Writers: When In Doubt, WWYL

Okay, before you do anything else, go read what Very Smart Author Jaye Wells says about creative burnout — “Writers Need An Escape Hatch.”

Good?

Done?

Rad.

I have been doing this writing thing professionally for — *coughs into hand* — about 16 years. (And, for another fun number, in a few weeks I turn 40. Holy shit who let that happen?) And if there exists one thing I can tell you with great certainty, it’s that you will one day have to deal with the inevitability of burnout.

Now, burnout is not writer’s block. Writer’s block exists, but it’s not unique to writers and we shouldn’t call it writer’s block because that gives it too much power. Burnout is also not depression. Depression is a lying parasite that lives in your heart and while I am not a psychoparasitologist, I can tell you that treating depression as if it is burnout is a very good way to become even more depressed. It’s like trying to fight quicksand as if it is seawater — you can swim in seawater, but in quicksand, you’ll just kick and flop and sink further into its grip.

Burnout is this, at least for me:

You write because you love it, and then eventually you write because you want it to make you money. And maybe it does make you money: a little, a middle, a lot. You work very hard at writing, but writing is of course never just writing. Writing is editing. Writing is rewriting. Writing is marketing and promo and dealing with agents and editors and publishing and gazing into the swirling vortex of hate-machinery that governs this and really all industries, and the writing becomes tainted in a way by all these other things. It’s as if your love of writing was a cool-ass cigarette boat from 1980s-era Miami Vice: lean and fast and cutting waves like a spear flung from Poseidon’s briny hand. But then over time, all this other stuff gathers on your hull like barnacles. Your rig gets rusty. Boggy. Suddenly you feel like a tugboat dragging a garbage scow through a sloppy tide of medical waste. You’re asking yourself, am I even in the water anymore? Am I beached? Am I on drydock? Is this forever?

A publishing deal goes south? More barnacles.

A book you write lands on shelves and it feels like nobody buys it? More rust.

Every bad review is a remora fish clinging to your side. Every royalty statement that reminds you about unearned advances is concrete drying on your boots. It’s all boat anchors and caked-on mud and an engine that gutters and grinds before it starts in the morning.

Burnout is a kind of creative constipation. You get tired of doing it. The work feels only like work. Clarity seems impossible. The stress outweighs the joy.

You’ll hit it. You might hit it early in your career trying to get published. You might hit it in the middle of your career after all the business baggage has been slung over your shoulders. If you’re me, you might bump up against it again and again with the standard peaks and valleys of the authorial life. I periodically run parallel to burnout like someone running alongside the ocean — if I turn my head just so I can see the shark fins, I can see the rippling lines of a threatening undertow, I can see the SURLY OCTOPUSES OF ENNUI THREATENING TO ENROBE ME IN THEIR TENTACLES AND DROWN ME IN THE BUBBLING DEPTHS OF MY OWN LASSITUDE.

Question is, what do I do about the OCTOPUSES OF ENNUI?

As my nemesis Jaye points out, you’ve got options. Nab a new hobby. Take up yoga or meditation. I like photography, as you might see with my Macro Monday experiments. Take a walk. Take a vacation. Have an adventure. Vent frustrations with fellow writers (seriously, this can be a huge help). Punch a punching bag painted to look like the politician of your choice.

All of those are good at scraping some of the barnacles off.

But here’s my problem with that: those solutions are frequently temporary. It’s like, taking a vacation from a stressful job vents the stress in the short term, but as a long-term solution, it’s total pants. The stress returns. Vapor-lock settles back in. Burnout returns as a vengeful specter — you did not exorcize that hoary spirit, but rather, merely ran away from it and forced it to find you anew in a grim otherworldly game of MARCO POLO.

And so, I seek a deeper solution.

Now, the first piece of advice I give to any writer — young or old, new or seasoned — is learn to care less. Give fewer fucks. Give some fucks! Have the appropriate amount of fucks in your fuck-basket, but know when to thrust up your middle finger and walk away from your stress like a bad-ass walking away from an EXPLODING BUILDING.

Just the same, that advice is imperfect — and incomplete.

The advice to complete that equation is:

WWYL.

And you might say, what the hell does that mean? We know what WWJD is.

What the hell is WWYL? What Would Yakov Like? What Would Yeshua Lick? Where Went Yellow Lump? Walt Whitman Yawping Loudly?

Actually, that last one is pretty good. BUT NO, not even that.

The old chestnut of writing advice is: WWYK, or, Write What You Know.

I counter with: WWYL, or Write What You Love.

Now, I’ve talked about this before, this idea of writing what you love — and I exhort you to read it, if only because I unpack it more there than here. But it’s vital to note its value in thwarting burnout, and that’s what it does for me. It’s my go-to solution. And it is a universal fix — so far! — for the burnout that threatens to gobble me up from time to time.

Here’s why: at the end of the day, you got into writing for the same reason I did. TO MAKE MOUNDS OF MONEY SO BIG THEY CAUSE A TECTONIC SHIFT AND THREATEN TO SET THE EARTH OFF ITS AXIS. Wait, no! No. Bad Chuck. Bad. Let’s rewind. You got into writing for the same reason I did: because you fucking love it, that’s why. I don’t necessarily truck with the idea that writers “need” to write, as if they’re a tribe of gibbering addicts, but I damn sure want to. It’s what I wanted to do when I was a kid. It’s what I wanted to do in college and while working dead-end jobs after college and it’s heckadang what I want to do now. But burnout makes you forget that. It knocks you off your center. Writing is work, yes. It’s a job. But it’s not a job like mucking horse stalls or doing data entry. Writing sometimes feels like digging ditches, but you have to remember: it’s you digging ditches in a magical fantasy land that you control.

You’re mucking unicorn stalls, motherfucker. Then you get to ride the unicorn after.

Go back to the source. Find the well-spring. Hell with what you know. Write what you love. What you love is an infinite cabinet of weird delights. It doesn’t just mean writing about that which delights you — write about the things that vex you. Attempt to answer questions that plague you. Our brains are like pawn shops that, over time, agglomerate cases and shelves of stuff — and that combination of objects and topics and questions is unique to us. It is our authorial voice. It is us as the auteur. We are the sum of all we have gathered to us over the years, and your stories are a most excellent way to take those ideas and fears and delights off the shelves, smash them together, and explore them. Doing this makes work feel less like work. It makes it feel like a playground. Like a sandbox. Like a vacation inside the funhouse that is your haunted head.

And it doesn’t just happen with new work — sometimes, writers are given work. You have tasks. You have freelance jobs. Fiction, non-fiction, whatever. The same thing applies: you can always find your own way into the story. Find the thing you love about the work at hand. Discover what drives you to it. What connects you to the concept and the construction. Assume that the work is a mirror and you’re staring back into it. Find not just what lives in your mind but also what lives in your heart. Then rip it out, juice that motherfucker like an orange, and slather its wet leavings all over your story.

Write stories that express who you are. Write stories that wander in places you want to go or love to visit. Answer your questions. Explore your obsessions. Tackle your fears. You know you’re hitting on something when thinking about a story gives you feels: it excites you, scares you, gives you the vertigo sensation of wondering whether or not you can really write this thing. Be honest. Look under your own fingernails and see what dirt lurks there.

If you’re finding yourself burning out — or maybe even encountering writer’s block — then it’s worth looking at what work awaits you. Are you writing what you love? Have you found the You-Shaped Door into your story? Be you. Be your voice. The story is part of you. Now all you have to do is rip it out and staple-gun it to the page.

* * *

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47 comments

  • Damn, but I wish I’d read this years ago! WWYL I indeed! Never mind that my favorite sci-fi author, Asimov, said explicitly that he started writing because there weren’t enough good stories around. Or that Twain and other favorite authors also said the same thing explicitly, or that I heard it at writers’ conferences for years on end. It’s only been a few years since I actually let the words seep into my consciousness, and now it’s my mantra! Hell, if I don’t want to read it, why should anyone else, right? I know, preaching to the choir. Let us now turn to the book of the Bard . . .

  • One of the things I didn’t talk about in my original piece is how much I’ve found teaching new writers helps me stay happy. I remember why I started writing in the first place, and it just feels pretty nice to give others a hand up. Bottom line, it helps me keep perspective, and that’s the key to preventing yourself from going supernova.

    • I’ll counterpoint that, NEMESIS — sometimes teaching new writers can also be corrosive, at a point. Do it often enough and it starts to feel like you just need to be working on your own material, or you see THEIR frustrations and feel them reflected back. For me, it’s a balance — teaching some, learning some, and a lot of DOING SHIT.

  • I think it depends on what I’m teaching. I hate teaching about The Business. But when I can teach an enthusiastic group about the craft, I love it. Of course, that presupposes it’s also a group that wants to learn and is ready to do the work. But, yes, balance in all things.

    Also, when the box arrives, ignore the furious buzzing. The box is full of puppies. It’s totally not killer bees. Puppies.

  • I completely agree, sir. When I stall on one project, I switch to another or simply stop and write what is in my head. Even if I never use it, I have it written and saved in a file labeled “Ideas for Future Award Winning Work.” Always think positive and never stop thinking.

  • Thanks. This applies equally to music, and even to how I’ve felt about jumping back into the museum world.

  • For me writing is one of my hobbies for relaxing, but this has helped with my PhD burnout. Definitely needed a reminder that I went into bioinformatics because I love it. Thank you

  • For WWYL, I guess that’s when it helps to be constantly full of new ideas. After a certain point, all the writing and rewriting and editing of a manuscript stops being all that fun. It’s still somewhat enjoyable, but it gets more difficult and tiresome the more the work piles on. I can force myself to finish, but I’ll probably hit burn out after a couple more rounds of revisions.

    But when it happens, I think I’ll just binge write a new story. Drafting tends to be the most fun, since that’s when I truly don’t give a fuck about quality or feedback.

    Also, yay for hobbies. Mine is video games; my to-be-played list is probably half as long as my to-be-read.

  • Wanna burn out real quick? Jus’ start listening to what everyone says about writing/publishing/marketing; how many pages, cover design, how to edit, what genre, what’s trending… Then bring up your own WIP an’ go, “What shit. Nobody’s gonna read this steaming pile.” WWYL, but don’t expect rainbows an’ unicorns.

    • April 12, 2016 at 3:04 PM // Reply

      I think that writing something painful that you love (if it’s emotionally painful) can be one of the most renewing experiences in writing. You find ways to cope with your pain and use your pain as your creative power.

  • Seconded, Tamara. Sometimes it all seems a terrible grind. You go from writing to goodreads to email, to fb, to twitter, back to writing, etc. On and on it goes. Just my email takes up half the day. If only we could just write without all these distractions, I’m sure we’d all be happier bunnies.

  • “Write What You Know” always struck me as at odds with the role of an author – i.e. to make stuff up. If writers stuck to WWYK, you wouldn’t have dragons or zombies or space cruisers or ancient face-melting God-boxes.

    But really what WWYK means is human emotion: you can have fill your narrative with all the fantastical elements your imagination can conjure, but without guilt or pride or love or envy or revenge, it’ll be as dull as dishwater. And knowing those emotions – or at least having empathy for them – is vital to conveying them.

  • I have experienced Work burnout and Hobby burnout and Writing burnout. (And Interpersonal burnout, but I’ve solved that by pretty much being as asocial as possible while still getting paid.) I think that giving fewer fucks does help, but it really does help to get your toes into the I Love This Part stuff. At work when I get a project that just makes time stop and all the little interruptions not matter? I will be happy to do stupid shit for a solid 6 months after that. I think that writing is the project I love with writing. I don’t know that I love the rest (actually I kind of love doing the audio too…it feels so real), the marketing and self talking and human dealing. So maybe I need to readjust my gantt chart to spread out the writing more rather than clumping it. I do love the writing bits. Just maybe not all the other endless editing and rewriting and marketing and oh dear god is it over yet human bits. But I’ll happily do them if I get some good writing time.

  • I fucking /love/ unicorns. I’m going to ride my unicorn into the fucking sunset and fucking love it.

    Excellent post. Just what I needed to get back on track. 🙂

  • “You know you’re hitting on something when thinking about a story gives you feels” Yes, this! I’m taking my first weeks off in years because I felt myself slipping. The puppies in my box had become killer bees (at least in my head). One week into my vacay and I’m fighting off a new character who has NOTHING to do with what I know. *aside into hand* Chuck’s been doing this for 16 years? I’ve been doing it for 40. No, I did not say 40. I am not even 40 myself. Those 91 books with my name on are imposters, all of them. But thanks anyway for giving me a handy reminder of where to find my mojo when it goes AWOL.

  • You rock…thank you. I’ve been feeling blocked for years. I’d forgotten why I wanted to write in the first place. Thank you…another post I;ll print off and tape to my wall.

  • April 11, 2016 at 10:40 PM // Reply

    This advice rings true. It matches what my buddy and I figured out in grad school, when wading through all the critical carp that went with a dissertation on literature got to feeling like jamming burning bamboo under your nails and then typing. Going backpacking helped, but as Chuck says, only in a temporary way. What really helped was going back to what got us into the field in the first place: the primary texts. I re-read Chaucer. He re-read Willa Cather. Then we went backpacking. THEN we got back to work on the steaming pile of dung that is a dissertation right up until some mystical figure (known as your “dissertation director) says it isn’t. That worked.

  • I can relate to this post. I haven’t reached burnout, but lately I’ve been “tired.” So I roll with it, take a break to wander the trails, sniff the breeze. Maybe even tinker a little. I agree wholeheartedly in WWYL. That’s why I refuse to be a purist writer who sticks to one genre. Call me a writing whore–I’ll write in any genre at least once–but the truth is, I can have many ideas in my head, and they don’t all fit in one genre. I also don’t like writing the usual tropes. That leads to a harder road in finding an audience, which can lead to being “tired.” But as you say, re-group and find those things that you love, get refreshed, and go at it again with gusto.

  • I have become burnt out under the weight of stuff written anout my personal fucking brand. Seriously, fuck public relations and fuck its bastard motherfucker child marketing.

  • Burn out on top of long term, crippling depression is total pants, when writing used to be a way of dealing with the depression.
    Have a good birthday; I had my 50th a few weeks back and like you I wondered, how did that happen.

  • I’m giving BACK!!! I just bought your book; I’ve been meaning to for some time. WWYL or WWYK, either way that gives you lots of material. One thing for sure is I’m not depressed or lost, though, probably that has crossed my path from life time to time. About six years ago I wanted to start a small business online and how I ended up writing a novel is beyond my comprehension!? I don’t have many followers on social media but I do appreciate the ones I have. I’m ready to just write again and maybe start that online business this year. You are motivating Chuck. Keep up the great work.

  • Yes, all true (thanks for the WITS/brilliant-JayeWells shoutout), but happiness in writing for me is about focus. The whole day can boil down to that really kick-ass one fucking sentence you wrote that makes you feel like you can actually DO this thing.

    Like real life, joy comes in flashes. But they can be enough.

    Sometimes.

  • April 12, 2016 at 2:06 PM // Reply

    What’s re-energized me is my writing group. Four of us are working on fiction–in different genres; we have space opera, humor, cyberpunk, and romance–but only two are writing for publication. Aside from the fiction, there’s one memoirist who intersperses haikus with her work, one academic who brings anything from poetry to grant proposals, and a photographer who writes about particular images.

    It’s really eclectic, but just having other people who are interested in your story can be amazingly inspiring–and it never hurts to have that “gotta get it written so I can read it at group” nudge to actually put words on screen. And afterward, all the “business” stuff seems less of a chore.

    We eat, drink, visit, read, offer suggestions and just sort of bathe in writerliness. I recommend starting one if you don’t have one.

    • April 12, 2016 at 3:35 PM // Reply

      I don’t have a writing group because it can be hard to find creative writers in high school, but after making a few friends who are creative writers I’ve actually come to realize it can be extremely helpful to have people like that–their enthusiasm and energy can rekindle your own for your writing.

      • April 12, 2016 at 4:30 PM // Reply

        Sometimes you don’t realize who around you would be interested. I happened to mention something random to my neighbor one day about writing, and she asked if I was in a group or knew of one. She’s the one writing the lovely haiku and memoir. I’d known her for years and didn’t know she was into writing.

        Drop some hints to random friends or people you know who seem interested in stuff you like — they may surprise you! 🙂

  • April 13, 2016 at 8:01 AM // Reply

    I found my way back. After twelve books with a major publisher and in Indieville, I found my way back to:

    “Find not just what lives in your mind but also what lives in your heart. Then rip it out, juice that motherfucker like an orange, and slather its wet leavings all over your story.”

    You helped me do that (NOT incidentally, thank you). Yesterday, after an author told me she loved my book and writing, she noted that I write “with wild abandon.” And I felt like Audrey Hepburn sitting on the edge of that fountain in Rome next to Gregory Peck smiling and saying, “Sooo happy,” except more adamantly, like when Buffy dusts a vamp.

  • I’ve written what I love. I love it with much loveness.

    What gets me is why I can’t convince others to love it as much as I do. LOVE MY WORK! IT’S LOVELY!

    So, pretty little books, one right after the other, and beta-readers gush with joy.

    Is this one reason so many good authors go hybrid/indie?

  • My own source of inspiration has always been crystals, horoscopes and beautiful nature. Whenever I’m lost for words … I go to my ephemeris, my crystal collection or page through an album full of green and blue sceneries … and then the words begin to flow easily out of my heart straight on to the computer screen.

    As a librarian and book lover, I enjoyed this article as well as other articles published on this blog.

    For this reason, I would like to nominate you for the Blogger Recognition Award.

    I have also posted a link on my blog to this blog:

    http://7einayim.com/4nissan5776/

  • I’ve been self pubbing for 11 months, and those damn octopuses of ennui are slapping at my heels.

    I needed this. I went and read Jaye’s post as well.

    Thank you. Both of you. I needed to read this. I was at the point where I was making myself even more depressed because I have a book to finish–and I didn’t see the trap I’d walked into. I started writing because I love it, and nothing I love should feel like a trap. I’m going to work my way back to why I started writing and publishing in the first place.

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