February 23rd, 2007

ehjones asks:

But if writers write every day, especially as much as I’ve been lately, isn’t there a chance of burnout?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not feeling it yet.  I’m still going strong and working on a short story for entry into the writers of the future contest.  But is there a point where a writer just runs out of steam and has to step back, take a breath, and close the laptop for a few weeks or so?

My short answer to this question is:  you’ll know it when you get there.  Until you get there, don’t worry about it.

My long (long) answer:

In my life as a writer so far I have not as far as I know suffered from writer’s block, but I have been scoured clean by burnout.

It could be argued that burnout is a form of writer’s block, but I think block is a different fish.    (Feel free to argue with me about this.  I am not wedded to my position.)

Burnout is well described by – well – the word itself.

I have been toasted by the weight of real world responsibilities which I was juggling at the same time as writing.

I have become simply too mentally or emotionally exhausted to write for periods of time, and sometimes during those periods I had to write anyway.  That was fun!

I’ve also hit periods where I think I simply wrote too much and for too long in the same world and needed a break.  Which I didn’t necessarily get.  Not that I’m complaining about having contracts, mind you.

I have been most susceptible to burnout when writing to deadline with the fear of failure breathing down my neck:  failure to meet the deadline (or knowing absolutely that I would be late);  failure of nerve;  failure of inspiration;  failure in having something unique to say; failure in living up to real world responsibilities while meanwhile not doing so damned well in the writing either.  The sometimes paralyzing fear of being mediocre and pedestrian.

There are whole litanies here, the hidden underbelly of the process that is not easy to talk about both because it’s painful to stare at for long (and can mesmerize in turn if you spend too long looking into its eyes) and because sometimes people just don’t want to hear about it.  As in, you’re living the life that I’m struggling to reach, so don’t you dare tell me that you have problems on the other side.

A long while ago on livejournal, Kristine Smith mentioned periods of transition and change as ones that leave you susceptible to burnout.

These are the big three for me:

1) real life responsibilities eating up your creative energy

2) changes of direction, including things like life reassessment, major family shifts, moving, relationship difficulties

3)  battered confidence, as in “why would anyone want to read this crap anyway?” and all its variations ringing down the changes of doubt and trust

Burnout is related to Creative Exhaustion.  I’m not sure if one is a subset or an overlapping set of the other.

An experienced writer possesses the skill set to produce words, but the ability to CREATE is not always present.  Real world exhaustion (see above) can contribute to Creative Exhaustion, but creative exhaustion can develop out of other factors.  For instance, finishing a book can throw a writer into a creative exhaustion which might last for an hour, a day, or a year.  Writing a series of books set in the same world might trigger creative exhaustion related directly to continuing to write in that particular world.

At other times, “the well runs dry” – this is a classic line I think every writer I have ever met understands, even if he or she hasn’t experienced it for herimself.  You, the writer, have just sucked it all up after a run of umpteen stories or books or scripts, and the well (of inspiration and/or creative energy) needs time to re-fill either via the  internal and inexplicable spring of creativity, which flows at its own rate, or through external heavy-lifting bucket-hauling such as travel, reading, conversation, lounging on the beach and staring at the sky, long walks, long baths, listening to music, theater and shows, and innumerable other ways of absorbing strength from other sources of creative energy.

Sometimes there is no way out but through.

Sometimes you simply have to give yourself permission to be patient and forgiving and, you know, realistic.

Not that this whole writing thing is especially realistic, but that’s an entirely different subject.

For any of you suffering burnout at the moment, all I can say is:  hang in there.

For those of you who aren’t, let me just say:  wallow in the mud of creativity.  Life is good.

13 Responses to “Burnout”

  1. Sabrinaon 23 Feb 2007 at 6:20 pm

    Ugh, burnout. Yeah, I’d say I’m there right now. And transitions in life can definitely be a part of it (I’m still struggling to find time to write around my new job).

    I think when you hit that wall, it’s good to step back and take a break, and you can return to whatever you’re writing with a fresh eye and perhaps feeling more positive about the project. But the most frustrating aspect of burnout are those times when you can’t fall back into the writing. I feel like mentally I’ve recovered, but I still balk at the actual process of turning on the computer and facing those pages that need editing, or the blank screen.

  2. Debbie Whiteon 23 Feb 2007 at 7:54 pm

    I write history stuff for my day job. I write fantasy after that. I write to my pen pals. I write…oh, well, I guess I do go swimming occasionally. 😉 I’ve written full-time for years, but I don’t know that I’ve really experienced burnout. Sometimes I do have to take a day or two off just to ‘fill back up with words.’

    I also sometimes write on a short short set in a different world or whatever just to take a break from my main story/world. Maybe that’s helped.

    I guess I’m lucky that I haven’t had a bad case of burnout. Now I’m nervious about the horrors/pressures of getting published. My bosses have learned that I work a lot faster when I don’t have a deadline in sight. I wonder if that will still be the case if I ever do get published in fantasy. :(

    Sabrina, I love to write, but every day it’s a challenge just to pull up my manuscript and start working. The only way I can do it is because I know how much fun I have once I get passed the initial mental block of Getting Started. So I’ve gotten a lot of practice at being a mean boss to myself and just doing it! 😉

  3. ehjoneson 23 Feb 2007 at 9:37 pm

    Wow, I asked a question that spawned a topic… I’m shocked and gratified!
    Thanks for the advice, and the insight. Like I said, I don’t feel burnt out yet. I do have the occasional moment of creative exhaustion, but I really mean moments here… I take a walk, watch a movie, or read a few chapters of something else, and all is right with the world.
    So I’ll take the advice to heart. I love what I’m doing so much right now, and what I’m producing creatively, that I have a fear of losing what I consider to be a roll that I’m on. I didn’t write anything at all for nearly ten years before I began the project that I’m doing now. The feeling when you type the last word of a novel is AMAZING, and I’ve had it twice in the past ten months. The only thing that could top it at the moment would be a phone call from my agent saying hey, we just sold your manuscript.

  4. LauraJMixonon 23 Feb 2007 at 11:36 pm

    Kate, you rock. This post is going up on my wall. Beautifully said.

    Next week I start in earnest on completion of my current novel. I’ll hold your words close.

  5. Betsy Dornbuschon 24 Feb 2007 at 8:18 pm

    I don’t get really blocked or burnt out, but more distracted. I start blogging more, reading stuff for the magazine, cleaning house–all the stuff I tend to avoid when I’m really on a roll with writing.

    I’m reclusive by nature, so that’s when I know I have to get out into the world, have lunch with friends, go snowboarding… anything but write. And the next time I sit down, rarely longer than a day or two later, I’ve got words again.

    Good post, this.

  6. […] 5 – Burnout “In my life as a writer so far I have not as far as I know suffered from writer’s block, but I have been scoured clean by burnout.” Kate Elliot on the times the well runs dry. (tags: advice burnout creativity fiction writing) […]

  7. Carol Bergon 26 Feb 2007 at 1:26 am

    Very well said, Kate.

    What gets me is that even in the midst of a tough run of burnout…when all the fears you describe are SO real…the thing I want to do most is to sit down and write. And I sit. And it’s hard. The deadline forces me to push through…and oftentimes what I write is better than what comes in more comfortable times. But it is exhausting!

    This year, more balance. I swear it.


  8. Stacyon 26 Feb 2007 at 12:17 pm

    I’m really glad to see a serious assessment of burnout in writers. I think there is little appreciation of how many calories are burned by the intense use of your brain when writing. Everytime I would pick up a book on writing and see the directive “You must write every day to be a writer!” all I got was depressed and demotivated, because writing every day was never realistic. The only reason I’m close to finishing a novel now is I found “The Weekend Novelist.” Sitting and brooding over a notebook full of scribbles looks like slacking but is really hard work, and that’s before you even pick up the pen and scribble more.

  9. Carol Bergon 28 Feb 2007 at 12:06 am

    I think there is little appreciation of how many calories are burned by the intense use of your brain when writing.

    I wish! Any “exercise” so intense should have physical benefit.


  10. Stacyon 28 Feb 2007 at 12:20 pm

    Well, its not cardiovascular, that’s for sure. Here’s a little science to back up my whining:

    Energy consumption by the brain is 230-247 calories, based on 17
    calories/gram and human brain sizes of 1,350-1,450 grams. During
    periods of peak performance, adults increase that energy consumption
    by up to 50%.
    While this may not seem an extraordinary amount of energy, the brain
    may use 30% of a body’s total energy, while being only 2–3% of total
    body mass.
    From University of Northumbria “Oxygen Administration, Cognitive Performance and Physiological Responses,”
    (Mark C. Moss, PhD Thesis 1999)

  11. Victoria Strausson 02 Mar 2007 at 10:00 pm

    Great post. After completing my last novel under the deadline gun, I realized I was seriously burned out. Two years later, the thought of writing another Big Fat Fantasy Novel makes me panic. I’ve been through periods of burnout/hiatus before, but this is the most intense I’ve ever experienced. My solution (after a year of doing nothing) has been to work on short fiction. It’s very, very hard, and I don’t know where it will take me, but at least I’m working again, more or less.

  12. Puzzled Writeron 09 Sep 2007 at 4:54 pm

    Thank you for writing about this. After four years of writing almost every day, and three of those years spent in actively submitting short stories and poetry, in self-publishing, and in the promotion of my work, I have now reached burnout. And burnout is real.

    It’s a fugue state of staring at the screen, or staring into space, knowing that ideas and characters are in your head but you don’t have the energy to render them. It’ also that scary place where you start to lose your passion because it feels like you’ve only progressed five feet when there are expections that you should be further along. (Yes, self-imposed expectations, but there are cultural ones as well about how productive one should be that I need to deconstruct for my own sanity.) The tricky thing is, success in writing demands that one be a bit obsessive but too much hard slogging away day after day leads to exhaustion.

    And what finally knocked me over from being merely a little tired but marching on anyway to burnout was a stressful job situation which has sucked up much of my mental energy. So I’m going on hiatus as a writer to deal with the emotional fall out of my situation and to focus on personal growth in other areas of life. The laptop, the writing world, and my projects will be there when I get back.

  13. […] Burnout – including the three sappers of creative energy […]

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