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On Burnout and Refilling the Creative Well
I am burned out.
I don't think anyone would dispute that writing is hard work. And writing is hard work. It may not be physically taxing, but it is mentally, emotionally, and at times spiritually taxing. But because we don't necessarily wear the work of writing on our bodies the same way we do with other types of labor, we often ignore, try to justify, deny, or even berate ourselves our own exhaustion.
That's what happened to me.
A writer on deadline is a harried beast. Health, happiness, and even hygiene (...especially hygiene) fall by the wayside, cast off as inessential or unimportant when it comes to words, words, words. I've blogged about the challenges of writing your first book under contract here before, but I (perhaps hubristically) thought that I could handle it. That I could manage. My immigrant mother and my Puritan ancestors instilled in me a disciplined work ethic, but they also left buried a deep and abiding sense of shame with regards to indulgence.
The concept of self-care is loaded, or perhaps it is for me. Where is the line between self-care and indulgence, but moreover, where is the line between indulgence and laziness? When does I'm taking a break to rest and recover turn into I am actively avoiding what needs to be done? When is an inability to write a reluctance to glue your butt to a chair for a few hours every night vs. an actual sign of something being broken?
I've recently resigned my day job.
It was a long time coming, I suppose, but I didn't see the signs. Or rather, I didn't want to see the signs. Perhaps it's the fear of an admission of weakness, of failure. I couldn't do it. I couldn't manage writing and a day job. But why couldn't I do it? Why couldn't I work 60 hours a week and come home and write another book? Why couldn't I also manage a podcast, a website, and promotion and have a social life? Why, why, why?
Money is a factor, of course. I had a very modest advance, so I had to keep a day job to pay my bills. But I've done it before, why couldn't I do it again? I've juggled all these things before I became published, why couldn't I keep doing it?
Becoming published was the game changer.
The difference between being a published author and an aspiring writer is narrow, but deep. There are demons and monsters that lurk in the depths of that divide, ones you can't see from the surface. Different demons for different writers, of course, but mine is the Emotional Vampire. I've been open elsewhere about my bipolar disorder, about my need to find balance and equilibrium. As excited and grateful and energized as I am about being paid to tell stories, of meeting readers, of being sparkly and bright and glittering, the crash that accompanies this is debilitating. And yet. I love meeting new people, I love laughing and charming and performing, even as I know that the higher I fly, the harder I fall. But I can no more reign in my mania than I can stop myself from plummeting. The Emotional Vampire is alluring, but it leaves me a dried out husk. I would take the scraps of what my particular monster leaves me and take that to the day job, trying desperately to salvage something—anything—for writing after spending 10 hours a day problem-solving for another person, another company, another corporation.
PubCrawl alumna Erin Bowman has also written about the need for writers to allow themselves to take vacations. We are not automata; we are human beings. Creativity is not a perpetual motion machine. If we do not refill the creative well, we run dry. My well had run dry. The Emotional Vampire drank it all.
I was lucky. If I could not quit with the advance my publisher paid me, then my family and loved ones were willing, ready, and to be honest, kind of pushy about supporting me. I had come to the point where I could do one job well, or two jobs poorly. I had to choose.
And I've not written a word since I chose. Instead I've done nothing but immerse myself in web design code, adult coloring books, sewing projects, going to the gym, making artisanal iced coffee and cocktails in my own house, and binge-watching all of Hulu's Harlots. (All the men look like some version of Matt Smith?) And you know what? This, more than anything, has been helping me heal. Before this, I wrote and wrote and wrote and all the words were dead on the page. I felt nothing about the characters I loved or the stories I wanted to tell. There was a void. But now, word by word, the desire to write is returning. Ideas are coming back. That little mustard seed of creativity is growing again.
Refilling the creative well is not indulgence. It is a necessity.