Writers, We Need to Talk About Creative Burnout

This summer, I burned out.

I touched on this in my post last week with a few brief paragraphs about why I’d disappeared from most of my online platforms. Part of me wanted to leave it at that, but even as I kept my personal update short, I knew I had more to say. After all, my goal with this blog is to be transparent about the realities of my writing journey, both ups and downs.

Burnout seems to be in the air at the moment. Multiple writers have mentioned to me that they are either grappling with burnout or have grappled with it in the recent past. “You’re not alone,” they tell me, and the admission carries palpable relief.

It makes sense. Burnout has always haunted the realm of creative work. For some of us, even the best of us, fallow periods and self-doubt come with the territory.

A Western Union from Dorothy Parker to her editor.

My favorite historical evidence of writer angst.

Authors today must deal with the lingering stress of multiple global emergencies, the uncertainties of a troubled industry, an emphasis on fast production schedules, and market pressures to constantly self-promote when we’d rather create. Most of us work a day job to make ends meet, leaving precious little time and energy to devote to our art. Like a sluggish jet stream meeting overheated waters, we face the conditions for a perfect storm.

It’s not that I didn’t read the forecast.

When burnout came for me, it didn’t come without warning. I felt it in my bones like a change in the weather. Toward the end of July, I wrote here about the sense of emotional exhaustion, but also my desire to keep up my blogging and writing streaks. I hoped I could avoid the crash – but I couldn’t.

I’d gotten used to pushing myself. Starting in 2020 with preparations for Pitch Wars, a newfound creative discipline fueled me. Stretching my limits led to growth, which encouraged me stretch further and push harder still. Up until my second book’s release this June, I hadn’t taken more than a couple weeks’ break from some kind of writing task.

None of that felt bad, though. I threw my all into it because doing what I loved, really committing to it, exhilarated me. Then the barometer plunged, if you will, and my internal landscape shifted.

The hyperfocus I previously trained on marketing tasks and learning how to manage a professional social media presence evaporated. I had started a new project at the end of June, but my excitement quickly shifted to ennui. Blogging turned to slogging as I found myself with nothing to say.

I probably waited too long.

I told myself I could take the month of August off before I dove into my next revision cycle. Four weeks of nothing sounded like a luxury beyond compare. Surely I would start to get antsy for the work again by the fourth week.

At the same time, I feared losing all the momentum and productive habits I had built over the preceding months. I feared letting my communities down. I feared letting myself down by not engaging in self-promo and giving my books their best possible chance in a crowded market.

Some of those fears came true. Once I gave myself permission to stop and took my foot off the gas, everything ground to a halt. I had zero desire to participate in anything even tangentially writing-related, zero motivation to do the smallest and most basic tasks.

Spoiler alert: I did not get antsy. Four weeks in, my brain still felt limp as a wet dishrag. In the last week of August, I tried and failed to start my revisions, with a deadline I had mostly set for myself looming over me. I hated every minute I spent trying to force myself back to the page.

There was literally nothing I could do.

My exhaustion went beyond just the actual creative process to engagement with my creative communities. Whereas before I had always enjoyed hopping on Twitter to talk about writing, publishing, and books, I suddenly felt weary dread at the prospect of the latest discourse (same as the old discourse, a little bit louder and a little bit worse). I barely even lurked in my (multiple, too many) Discord writing servers.

This was not a judicious hiatus from the writing life. It was not a choice I made with full access to my executive function. When I vanished from my platforms, it was not a deliberate social media cleanse for self improvement purposes.

I’ve done those. They take willpower. This was different: a big nope, a do not want, a tail-turning, browser-closing impulse that was new to me.

A single pawprint of regret in the snow outside a threshold. Presumably the feline who made the mark is napping comfortable by the fire for the foreseeable future.

I definitely let some balls drop, disappointing myself and others. Every one felt too heavy to hold. Inertia always wins in the end, and I’d been running on fumes long enough that I’d used up whatever momentum I started with.

Writer’s burnout isn’t writer’s block.

If you have writer’s block, you want to write, but you can’t. Writer’s block is something in your way, something stopping you, getting lost when you can’t wait to get to the party. It’s staring at the blank page, unable to get the story from brain to keyboard.

Burnout, for a writer, means losing the desire to write. It’s when you can’t stand to look at the page. If you’re burned out, you don’t care if the page stays blank because writing it has stopped mattering. Or it matters only in that vague terrible way where you feel you should want to do the thing, but it’s actually the last thing you want to do.

You may know all too well that nothing is blocking your way. You may have plenty of time, plenty of space, plenty of road ahead. You may know just where you need to go next with your project and what needs to happen to get there, but you can’t force yourself to move forward.

Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?

Kurt Vonnegut

It’s a confusing and disorienting experience. If you have grown used to calling yourself a writer, what are you now? Will you ever want anything to do with a single word ever again?

Burnout may require quitting—temporarily.

Burnout isn’t forever, no matter how it feels in the moment. You will create again, in time. But you can’t just power through it, despite what a surprising number of articles on the topic of writer’s burnout advise.

“Don’t stop writing,” exhorted one such article, which I will not link but which came up on top of my Google search. “When it gets so hard that you’re not sure you can go on, the worst thing you can do is give in.” To which I will say, with all due respect, fuck you very much and I hope you’re doing better than that these days.

The reality is that burnout demands rest. You must actually do nothing, no matter how strong your conditioning otherwise. You must stop doing the thing you loved until you love it again, or you will only learn to hate it.

Frankly, it sucks, but there’s no getting around it. Pushing yourself to slog through it works for writer’s block much of the time. But it will only make burnout exponentially worse.

We may find ways to stave it off or slow it for a while with half-measures, self-care that doesn’t self-repair. But when you are truly depleted, quitting (at least temporarily) is not the problem. It’s the solution.

People who burn out do so because we don’t know how to stop. We wait for our psyches to force it on us, and even then we may fight it. We see it coming and try to deny or bargain our way through it.

Neurodivergent brains are prone to burnout.

If you identify as ND, like me, you may find you burn out faster and harder than neurotypical folks. Researchers and ND advocates have noted higher rates of burnout in autistic people and people with ADHD. As for me, I’ve only begun to realize how deeply my personal life experiences with late-diagnosed ADHD have skewed my perspective on my own productivity.

I’m an impatient perfectionist who can get incredibly hard on myself about “laziness” and procrastination after past struggles with follow-through. Much of my negative self-talk arises around “not doing” and losing focus. It’s harder for me to recognize that there might be a problem when things are getting done than when they aren’t.

For ND brains, many aspects of day to day functioning require a higher cognitive load to begin with. We have to devote considerable resources to compensatory behaviors like masking to get along in a society not adapted for us. Daily life also bristles with additional stressors: overstimulation, understimulation, sensory triggers, and other pitfalls less troubling to NTs.

Hyperfocus, often the easiest way for us to complete necessary tasks, drains resources quickly and can override self-care. If you already have trouble regulating or monitoring your emotions and attention, like many people with ADHD, it’s that much easier to miss the signs of burnout. Furthermore, high-functioning ADHD means it’s easy to overcommit, which leads to overwhelm.

People living with chronic illness or PTSD also experience higher susceptibility to burnout. And even if you aren’t dealing with any of those factors, there’s always “hustle culture,” brutally ubiquitous Puritanical work ethics, and good ol’ late stage capitalism ready to grind you down into a fine dust. It’s no wonder endemic burnout is on the rise.

Recovery takes time.

I’m now inching my way back from burnout land after two months, twice the time I thought I would need. This has been a major learning experience for me. Here are some of the lessons I’m working on integrating through this recovery period.

Honor rest as a basic need.

Too often, I treat rest as a reward – something I get to enjoy after I pass my next goalpost. That’s not how rest works, however. Everyone’s bodies and minds need rest as much as we need food, water, and air.

I don’t just mean sleep. There’s a reason play is called recreation: re-creation, the act of remaking. We need time to relax, play, exist without goals or obligations – even the ones we make to ourselves.

Commit to stepping away.

I get way too hard on myself when I’m not working toward my goals. It’s like I can feel time slipping through my fingers when I stop to take a break. I pushed my limits these past years in the name of committing to creative work.

But going that hard all the time is unsustainable. Just like pursuing my passion by throwing myself into my writing, rest and recreation is a form of commitment to myself and my well-being. By doing so, I’ll build better stamina to go the distance when I chase after my dreams and ambitions.

Treat burnout like the injury it is.

Physical injuries are easy to recognize – if nothing else, our body uses pain to communicate a need for recovery. But mental and emotional exhaustion are signposts too. Just as physical recovery requires gentleness, rest, and time, so does mental recovery.

The brain is electric meat, after all. It’s part of the body. There are no nerves in the brain, however, so it has to find other ways to send its emergency signals. I wouldn’t try to walk on a broken leg, yet I tried to force myself back to my writing routine without bothering to check if my mind was ready to move. No wonder I fell down.

Listen to body and mind.

My warnings of imminent burnout came in the form of a loss of desire for the creative work that had previously felt fulfilling. At first, I didn’t listen and tried to power through. I knew my overall goals hadn’t changed, so I dismissed the messages coming from my inner self.

As I recover, I’m trying to become a better listener to my feelings and desires as I make big and small choices throughout the day. I also restarted a meditation practice I let fall by the wayside. Inner listening helps me choose to spend my time on activities that feel nurturing, as I focus on what I want to do instead of what I “should” do.

Take it slow when it’s time to return.

This may be the hardest lesson of all. Toward the end of September, I finally noticed my interest shifting back toward creative energy and engagement. My first impulse urged me to plunge back into the deep end and restart everything as it was before.

I’m not doing that, however. Despite a resurgence in energy, I still sense a certain tenderness and soreness around my mental muscles. Rehabilitation from an injury calls for careful, therapeutic movement, so I am doing a little bit at a time.

I started my revisions, but I asked for an extension on my deadline so that I don’t have to rush through them. I dipped my toe back into my social media communities, but I’m still spending less time and energy on being “present.” I began planning book promo again, but I decided to limit my efforts to once per week and considering rotating platforms.

As for the blog, I won’t strive for weekly posts for the rest of the year unless I have something I’m fired up to write about. In other words, I won’t force it if I don’t have time or energy. I’ll also take steps to make my blog production less stressful and time-consuming – fewer images, less promo, and no more moving my goalposts by trying to beat last week’s or last month’s page views.

Healing is a work in progress.

These principles sound simple when I put them into words, but they’ve proved extremely challenging for me to accept at times. I got down on myself and my work when I couldn’t snap back at the beginning of September. Now that I’ve made some progress on my revisions and gotten back into the swing of things, I’m feeling better about myself.

At the same time, I know this improved self-image is a symptom of the same tendencies that burned me out in the first place. I have more work to do as far as learning to slow my roll. If I’m not careful, I’ll go right back to my bad habits as soon as I start feeling good again.

I’m sharing my experience here in case it could help someone reading this who feels similarly to know they’re not alone. I’ll also acknowledge that what works for me in this situation may not work for others. I’m certainly no expert at this – the opposite, in fact.

If you read all the way to the end, I hope you take this post as a cue to find some space for rest and gentleness with yourself. Because whether or not you are experiencing burnout right now and wherever you are in your creative cycle, sustained creativity demands recreation. We all have a need – and a right – to rest.

4 thoughts on “Writers, We Need to Talk About Creative Burnout

  1. What an important topic. I’ve actually been feeling the same and had been meaning to talk about it too. It’s great to share these moments so people won’t feel so alone when the time comes, like I do, being in a trough right now. Thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

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