As your career advances, the intensity and difficulty of your projects increase. Writing weekly columns, book series, performing the research for book proposals. There is a point where you may snap. You will want to chew a limb off to escape if necessary. Now, if we can pull our arms out of our mouths for a moment, there’s a way to escape. But to escape, we have to identity the problem.
Burn out. Those two words are dreaded by people. We’re writing, we’re supposed to love it, every second. No excuses. Sit down in that chair and write! The writing advice we’re generally fed is “tough love from your scary drill sergeant” or “follow your floaty muse to your happy place.” We don’t get burn out advice.
To start with: it happens.
It can happen to any writer, on any project, at any time. We exceed the energy—physical and emotional—that we have available. Life stress piles up, like suffocating invisible laundry. Magically, calendar days get closer to our deadline. Three months to finish the book? There was that one weekend we wrote 11K. The weekend we spent crying because it’s all we did, and it sucked. Because we were already starting to burn out!
Escape by straight out dumping a project often isn’t possible. There are financial and contractual obligations, our reputation and those of our creative partners, agents, editors, artists. In many cases, quitting a project isn’t an option. And that realization often triggers a wellspring of dark, sickening rage and depression. We feel robbed of agency, and forced beyond our abilities. The ways to cope with that are a little like advice about how to fall asleep: everyone will give you something different to try.
I’ve been burnt out and stuck for months inside projects. What I’m going to tell you is how I survive those moments in time without committing felonies or developing substance abuse habits.
First, I grid out everything left in the project. I make lots of little bullet lists with headers, post-it notes, calendar reminders. If I can find the will to at least stay on target with the bare minimum for the week, I avoid outright drowning. It’s a step. But I never have just one writing commitment going on. So my calendar and my wall become this multi-coloured map of my existential career despair made manifest. So many articles for Y magazine, this work on the book for X publisher, these guest posts for Z website. Then travel, signings, events, and family obligations.
But then! The list of rewards.
If I can get through this laborious, burnt out period, I will be damned if I don’t reward myself along the way. Naps. A walk somewhere pleasant. Reading time related in no plausible way to any active project. Movie night. The sacred sin of take-out Chinese. Getting the Hell out of my house. It’s easy, when so many of us are freelancers, to shackle ourselves to the desk.You may not be able to chew free of the project, but give yourself a break. If you don’t take a break, don’t reward yourself, find ways to replenish your energy—you may and often will have catastrophic results. Illness, inappropriate emotional outburst at loved ones, at people you work with. Depression and rage and incomplete work.
You are not the only person who suffers, when you are burnt out. So for yourself, for your creative partners and your loved ones: learn what your burn out warning signs are. Learn appropriate, healthy responses to it. Learn what your limit is for work you can take on. And abide by that limit. Self-abuse as an artistic norm isn’t healthy, it’s a creepy myth. Writing is demanding, brutal work when we do right by it. But we can’t keep writing without doing right by ourselves.
The project will end. If you take care of yourself, there will always be more of them in the future. Your career will still be there, as long as you are still here.
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I would add: spend time with people who love writing as much as you do (or at least used to). Projects are much more energized when you aren't the only one who cares about them, creatively.