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Home » Community, Featured, op-eds, Self help for Indie writers, Two Midlist Indies

Burnout city – population – me?

Submitted by on September 4, 2011 – 10:15 pm 8 Comments

burnout, exaustionThis was a hard post to write. Not because I didn’t know what to write, and not because I couldn’t work out the slant, but because this week has been one of the hardest of my writing life.
And I’ve been writing for close to thirty years.

Burnout? What’s that?

First, I’d like to address a couple of misconceptions about burnout. It’s not ‘simply’ writers block, which, in itself is rarely simple. It’s not any more complicated though than the act of balking something you can’t cope with any more. Burnout isn’t ‘just’ when your brain says ‘enough’. It’s actually worse than that – it’s when your brain backs away gibbering from anything, at all, and you begin to feel like your world is out of control. And if you’re not careful, you can put yourself in that position for a very long time.

Many people don’t recognize burnout – in fact, it’s possible, especially in the world that indie writers inhabit, that burnout is something that many writers are designing themselves into – pushing up their schedules to meet what they believe is what is required of them. I think the wider issue here is the expectation of success that many indie authors carry – it’s unfortunate though.

What does it feel like?

Everyone is different, but it’s critical to understand that there are several key features of burnout:

  • Lack of interest in writing, even if you *really want to* on one level or another. That disinterest could extend into editing your work, or releasing it, or finishing the draft. You can’t push past it – in most cases.
  • Feeling emotionally overwhelmed
  • Feeling physically sick when you sit down to write
  • Making any excuse not to write – in my case, I started cleaning the house *much* more – probably more than I really need to. It was at the point where I’d do my copywriting last thing at night, and wouldn’t get to bed till really late. I’d sleep in, and then the cycle would start over.
  • Making excuses over deadlines that – if you look at them – are serious enough that you should have noticed before now – or are making serious excuse after serious excuse. Or, though you’re having to postpone, deep down you’re kind of glad that something has happened to make you postpone.
  • Not caring about anything other than sleeping.

Burnout *IS* a type of depression. Creatives with burnout are more prone to serious depression. But, conversely, depression can be mistaken for burnout, so here comes the obligatory warning – if you’re finding it difficult in *all* areas of your life, or have thoughts that you are worried about, you should talk to your doctor. Depression is manageable – and it doesn’t always mean medication – but it can destroy your creativity if left untreated. (writer’s note – I’m bipolar – and have a fixed pattern, which this didn’t fit into, which is how I know I’m burned out)

What about ME?

I’m a ‘frenetic’ burnout subtype, I’ll keep working no matter what – but that was the wrong solution in this case. I’ve just graduated, after a four-year course, we moved less than two years ago, our personal lives are changing, and this is my first full year trading as a business, which meant more paperwork, more writing work, more *everything*. And this summer I had to get the eldest ready for high school. I should have stopped.
But I didn’t, until last week.

I’m not going to say that it was inevitable, because it wasn’t. But in a way it was – I kept agreeing to doing more and more than I should have – three books – four in fact, that are written, but not quite ready to go, lots of sites, lots of projects. Trying to bust through what I thought was writer’s block.

I burned out, entirely. 110%, and even two weeks after acknowledging that I’d hit my wall, I’m still not back to writing fiction.
But I did learn a couple of really important things in the last few weeks – the week before I realized something was wrong – and the time after.

  1. If you feel something is wrong, it’s ok to take a day off. Write something for fun instead of your book, or books. Brainstorm for lean days, or just do something fun, like reading. It’s ok to take *time* off.
  2.  Burnout is horrible – and if, like me you rely on writing, you can’t give in completely. So write something every day, even if all it is, is a blog working through your feelings. I don’t do my 750 words a day right now, but last week, I did a lot of writing working through anger, sorrow, pain, and I eventually even did some outlining. I don’t want to go back to writing fiction right now – other people might find they hit ‘blog burnout’ or ‘twitter burnout’ or ‘promotion burnout’ or even ‘Facebook burnout’. It’s ok to admit that you’re not coping with x or y.
  3. If you really can’t cope with something beyond your writing, remember there are people who can help. Indie writers are in some ways expected to be one man or one woman marketing, editing and writing machines, but that’s not what we *are*. It’s equally ok to ask for help.
  4. Time out helps – isolating yourself doesn’t – in my case, I was very lucky – I didn’t go far, and talked to some of my friends every single day I was away from the groups I’d also quit. I was also lucky that in quitting, I could tell a couple of people where to go without damaging the reputation of others. It’s ok to say NO.
  5. Eventually you’ll want to write again. That’s ok too.

What do you think? Have experience of burnout, or a story to share? Advice that’s helpful? We’d love to hear from you!

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8 Comments »

  • Donna Brown says:

    From experience I think sometimes holding your hands up and saying ‘I. Can’t. Do. This. Any. More’ feels harder than everything else you’ve managed to keep on doing. Conversely, it can be the lowest point because you’re stuck in that tunnel and finally accepting that it’s pitch black but it’s also the point when you can begin to do something about finding that light again.

    I think you’re taking some really positive steps and I’m sure everyone who has any ounce of sense or decency will support you. Have some ‘down but not out’ time and let people find their own feet for a while!!

    Take care!

  • While I haven’t experienced burnout in writing — yet — it did happen to me some years ago as an EMT, when I was trying to be a volunteer firefighter and EMT in addition to working my full time job and writing. One too many bad runs, and suddenly I was experiencing *all* those symptons and then some. Anyone who thinks it’s not real isn’t paying attention.

  • Really good post, Kai. I’ve felt that recently with marketing. It’s especially frustrating when you feel strongly that you *have* to get it done. You’re right, though. It’s okay to say “enough.” I’m slowly making my way back to marketing. Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Elaine Raco Chase says:

    I had a combo of burnout & block – trying to get a book out, under a deadline, and also be a mom to a 4 year old who needed surgery. I had a snot of an editor, no kids, not even a cat – who made a bitchy comment about: “should we put up a sign & say your book is missing because you had to be in the hospital with your son and couldn’t write?” I told her to go ahead, do it, because that was the truth, then I hung up and called my agent who called the head of S&S. She got fired, I got a flower basket and my son got a robot.

    After that, I learned to stop 1/2 thru a book, take a week off, do all things physical: wash cars, hang wallpaper, paint a wall, clean…. then went back mentally refreshed. Has worked for me for 33 years of writing and selling.

  • The first time I experienced burnout was when I was still working. The job itself was difficult, with a lot of traveling 60-80 hour workweeks, a story that was just killing me not to be able to concentrate on and little support at home. I crashed big time… woke up that morning in a motel at the client’s location throwing up. That night I quit my job. I crawled into bed, crawled out and started writing until the story was done. The marriage didn’t last long after that either.
    It’s in my nature, though, to be driven.
    Now I have to recognize when the signs are there and I was getting close again recently. When people start telling you that they’re amazed at all you’re getting done and all you’re doing… it’s time to take a step back and recognize that they’re right, you need to slow down and reorganize your priorities. It’s especially difficult for writers, though, as many people view what we do as easy or undemanding, or even worse as a hobby – when for us it can be delightful, wonderful, amazing, and also difficult, demanding and a lifelong dream we’re driven to achieve. Finding that balance can seem almost impossible at times, but it’s worth it the first time someone reads what you wrote and says it transported/transfixed or amazed them.

  • Stephen King says:

    I do understand burnout, though writer’s burnout hasn’t happened to me yet. Hope you get through it soon, my friend!

  • Rusty says:

    You took the words right out of my mind. While the last week was spent in the hospital, I spent the first 3 days worrying because I “should” be home writing (I don’t own a laptop or I would have.) And then I realized that part of the reason I was back in the hospital was obsessing over my own personal deadlines to the point I was either writing or thinking about what I should write, editing, keeping up with writing groups.
    Now please, don’t misunderstand, I LOVE to write – it’s always been my first love. But when it consumes you to the point of the rest of life being ignored, that’s just not healthy. The work will be done, and probably better now that I’ve been forced to be away from it. I was writing when I was so ill I was literally bent over the keyboard in pain and still going at it. THAT’S RIDICULOUS! There is a life out there and writing should be a part of it but NOT the totality. So I’ve pulled back on the hours I write – put a deadline on how long that I write and if I don’t reach the amount of pages that I had in mind, or the amount of words, oh well, I can’t to anything if I’m ill . . . or worse. And I came pretty damn close to it being ‘the worse.’
    So Kai, I say take whatever time you need, do what you want to do and go find yourself a beach, even if it’s in your mind. If you don’t take care of you, we all will lose a very dear person and friend.

  • Jim Murdoch says:

    I have suffered from burnout four times in my life, roughly every eight years since my mid-twenties. Each successive breakdown was worse than the last and the last one, which I’ve just recovered from, was worse than anything I could ever have imagined and its effects lasted four years. At its worst I had constant brain fog, bouts of anxiety (prior to that I’d only ever suffered from depression), violent myoclonic jerks before while trying to get to sleep, erratic sleep patterns, a worrying escalation in my asthma and terrible forgetfulness (I’d walk out of a room and forget where I was going). The cause: not so much not knowing my limits but an unwillingness to be limited by them and a reluctance to let people down. So, like you, I’m also the frenetic subtype.

    Burnout I find is one of those words that people tend to chuck around like the flu. People say, “Oh, I’ve had a touch of the flu.” No they haven’t. I have had the flu once in my life and I was bedridden for a week with it. Likewise burnout, you don’t have a touch of burnout; it’s not something that a nice cup of coffee and five minutes with the Sunday Telegraph will cure. The problem is when you’re a workaholic not working is very hard. For me it was next to impossible. After about three months of sitting on the couch watching whatever-was-on-next-after-the-thing-I’d-just-watched I found I was lost so what did I do? I joined Wikipedia and rewrote all the entries for the plays of Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot took six weeks alone to research and write), and then I created a blog, and then I decided to self-publish my novels and before I could look around twice I was spending ten hours a day in front of a PC – seven days a week. I was actually working longer hours while sick than I was when I was supposedly healthy.

    One of the biggest drains on me these days in the Internet. It is a necessary evil but it is also a relentless beast. There is always someone awake somewhere in the world and so there are always new blog posts to read, and tweets and Facebook entries and e-mails and comments and although it seems as if other people are managing all of this and writing 1000 words a day, holding down a full-time job and looking after a family the odds are they are either not or, if they are, they’re heading for a breakdown of some sort. The only answer, the only answer I’ve found, is to set time limits and when it gets to x o’clock you stop. Knowing you only have a limited time you obviously have to do the important stuff first which is not usually the fun stuff and that requires some self control but let’s face it, if I’d had self control in the first place I’d never have ended up in the state I did. Self control is hard work.

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