Burnout: The Dark side of the Writing life

I’ve never experienced burnout, but I’ve been near to those who have.

Burnout is the emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that follows a prolonged state of excessive stress.

We don’t talk about burnout as it relates to creatives specifically, but this type of intense fatigue is of course just as real for artists as it is for anyone else.

As Joy Carol Oates says, ‘You need so much energy and encouragement to write.’

The act of creating can be exhausting. It does take a lot of energy to write because you’re creating something out of nothing. Gone are the days when the only thing a writer had to worry about was their stories—did those days ever really exist anyway?

If you’re developing a creative career, then your energy is probably dispersed all over the place: a blog, newsletter, courses, private coaching, speaking engagements, media appearances, platform maintenance, amazon ads, research about amazon ads, etc.

If writing is your side hustle, then your plate is even fuller as you balance all the above tasks with full-time work and/or study.

Listed like this, it is easy to see how creatives can become burnout.

And yet, few creatives talk about this. We talk about being busy (because being busy is glorified), but perhaps the bigger reason why people don’t discuss this is because creative exhaustion seem unjustifiable.

We’re not solving major world problems or saving lives (at least not directly, and yet many people have made the serious and hyperbole statement, ‘This book saved my life’).

We haven’t earned the right to claim ‘burnout’ because writing stories isn’t very serious.

And here we arrive back at that old sad story of artist’s guilt.

Burnout happens for creatives, in part, because we are still fighting to be taken seriously.

What people think creatives are doing when they’re making art.

Sometimes, I struggle to relax because I take my art seriously and I want to be taken seriously. For that to happen, others have to see me working hard. Taking weekends off, socialising, or reading on the coach aren’t the types of activities that hard-working people do—or at least that’s the toxic narrative going around in my brain.

There are so many issues packaged in this mentality. Writing takes energy and we only have so many good hours in a day, once we go beyond this threshold, we really aren’t producing good work anymore and what’s more troubling is that we’re actually going into a deficit.

Studies and anecdotal evidence show that when we go hard one day, our productivity will be significantly less the next day.

In the pursuit of convincing others to take our art seriously we work ourselves to the bone; unfortunately, this only harms our art. It’s difficult to produce good work when the tank is empty. 

What is even more problematic is that engaging in this loop strengthens the link between productivity and self-worth on a personal level while keeping the grand narratives of hustle culture alive. 

Part of the reason we work so hard is that we feel that creating art is selfish and indulgent, but if we can find a way to make writing a punitive activity, then others will be forced to take it seriously.

Writing, like all creative pursuits, is a privilege.

It is an activity that is reserved for people who are able (or willing) to take the financial risk to pursue a dream. In some cases, they may have another source of income, such as a full-time job or spouse that keeps things afloat, but in other cases, it’s a matter of reducing costs, applying for grants, and taking on contract work.

Writers need energy, support, and resources to write.

You need time and space to write. You need to disconnect from the reality and responsibilities of your life in order to venture into another. These conditions could be difficult to create if you are a single parent working two jobs.

There’s more than one way to relax. For some, it may be active forms such as exercise or socialising, for others it could be time alone when their mind is allowed to wander.

The crux of artistic guilt: the world doesn’t need art in the same way that it needs food or shelter.

And yet, art is a record. What remains of ancient civilisations is stories and artefacts, the remnants of culture.

Art enriches our lives.

Imagine that all forms of art were removed from the world. No more music, film, theatre, paintings, weird exhibitions, or pottery.

Imagine a life without books?

Miserable, isn’t it?

And yet, continual cuts to art funding communicates a different message: art isn’t valuable.

A message that is underscored—to a degree—by new technologies that have trained consumers to expect products, services, and yes, art to be free.

And all of this plays into creative burnout.

The world doesn’t take art seriously, but we do and we want to be taken seriously which means doubling down on work, playing into hustle culture, and producing all the content we can.

We push ourselves to do and create more because there is always something else we could be doing (write another chapter, blog, join another platform, respond to a DM, design an email campaign, create a new opt-in offer etc).

To write, we need to leave our reality behind and step into another.

Self-publishing is a wonderful option for so many writers, but it’s also a lot of work and there is so much you can do that writers feel the pressure to do more, and more.

Writing for 2-3 hours a day isn’t enough, despite scientific evidence that this is the extent of our bandwidth. (To put things into perspective, the greatest minds in the world who are employed by MIT and NASA typically do five hours of intense work a day).

It is easy to fall into the trap of working six, eight, ten, or twelve plus hours a day, even if most of that work is hollow or meaningless (see: busywork). And yet, science shows most people are only productive for 1-4 hours a day.

Writers and creatives pull these long hours and engage in busywork as a way to justify our desire to create and so we too can be rewarded for our productivity, which is pretty much the easiest way to find instant validation and gratification.

While outsiders may think art-making is all glitter and Instagram flat lays, artists are just as prone to burnout as anyone else because we have so much to prove.

We burnout because we are trying to earn the space we’re taking up; we’re trying to prove that we are worthy and that this isn’t a hobby.

Burnout could happen for multiple reasons. Maybe you’re juggling full-time work and a family with your writing as a side gig. Maybe you’re a full-time writer who works for hire doing copywriting or editing as a way to fund your passion project or you’re a fiction writer balancing your imagined worlds against self-promotion and the constantly changing digital landscape.

The fundamental guilt that underlays the arts is based on the notion that our work isn’t practical, urgent or needed. That nothing would change whether we made it or not, that our time would be better spent doing the elusively worthy ‘something else.’

So when we do rest, we feel guilty.

We tell ourselves that writing isn’t coal mining, that we don’t ‘need’ to rest because we haven’t done anything that exhausting.

Also, we’re afraid to rest because we don’t want to affirm societal notions of ‘the lazy artist.’

And so we continue on, working and grinding away on our writing projects and platforms.

But we also need to rest.

It can be a little dysfunctional to say that rest is the best way to support your productivity, but if this is the only way to justify this need, well hey, it’s a starting point.

It’s all well and good to make luscious lists of restful activities, but it’s vital to think about what activities would fill up your creative well and make you feel restored.

Binge watching a Netflix season is unlikely to do that, but a long walk in the bush or ten minutes of a breathing exercise might.

One way to think about rest is to imagine an archer. To go forward, the arrow has is pulled way back before being released. That’s how rapid, sure fire action happens.

Because everyone need rest.

Even lazy, privileged writers.

Now I’d love to hear from you, what do you want your relationship with writing to look like?

How do you want to engage with writing? What goals (in your control) do you have?

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