. Some people want to do everything and easily excited by everything that comes their way. Or, some people have a hard time saying no to commitments, because of people-pleasing and/or wanting to do everything. You can’t. Learn to say no. Shuffle things around as needed. Here are some ideas:

I set monthly and weekly goals. I write for writing contests with deadlines as a motivation. Then, I pencil in my writing time on my weekly calendar and treat it like an appointment.

It’s perfectly OK if you are writing 15 minutes a day. Or picking up your iPad and writing while riding the train or waiting for appointments. It’s better than nothing.

Find a spot where you work best. Silence? In a library or coffee shop? With or without music?

Find a regular time to write whether it’s early morning right after breakfast for 15 minutes, every Saturday for 2 hours, etc.

It doesn’t matter what you use: the iCal on your phone or a cute day planner. As long as it works for you and you use it regularly.

For me, I check off monthly goals and writing goal lists as motivation and to keep me in track.

Caution! Do not write while you are on the clock. Your time belongs to someone else. Respect your employer’s time by not writing when you should be working.

Loneliness and Boredom. That’s possible even for things that you consider to be your lifelong passion. Let’s face it. Writing is a lonely profession. Writers spend their time writing. It can tough for extroverts. Some combat that by writing in a cafe or library. That’s why a writer’s salon is a good idea. A writer’s salon a small group of writers informally meet to talk about their writing and write together unlike a critique group. The emphasis is producing writing not critique as that can be counterproductive during the first draft stage of writing. You can find one through meetup.com or start your own.

Boredom is possible when a person remains stagnant and not being challenged or growing. Fortunately, there are writing classes, conferences, and events available to refresh your vision and goals. And, to simply have fun.

Can you think of any other reasons why writers can fall into that writing rut in their own pen lives?

I listed these reasons for awareness. It’s easier to be aware of yourself and prevent burn out before it happens. If you get tired, it’s perfectly OK. Don’t feel like a failure. Take a breather. Smell the roses. Re-evaluate yourself. Seek advice from other writers. And, then keep going.

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