What is burnout? I love this definition from Merriam Webster, which draws inescapable comparisons to combustion engines:
But chances are, if you’re a writer, you’re already well-acquainted with burnout–its symptoms, and its effects. This is because the act of writing is itself exhausting, even when it is also necessary and therapeutic and good for us. Writing saps a person’s physical and emotional energy reserves, tapping into both left and right brain by requiring both creative and analytical thinking … simultaneously.
Writing is work. It can be fun and wild and wonderful, but writing is work.
Luckily, there are ways to combat burnout and to write past the sticking point. Emmy Award winning Gene Perret, in a 2011 interview with Psychology Today‘s Carolyn Kaufman, says that writers are “not people who can be superb 24 hours a day. We must allow ourselves to be mediocre at times…maybe even semi-terrible at times.” He cites Shakespeare as an example of a famous author who was still constrained by the same laws of time and energy–and self-criticism. “Burnout,” he says, “is a real phenomenon. Writers get weary of turning out so much similar material. The best cure I’ve found for this situation is to retreat to some sort of vacation. Get away from it all.” He continues with an anecdote:
However, I’m talking more about a brief vacation. Get away from your desk and take a walk, watch something on television, read a chapter or two of a book, take a brief nap. Then come back to your task refreshed. Many times my partner and I would struggle to get a new sketch idea. It would be so hard that we would often have words with one another and sometimes partners almost came to blows. Then we go to lunch, tell each other a few stories, trade insults, pay our bill, come back to work, and discover that one or the other had come up with a great idea for a sketch. – Gene Perret
And look, we’re not all Gene Perret. We’re all going to require different means of getting over the hump and back into a place where we can write comfortably. But taking our cue from Perret’s suggestion of taking a break or a short “vacation,” here are five tips for combating burnout:
- Know the signs. Burnout can present differently from person to person, but generally it shows up as a constellation of symptoms: exhaustion, lack of motivation, an unfocused general negative attitude towards people and situations you normally enjoy or tolerate, memory and perception troubles, poor health, and quality fade in your writing. There are plenty of other things which might cause these symptoms, of course, so it’s well worth reaching out to a professional to help verify that your problems stem from burnout and not depression, chronic fatique, Lyme’s, or any of the other possibilities.
- Accept that this is burnout, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Everyone runs out of gas sometimes, and it’s not a sign that you’re in the wrong profession or somehow otherwise “messing up.” It’s a sign that you need a break–nothing more or less.
- Unplug. You won’t truly ever get away from your writing unless you make a couple of big changes and physically distance yourself from the act of writing for a while. But you’ll also need to distance yourself from those sources of frustration and inspiration which remind you of writing, so it’s best to unplug not just the computer you type on but the smartphone or tablet you use to browse Twitter and Facebook and Instagram … and read New York Times Book Review and other works of literary criticism. A break means a break. A total distancing of yourself from the act of writing.
- Do something you’ve been putting off. For me, this is usually cleaning the house. I know, it’s disgusting. But I find cleaning does a good job of getting me out of my head and back into my body where I belong, and it also … well, it cleans the house. And having a clean, uncluttered workspace is vital to my own mental health, I’ve discovered. But maybe cleaning isn’t something you put off–maybe it’s going to the doctor, or the vet, or meeting up with friends. Maybe it’s a camping trip you’ve always wanted to go on but haven’t ever found the time for. Do the thing you never have time for when you’re chained to your writing desk!
- Remember your audience. As Pettit tells us in his interview, “Writing is a solitary profession. Many of us sit in a quiet room with only a keyboard for company. But to be a good writer, you must remember that there are readers out there. They’re waiting for what comes out of your printer. Keep them in mind and your writing will be all the better for it.” And your readers are why you do what you do, so don’t forget as you return from your break that you’re not just combating burnout because it feels bad and lowers your productivity–you’re in the battle because burnout alters your relationship to your readers, and they are a precious part of what you do.
You are not alone. ♣︎