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