Writer’s Burnout—it’s really real

Regular readers know I don’t believe in Writer’s Block. But I recently passed through a stage that made no sense to me. And I just came across a blog in which another writer named it:

Writer’s Burnout

writer's burnout is realThat’s exactly what I went through. I wrote—I mean, writing’s what pays the mortgage around here; I had to write. Also, my writing streak: 15 minutes every day for over 950 days. That’s at least 237.5 hours of writing, just for myself. Clearly I loved writing.

But then I didn’t. I still wrote well enough, but it brought my zero joy. I resented every word I wrote—for my clients and for myself.

And when your main source of joy morphs into an ocean of resentment—well, it’s scary.

I realized I was burned out. It’s happened once before, over 10 years ago, and I swore I’d never let it happen again. But I had no idea until I read this blog that I wasn’t just burned out as a worker, I was burned out as a writer.

Writer’s burnout is looking at the page, hating the page, and questioning your entire identity as a writer, all for an extended period of time.—Kellie McGann

Perhaps it’s not surprising that my long writing streak ended during my burnout. Fortunately, I picked it back up the next day—and that’s one of McGann’s prescriptions: Whatever you do, keep writing. The voices in your head may tell you you need a break from the keyboard. But step away and you might never return. Find something light to write about, something silly that will make you laugh. Write limericks or doggerel—intentionally bad verse.

Like any burnout, Writer’s Burnout sucks. But keep writing and eventually you’ll remember how writing feeds you. And not just literally.

The world needs your voice.

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Now through April 16th, 2019 I’m offering “Practically Free Writing Coaching.” Feeling burned out? Let’s talk about it. Feeling stuck? Need some objective feedback? Book your time now; use it through May 31st.

Frequent Questions: How do you deal with an idea drought?

Q: How do you deal with an idea drought—when you just don’t know what to write?
A: The same way you deal with a real drought: stock up your resources in advance.

rain. not an idea droughtIt’s raining right now in the Northeast, with more rain in the forecast every day for the next two weeks. Diagnosis: It’s April; happens once a year whether we want it to or not.

But people in desert climates treat rain as a much more precious resource. My rain falls off the roof and disappears into the land. In a desert, residents capture rain in barrels and cisterns and recycle every ounce of it for another use. They save their water because they know it won’t always be so plentiful.

Same with writers and our ideas.

Get an idea? Write that sucker down. Keep a small notebook or a couple of index cards in your back pocket. Or rely on that never-ending “notebook” on your phone. (But don’t rely on Siri to transcribe for you—not if you want to be able to decipher what you wrote.)

Ideas—maybe you’ve noticed this already—don’t grow on trees. It’s easy to sit down and write if you’ve snagged an idea. But what if you happen to feel idea-free—and you’re supposed to write anyway. Because that’s what writers do, right? Write every day. Keep those writing muscles well-oiled.

So pay attention to the ideas that honor you with their presence. Stop what you’re doing and write them down. Save them for a rainy day—or an idea drought.

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Now through April 16th, 2019 only: I’m offering “Practically Free Coaching.” Get some support for your writing challenges.

Fear & Flight—a writer’s perspective

EDIT: I wrote this post before I finished the book. I won’t do that again! Halfway through, I ran into some racist language. Yes, perhaps it’s standard for the period in which he wrote, but there’s no reason to recommend it today. Still, this piece makes some good points for writers, so I’m not going to take it down.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Many of us read his gorgeous writing as children—he wrote The Little Prince. But Wind, Sand & Stars is not a fable, it’s a 1929 memoir of his youth as an air-mail pilot, flying the mails from France to Africa, or across the sea to South America—back before radar could show you that mountain you needed to steer around, back when you had to radio an airport to flash its lights three times so you could see where to land. Not an easy job.

cover of Saint-Exupéry's Wind, Sand and Stars

I’ve seen several sources cite Wind, Sand and Stars as one of those must-read books for any writer, and not even a quarter of the way through it, I have to agree. Here he’s talking about the reactions when his colleague Mermoz radioed that he was cutting off an engine. Ten minutes went by with no contact:

“It would be ridiculous to worry over someone ten minutes late in our day-to-day existence, but in the air-mail service ten minutes can be pregnant with meaning. At the heart of this dead slice of time an unknown event is locked up. Insignificant, it may be; a mishap, possibly: whatever it is, the event has taken place. Fate has pronounced a decision from which there is no appeal. An iron hand has guided a crew into a sea-landing that may have been safe and may have been disastrous. And long hours must go by before the decision of the gods is made known to those who wait.”

English translation by Lewis Galantière

Before this passage, Saint-Exupéry treated us to detailed descriptions of the many times Mermoz had escaped certain death: he’d been captured and held for ransom by an African tribe; forced down in the Atlantic and rescued by a passing freighter; stranded for two days on a 12,000-foot high mesa in the Andes. Surely this would turn into another of those triumphant stories.

“But the hands of the clock were going round and little by little it began to grow late. Slowly the truth was borne in upon us that our comrades would never return, that they were sleeping in that South Atlantic whose skies they had so often ploughed. Mermoz had done his job and slipped away to rest, like a gleaner who, having carefully bound his sheaf, lies down in the fields to sleep.”

How can a few dozen words make you care so much about someone you’ve never met? But I feel the loss of Mermoz, don’t you?

And actually, it’s Mermoz more than Saint-Exupéry who inspired me to write today. He braved the skies and risked his life every day. On more than one occasion, he came close to death—yet he continued to fly until death overtook him. He flew because he loved it.

Fear & writing

Mermoz’s story reminded me of Agnes, a woman I worked with for a bit. Faced with an unplanned career transition, she decided she wanted to be a writer. Yet she didn’t write.

I suggested that she enroll in my writing class, but she believed she couldn’t afford it. Instead, she opted for a program that offered analyses of great pieces of writing—more an intellectual how-to than a hands-on DO IT. And even though she received a writing prompt every other week through that program, she never posted any work. Strange for someone who claims to want to write professionally, eh?

When we talked, she rationalized all the busy-ness of her life that prevented her from sitting down to write. Yet she continued to say she wanted to be a writer. Who was going to win that battle—Agnes or her fear? So I made her an offer: she should take two weeks to write something—anything—and show it to me and I would give her a free coaching session to discuss it.

Ten days later she told me she couldn’t do it. Agnes, like Mermoz, was lost.

The difference that is by facing his fears, Mermoz was able to pursue his passion. Agnes succumbed to her fear without even trying. The other difference, of course, is that writing is a much safer endeavor than flying a 1920s-era airplane. Paper cuts and maybe carpal tunnel are pretty much the worst you can do—and neither of those will force you down in the South Atlantic.

Mermoz died doing what he loved; Agnes wouldn’t even allow herself to try.

Which one are you?

“Shockingly expensive” — truth in marketing

“The Shockingly Expensive Meal Program Worth Every Penny”

That’s the headline of the ad that appeared in my Facebook feed recently. Well, actually it said “Worth Every Pe…” but we all know how it ends.

shockingly expensive food

This company knows who its target audience is—and it’s apparently not bargain-hunters.

The people who buy this stuff pride themselves on spending lots for meals. And—hey—if it’s “worth every pe…” I might not care if the food is “shockingly expensive,” though I will balk at $400 angora throws or $200 dog collars. (Sorry, Fenway.)

Everybody has a price range for everything. It just depends on what you value.

Shockingly expensive — and truthful

Still, you have to admire that marketer’s guts, right? “Shockingly expensive” are not words you often see in advertising.

In a world where you can buy an online course for $59, my writing programs may seem “shockingly expensive.” Even my self-directed revision course costs nearly $900. But, yes, I think it’s “worth every penny.” And more. Heck, it’s not just a bunch of videos—you get actual, one-on-one coaching with me. Where are you going to find that for $59?

And my 12-week writing program requires an even bigger investment—in money and in time. I want to weed out the dilettantes, the people who have a passing thought that “Gee, it might be fun to write more.” The people who start writing for fun often balk when it becomes actual work, as it sometimes must. When people invest in working with me, I want them to be committed, to do the work, and to experience real change.

If that sounds like you—and if you’re ready for a “shockingly expensive” personal growth experience that’s “worth every pe…”—check out my Draft to DONE program.

I can’t promise you a puppy in your arms as you savor your avocado toast. But I can promise to get you thinking in new ways—and to show you how transform your writing from good to great.

Are you a skater, too?

I used to be a world-class skater.

revise

Not an ice skater — I’m far too uncoordinated for that. No, I skated on my writing assignments, handing in first drafts all through college.

And I got by. People even called me a good writer. I always translated that secretly as “good enough.” Because I suspected I could do better. But what if I was wrong? Better not to waste the energy trying to revise only to find out that “good enough” was really, truly, the best I could do.

I didn’t begin revising until I became a professional writer. My clients gave me notes about things they wanted to add or change; I incorporated them and started tweaking another word here, a phrase there. Then reordering paragraphs, changing the structure—revising. And I saw that “good enough” could become “good.” And even “great”—great enough to win awards.

Find your “great”

You know it’s true: second thoughts make a better first impression. Like me, you probably suspect you can do better the second (or even third) time. And you’re right.

So how do you learn the fine art of revision?

First, find yourself some clients. Make sure they’re picky and change their minds frequently. Then spend years chasing their approval as you try to teach yourself what works and avoid what doesn’t.

Or—and maybe this is easier—invest some time with me.

I’ve put together a program to help you discover how to enjoy revising—as your work gets better, right before your eyes. If you’re interested in getting more information, sign up here and you’ll be the first to know when I release it.

Overdrawn at the word-bank

scrabble tiles - overdrawn at the word-bank

I love my job, I love my life; I love writing. When I write my daily list of things I’m grateful for, writing/creativity sometimes even bumps Fenway from the top spot. (Don’t tell her.)

But for the past six months or so, I’ve been working on a project for a client who passed the draft along to a Higher Authority. And the Higher Authority suggested rewrites. When I turned in the second draft, I thought I’d get at least a month’s respite. But Higher Authority turned around comments in two days, requesting an entirely new draft in a month—over the holidays. I limped to the finish line about 10 days ago, putting the last period on the third top-to-bottom rewrite. And I was done. Not just done with the project, but done with writing. I never wanted to see a computer—or even a crayon—again.

I knew it would pass. It had to; I’m a writer with bills to pay. But I was overdrawn at the word-bank. Nothing left to say. This wasn’t Writer’s Block—longtime readers know I’d believe in Bigfoot sooner than Writer’s Block. It was Writer’s Overload, I guess; too many words in too short a time.

A couple of days off followed by a week with the flu (apparently the Universe found my plan for two days off insufficient) and I’m almost back to normal. Well, I’m writing.

Okay, to be perfectly honest I never stopped writing. I had my daily 15 minutes to do. Usually that’s no more arduous for me than making a cup of tea, but the Project That Would Not End moved my 15 into the category of chore. Then burden—I think that’s around the time I let my 953-day writing streak slip away from me. After I turned in the last round, though, it had moved from burden to existential torture. Still I wrote (51 days as of today—I’ll be back in triple-digits before the new baseball season starts, though it’ll take several more seasons to get me back where I was).

What could I have done? I could have used my 15 to do fun writing projects—silly poems. A haiku about a ridiculous subject—pickles? It’s one of the funniest words in the English language; I should have written an Ode to a Pickle. I could have taken Fenway for a long walk and talked to her about what we were seeing—then scribbled it all down when I got back to my desk.

Many famous writers have made big bucks talking about the pain of putting words on paper. I don’t want to add to the pile of writing about how horrible Writing is—that’s as much bullshit as Bigfoot. Writing has always been a joy to me, and always given me joy. Don’t use my experience of Writers’ Overload to feed your excuses about why you Just Can’t Write. But be prepared, because it might happen to you. Even in the midst of an unforgiving project, turn to your list of reasons writing gives you joy. And write something joyful. (Then rest!)

The post I never wanted to write: RIP Writing Streak

My writing streak is dead. Long live the (new) writing streak.

953 days—that’s a long damn time. Sometime in May 2016, I believe, I committed to write for at least 15 minutes a day, every day. And I did—for 953 days. Until yesterday.

In the beginning, when I was ingraining it as a habit, I wrote first thing in the morning “before you check your email” as my coach Sam Bennett instructed. (No relation, except we’re both brilliant and gorgeous—so who knows?) In heath and in sickness—I even wrote the morning I had surgery. And the next day, hopped up on painkillers. Neither snow nor rain nor 11:59 at night…

I didn’t start worrying about the streak until the last six months. Travel, divorce, more travel—even dating. No matter where I was or who I was with, I did My Fifteen. Even when I spent ten hours writing for a client. Even when writing was the last thing I wanted to do. Even when I knew I’d be proving Hemingway’s observation that everyone’s first draft is shit—I wrote.

So what happened yesterday? It was an odd day to begin with—part 2 of a whirlwind trip up and down the East Coast. I got to breathe the same air as Elizabeth Gilbert for a while yesterday evening. I did take notes while she spoke—and later I tried to make that count for my 15. But it wasn’t original writing; if you’re gonna make a commitment, ya gotta stick to it.

Usually when I’ve waited too long to write, the mental reminder pops up around 10pm as I’m doing The New York Times crossword. But I was tired by then and looking forward to listening to a guided meditation when I went to bed. About halfway through the meditation, I remembered “I haven’t done my writing!” I thought about stopping the recording to do it right then, but I didn’t. I vowed that I’d do it after the recording.

“After the recording”—I’m sure you can guess—I was asleep. But I DID wake up, miraculously (the power of commitment). I grabbed my phone, opened a Notes doc, and wrote:

“I am so confused [hand hitting forehead emoji] I want up bwrite ye book as I font [hand pointing down emoji]”

Even by Hemingway’s standards I realized it was hopeless. The 953-day Writing Streak was dead—but the next one is alive and kicking.

Writing Streak—Day 1

Paintball in the cemetery? Details matter.

details matter
Black headstone with “paintball splotch” – just to the left and behind the headstone flanked by American flags

How much do details matter? Quite a lot if you actually want your audience to understand what you’re doing.

I thought about that during this morning’s walk in the cemetery. I’ve always felt sad passing one headstone—it looks like someone hit it with paintball gun. There’s a giant blob of white on one side of the black granite stone, with white streaks running down from it.

I haven’t noticed any other acts of vandalism—unless you count family members planting tinsel whirlygigs around grandma’s grave—and I wondered why no one had bothered to clean it up. It felt disrespectful to me.

Today I took a closer look at the stone.

details matter —headstone painting of deer in a forest

It’s not vandalism; it’s art. Well, at any rate it’s not vandalism.

The splotch turns out to be sky; the drips are birch trees. The family of deer, invisible from a distance, look out at the viewer. Is it my imagination, or does Daddy Deer-est have a disgusted look on his face?

The view from afar does not match the up-close reality. Or to put it another way: details matter.

Details matter in writing, too

From time to time, I’ve written corporate applications to those “best companies in the world” surveys. Details matter there too. A lot.

My clients would ask me to write about this nifty program they have, so I’d ask them for information. I’d get PowerPoints explaining the need the program filled; I’d get one-sheets outlining the steps people needed to take to access the program. I’d get everything except the detail the contest sponsor specifically requested: how do the employees feel about it. How did it improve their lives at work, if indeed it did.

Sometimes the thousand-yard view is not the most illuminating. In the case of the contest submission, I’d always want to zoom in closer. Not to the details of how the program works—that’s important to the company, but not to the end user. No, I needed to get a microscopic view of the program. How it works at the smallest, most personal level.

If my submission were this headstone, the contest sponsor would need to see the deer. Everything else is just background noise.

Are you writing what your audience needs to know? Or are you writing what you want to tell them? Sometimes a Venn diagram of those two perspectives would completely overlap; other times, they might barely touch each other.

When in doubt, write for your readers. What do they need to know? Tell them that consistently. Show them the whole picture, because details matter.


Join me on August 22nd in Los Angeles as we look at the details of the remarkable Getty Center. We’ll spend the day finding and talking about stories—and you’ll get some one-on-one coaching time with me too. Details here.

Home runs & humor — it’s all in the perspective

Casey Stengel knew humor — and baseball
By R on en.wikipedia – From en.wikipedia; description page is (was) here, Public Domain

Humor or heartache?

“The fans love home runs,” said Casey Stengel, the first manager of the New York Mets. “And we have assembled a pitching staff to please the fans.”

Classic. It’s one of my favorite baseball quotes—I love it so much, I don’t care whether he actually said it.

For those of you who don’t follow baseball closely, Stengel knows that the fans prefer home runs when their team hits them, not when their team’s pitchers give them up. So is this humor or tragedy? It’s all in your perspective.

Even today, more than half a century after Stengel’s time, the Mets remain a team that lives and dies by the home run. More the latter than the former, this season. Once again, the Mets have “assembled a pitching staff to please the fans.”

This almost total reliance on home runs infuriates me. I’d much prefer to see my team advance around the diamond one or two bases at a time. It’s not about one person shining; it’s about the entire team pulling together to succeed.

Humor, the “home run” of writing

You have a brilliant sentence. I mean, so witty and concise it makes Oscar Wilde look like a second-grader. The problem is, it doesn’t quiiiiite fit the rest of your piece.

What do you do?

There’s only one thing to do. Move your “home run” to the Outtakes file. Maybe it’ll make a great tweet someday, but right now it’s derailing your piece.

Now, I’m not saying you can never use humor. But your wit must serve the interest of your reader, first and foremost. That’s true of every word you write, by the way—you must always focus on adding value for the reader.

If your humorous remark fits the theme and advances the story you’re telling, by all means leave it in. But if it only serves to make you look clever…you’ve got to take one of the team. Hit a single instead. Don’t interrupt the flow of your prose, not even for a laugh. Unless you’re writing a standup comedy set, your audience expects—and deserves—something seamless.

Allow your sentences to work together like a great baseball team. The “fans” may cheer less, but your readers will appreciate you more.


I wrote this piece while watching the Home Run Derby, perhaps my favorite event of the festivities surrounding the All-Star Game. Would you like to discover how to find stories in the wild like this and use them in your writing? Join me on a field trip to the Getty Center in LA this August.

Goats 4 Sale—sometimes you need more words

a goat pausing in mid-mealThe other morning I passed one of those signboards with changeable plastic letters. It read:

Goats 4 Sale

Not surprising. There are as many farms around here as there are Dunkin’ Donuts in Boston or Starbucks in New York City. Which is to say, one on every corner and a couple in between.

What stopped me was the fixed part of the sign. Atop the wooden frame that held it in place the business owner had painted the word

Taxidermist

Which made me reconsider just what kind of goats they had “4 Sale.”

How low can you go?

I wrote last week about Stanley, who captured my attention with just one word. But conciseness may not always be the best option.

I have no doubt some would-be goat owners will pass right by the taxidermist’s For Sale sign. They want a goat to milk; not one to dust. I mean, I imagine taxidermied goats need the occasional dusting. The 19th century owl we had as a class mascot through my middle- and high-school years definitely collected his share of airborne detritus. Fun fact: how do you dust a taxidermied owl? With a feather duster, of course.

Anyway, half the people who venture in to buy a goat are bound to be disappointed in the merchandise. And there’s no telling how many potential sales the shop loses to its confusing sign.*

*Okay, it’s possible it’s only confusing to me. I cannot think of a single reason to buy a taxidermied goat. Unless a local high school needs a mascot.)

Are you confusing your audience?

To haul us all back on point: What does this have to do with business writing?

You may be perfectly clear on the benefits of your company’s nifty new program. But you’ve been working on it for six months before it rolled out. You know it backwards and forwards; you’re used to it.

Think about your communications from the point of view of someone coming to it fresh: Have you explained all of the nuances, translated all the jargon? Have you made it as easy as possible for them to figure out exactly what kind of goat you’re trying to sell them? If not, they won’t buy. And that would be baaaaaaaad.

(Sorry.)


Want to learn how to find stories like this in the wild and use them to make your work more unique? Join me in LA on August 22nd for my Story Safari™ Field Trip to the one and only Getty Center.