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.

Frequent Questions: How do I work with an editor?

Q: How can I get the new editor to stop crapping up my work?
A: [sigh]

frequent questionsMy friend Abe has been writing blog posts for their tech startup—very successfully. But as the company has grown, it’s added a marketing person. And that marketing person believes the intentionally informal tone Abe has cultivated for the blog doesn’t represent the company in its best light. He’s taken Abe’s work and sanded all of the personality out of it. “I don’t even want to write blogs for this company anymore,” Abe said.

While the question above isn’t quite verbatim, it’s certainly what Abe meant. My answer, however,  is verbatim. Many business writers have asked me similar questions over the years, and they all get the same response: a long, deep sigh.

As I ghostwriter, I don’t face this kind of challenge often. If I feel my client is making a grave mistake—taking out a key story at the beginning of a speech, because they’re too eager to get to “the facts”—I will tell them. But if they insist—hey, it’s their speech. My name isn’t on it, so it’s easy for me to release any pride of authorship.

Which is not to say I love it when clients crap up my work. I remember arriving to see a presentation I’d spent weeks putting together. As soon as my foot hit the pavement, the presenter rushed over to me crowing, “I was up all night rearranging the slides!” And of course he’d rearranged all the sense out of it. But I knew that as the presenter, he’d take the heat. And indeed he did—with the audience calling out the lapses in reasoning he’d created. In retrospect, I guess the hardest part of that experience was hiding my grin from the rest of the people in the room.

But Abe doesn’t have the luxury of anonymity. They’d cultivated a particular style and voice and it was being chopped to shreds, turned into something more appropriate for an SEC filing than a blog post.

The bad news, Abe, is that as long as the editor has license to crap up your work, that’s not something you can control. If the company hired the marketing guy because they wanted a change of voice in their blog, then you need to defer to his style. But you can ask for future blog posts to be unsigned. You may have to learn to write in the marketing guy’s preferred style, but no one can force you to put your name to something that doesn’t represent you.

One final piece of good news for Abe: the CEO looked at the marketing guy’s rewrite and bellowed, “This sounds so bureaucratic!” So at least someone over there has a sense of what their readers want. Abe should probably practice some grin-hiding techniques.

“Invest in yourself.”

When the young man asked the famous investor the best way to increase his net worth, I imagine he expected to hear something about identifying undervalued assets and holding onto them until the tide turned.

But that’s not what Warren Buffett said. According to a recent article in Business Insider, Warren told the young man, “Invest in yourself.”

“The one easy way to become worth 50 percent more than you are now at least is to hone your communication skills—both written and verbal.”

—Warren Buffett
investor Warren Buffett standing next to Elaine Bennett
Yes, that’s me next to Warren Buffett

He’s right—I’ve increased my own net worth far more than 50% since I focused full-time on writing. (How many full-time writers can say that?) That was more than 25 years ago—back when I was lucky enough to work directly with Warren, who told me “You have a terrific ear and you turn straight thinking into straight writing.”

So many of us think the road to success is paved with hard work. Yes, but that’s not all—you also have to be willing to grow. Warren didn’t make his fortune by shouting “Buy! Sell!” into a telephone all day like some cartoon fat-cat. He does the inner work, too—what some might think of as “soft skills.” He analyzes and thinks, he doesn’t just react. I cannot tell you (I literally cannot tell you; I believe in confidentality) the brilliant, counter-intuitive ideas he came up with for positioning (not “spinning”) the business to showcase unexpected truths. You need to be both authentic and comfortable with creativity to come up with stuff like that.

And everyone knows Warren has cornered the market on folksy metaphors. It’s a way of showcasing his personality, but those metaphors also get his ideas past the intellectual barriers of our brains and into our hearts, where they stick. And what good is an idea if no one remembers it? Warren is a true communicator because he’s worked at it, and he’s worked at it because he values it. Do you?

If it’s time to invest in yourself, if you’re ready to find your own unique communication style, shoot me a note and let’s talk.

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?

DIY Writing — How’s that going for you?

DIY — do-it-yourself. Is that the way you learn best? Me too.

I’ve been a DIY learner pretty much my whole life. One day when I was a toddler, I heard one of my mother’s teacher friends talking about my education. She mentioned the time—still some years off—when I would learn to count by twos.

“I can already count by twos!” I announced indignantly. And indeed I could. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing, but once she named the skill I recognized the game I’d made up with my grandmother’s playing cards.

DIY
Hardanger altar cloth by me, photo by Nina Nicholson

Many years later, I bought something that looked like a counted cross-stitch pattern book and was working through one of the pieces when I encountered a stitch I couldn’t figure out. I went back to the store for advice and the proprietor said, “Oh, that’s probably in the beginners’ book.”

There’s a beginners’ book? I’d done it again—taken a skill that some people find impenetrable and taught it to myself.

For the record, it wasn’t counted cross-stitch; it’s a Norwegian craft called Hardanger. I made this altar cloth for my old church using the technique, which turns ordinary linen into something resembling lace. And, yep, I’ve still never had a lesson in my life.

DIY writing?

If you’re a DIY learner like I am, you may think that what you already know about writing is sufficient.

Well, is it?

Are you satisfied with the work you turn out, or do you secretly wish you could be a stronger, more consistent writer?

You don’t need the “beginners’ book.” You just need a nudge in the right direction. And maybe a dose or two of real-life inspiration from writers further along the path than you.

And because writing can so often slip to the bottom of the to-do list, maybe you’d like a reminder every now and then, a writing prompt to kickstart your creativity.

A DIY writing program

That’s exactly why I created Write Now—a 13-week-long DIY writing program. Every week you get a writing prompt. Use it or save it for the proverbial rainy day. Post your work to my private Facebook group—if you ask for feedback, you’ll get some thoughtful comments. If you don’t want feedback, say that and we’ll respect it. My group attracts some amazing people—whether they’ve worked with me through a course or three or a 5×15 writing challenge, they’ve all been where you are.

If you’re nervous about calling yourself a writer, there’s only one thing to do: Write. And if the “I’ll do it someday” approach hasn’t worked for you yet, Write Now may just be the extra (pardon the expression) prompt you need.

Register here and get your first prompt in minutes.

“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.

Memorable ideas: the microwave

“Of course I remember you!” the PR executive exclaimed. “You wrote the piece about the microwave.”

It’s true; I did—hundreds of thousands of words and probably a dozen years ago. And, to be clear, it wasn’t about a microwave; it was about the culture of fast-action, fast-answers, and how that related to certain business problems.

I don’t even remember the piece, to tell you the truth. I mean, I remember the ideas; I could reconstruct it for you if I needed to. But it doesn’t matter if I remember it—my reader did. And that’s the whole point of imagery. It makes ideas stick.

Especially when you’re writing about a business issue—or, really, any topic your audience may have heard about before—you need to give them a way to form a new impression. So find a novel way of discussing the subject. A metaphor, an allusion, a pop-culture reference—anything surprising can activate the “what did she say?” response in your readers. And once you’ve got them listening in new ways, they’re ripe to receive your message

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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!)