Some Thoughts on Burnout

Halfway through November, I hit a wall. In the space of two weeks, I’d madly re-edited my manuscript for the third/thirteenth/thirtieth time in preparation for a certain deadline. I eventually increased my word count by 20,000. That’s 1,500 words a day –  hardly strenuous – but some days it would take up to eight hours to add those 1,500 words while simultaneously editing.

The effort was 100% worth it. I met my deadline and got a result that was better than I could have hoped for. After this particular stint, however, I was exhausted and lacking my usual motivation.

Yeah, I did push myself during those two weeks. I did the absolute best I could every time I sat down in front of my laptop. I went hard, but the truth is I’ve been going hard for two years and in the last six month, I’ve upped the ante.

While waiting for my studies to kick start again in 2018, I decided to dedicate the six months between July and December 2017 to writing.

When people asked, “What are you doing now?” I happily told them I was freelancing and working on a couple of books. Unfortunately, this answer is often misinterpreted as, “I’m just taking it easy.”  The result? I pretty much doubled my writing efforts to compensate for my own sense of guilt: Maybe writing is the equivalent of doing nothing? Maybe I should go get a “real job” with a uniform and a roster and a weekly predictable income…

A couple of months ago, I was at a friend’s barbeque making small talk with a young married couple. Eventually, the wife asked what I did for work and I told her.

“A writer? Oh, wow.” Her face became wistful. “That’s like the dream, isn’t it? Sitting at home all day in your pyjamas.” Yeah…cos that’s what it looks like….

She asked me what kind of articles I wrote, so I rattled off some recent titles and the websites they were published on. At this point, the husband chimed in. “Ah, so you write articles like Seven Ways to Please Your Man.”

This was a statement, not a question.

Friends, if you ever come across an article titled Seven Ways to Please Your Man, please know that I didn’t write it.

Anyway, the point is, I was feeling a wee bit shrivelled after my two-week marathon.

I didn’t want to write. I was uninterested in writing. Hell, not even my beloved copy of SK’s On Writing could save me from the dry pit I’d fallen into.

It wasn’t an “I really should write today, but hows about I clean the oven instead” type situation (which is really just resistance), it was more than that. Not wanting to write is different from not feeling like writing. Saying “I don’t feel like writing today,” is really just code for “I’d rather hang out with friends, watch a movie, re-organise the bathroom cupboard.”

I didn’t want to hang out with friends, watch a movie or re-organise my bathroom cupboard. What I wanted was to sit in an empty room and stare at the wall.

Look, I don’t know if this desire for a self-created padded cell is a sign of burnout or if it’s a simple case of millennial navel-gazing, but clearly, I needed a fucking break.

Thankfully, my partner and I had a three-week holiday scheduled.

Despite my lack of interest in writing, I decided to set myself a personal challenge: write one piece of flash fiction every day while we’re away on holidays. By the time we get home, I’ll have enough content to publish a small ebook! And I vowed to buy a notebook as soon as I passed a newsagency.

Fortunately, I never found one. I’m sure they were around, but I have crap eyesight and I don’t always wear my glasses. It’s called: denial.

If I had followed through with this ridiculous plan, I would have been on edge for the entire trip. I would have been fretting about “making time for writing.” I would have gotten up early or worked during those awkward hours between four and six pm, when nothing much is going on and you’re just waiting around until you can respectably start drinking. I would have wound up having one foot on the hiking trails of the Blue Mountains and the other tucked beneath the desk in our hotel room. Split concentration.

A common problem amongst writers is that sense of always being “on.” You’re always observing, listening in on conversations, noting down the strange phrases people from different states or generations use, or ruminating on a plot hole you noticed the day before.

Though you may only write for one, two or three hours a day, your brain stays on task long after you’ve left the keyboard.

A few years back, I was interning at a newspaper. One night, while splitting a plate of vegetable noodles at a local Chinese joint, my friend stopped mid-sentence and pointed her chopsticks at me, “Stop it.”

“Stop what?” I asked like I didn’t know.

“Stop sifting through our conversation for news nuggets.

So, the three week holiday passed and I didn’t write anything. My writer brain eventually switched off and I was able to keep both feet firmly planted in the holiday.

Now, you all know what’s coming, don’t you?

When I got back home, I was actually excited about returning to my writing routine. I hadn’t spent my holidays carefully storing thoughts or ideas in order to write them down later; it wasn’t the hook of a storyline, character or powerful image that pulled me to the desk, I just wanted to write…something….anything. 

Now, full transparency, the first day back at my desk was awful. I squeezed out 500 words, promptly fell asleep, and then got through another 1,500 words. In the Muse’s defence, it was my first day home and I’d been running on three or four hours sleep for many consecutive nights (I’m not a party animal, I just don’t sleep well while travelling).

Soon though, my writing momentum returned, improving with each day that passed until I was smashing out 5,000 words a day. I even kept an open notebook beside me to jot down spontaneous ideas for blog posts, writer snapshots, essays and articles that I could follow up on later.

Obviously, we all know that taking a break can be creatively rejuvenating, and yet, how often do we actually do it?

Yes, taking too many breaks can disrupt creative flow and productivity, but we have the intelligence to gauge whether we can get away with a quick ten-minute reprieve or whether our burnt out brains need a proper “time out”.

If you want to keep your love for the craft alive, you gotta do this. Your Muse and the friend you split Chinese meals with will thank you.

Image: Match Ignition by Pedro Moura Pinheiro

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