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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Know any frustrated writers?

I’ve written before about the, um, idiosyncratic search function at the otherwise-spectacular Stencil. Honestly, it’s the best purchase I’ve made for my business. I have no skill at desktop publishing or whatever it is you need to do to marry images and words into eye-catching designs.

But Stencil’s search function leaves something to be desired. Or maybe I’m just overtaxing it. Maybe I’m offering it too much information. Maybe that’s the problem.

When I typed “frustrated writers” into the Stencil search box, I expected to find people in front of computers pulling out their hair. Something like this, maybe:

Although, on further reflection, this looks more like a woman who just realized she shouldn’t have ordered the diner’s meat loaf special. But among the photos of people legitimately writing (though not in apparent frustration), Stencil dished up this little image:

No! No, goth princess, I wanted to shout. Writing’s not worth that! It never is.

Seriously—is this what the folks at Stencil think when they think “frustrated writer”?

That’s just a liiiiiitle darker than I wanted to go.

Rebranding the comfort zone

I’m rebranding my 5×15 Writing Challenge Facebook group, you see. I’ll still be running the challenges—one week every quarter. But I want my writers to see the group as a place they can post anytime, not just the five days of the challenge.

So it’s about community. But it’s also about acknowledging the frustrations that come with trying to step outside your comfort zone—especially in a creative endeavor. It’s about carving out a safe space for yourself. And if the Willits arrive, saying, “Thank you very much I won’t be needing you today.”

You know the Willits. I’ve written about them before. Here’s a little video I made for the Facebook group that explains them further.


If you wonder what’s going on in the Willits-Free Zone on Facebook, well, we’ll have some community writing projects, themes for each month that people can write to if they like, and I’ll be offering some deals and discounts especially for group members. If you’d like to join us, cruise on over to Facebook and submit a request.

Frustrated writers un-frustrated here. And no Willits allowed.

Marketing Block — Writer’s Block’s evil twin

marketing blockI don’t believe in writer’s block. I’ve written about that dozens of times, including this post about Fran Lebowitz’s decades-long block. But when I came across that post the other day, I had a new appreciation for what Lebowitz has gone through. Writer’s block may not be real, but I’ve been locked in mortal combat with its evil twin for a couple of weeks now. Marketing Block. It’s a bitch.

Interviewed in 1993 for The Paris Review, Lebowitz talked about the pain of not writing:

“Not writing is probably the most exhausting profession I’ve ever encountered. It takes it out of you. It’s very psychically wearing not to write—I mean if you’re supposed to be writing.”

Replace “writing” with “marketing” and you have a snapshot of my life the past month. “Exhausting,” “psychically wearing”—Fran, I see those adjectives and I’ll raise you “painful.”

Of course, if writer’s block isn’t real…

Damn. Really?

I’ve been suffering for a month from something that doesn’t exist?

Marketing Block and the F-Word

In my blog post last spring, I wrote:

If you invent an external reason for your inaction, you don’t have to face the (probable) internal reason—a reason Lebowitz identifies as fear.

At this point, I gotta tell you, “fear” isn’t the only F-word floating around in my head. Perhaps I’ve been too smug about people who fear writing so much they pathologize not doing it. They may be inventing the condition, but they’re not inventing the pain they experience from it. Neither am I.

Okay, time to pick myself up and deploy some well-placed F-words in the direction of my fear. Maybe if I tell Marketing Block I’ve decided it’s not real, it will get the hell out of town.



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What can I do when I get nervous? — Frequent Questions

Q: What do I do when I get nervous?
A: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

A friend of mine gave a speech yesterday. “I’m nervous,” she told me.

My response? “Good. That means you’re alive.”

Really, folks, everybody gets nervous.

That speech you’re so nervous about giving, I bet you were nervous about writing it, too. But you survived the writing and you will survive the reading. The key to both is:

Don’t pathologize it.

nervous
got nerves?

Being nervous is just part of the process. Like making sure you put the page numbers at the top of each page. Like printing out two copies of the draft, so you’re sure to remember one. Like tapping the pages on the lectern to make sure they’re all lined up neatly before you speak. It’s a process.

I guarantee that every speaker—no matter how experienced—feels butterflies. But the pros just say, “Hey, butterflies. How ya doin’?” Breathe, maybe strike a power pose in the bathroom. Stand up straight and walk onstage with a smile. Maybe the butterflies will flutter after you. But once you hear the first applause or laughter, you’ll relax into it.

If you’ve rehearsed your piece—you have rehearsed your piece, haven’t you?—you’ll be fine.


 

It’s not always easy

Oh I talk a good game. I tell you not to believe in Writer’s Block, the Loch Ness Monster of the word world. But just because Writer’s Block is a myth doesn’t mean it’ll always be smooth sailing when you write.

Take today—well, yesterday by the time you read this. I had to add maybe two sentences to a draft I’d been working on. Two paragraphs at the most.

No, it’s really not always easy

Most days I can turn out 300 words in under half an hour, so this should have been a piece of cake.

Cake…yeah, that’s about the only thing I didn’t eat as I tried to avoid my work. Everything seemed to get in the way: the constant rain (I felt trapped inside), the conference calls that punched a hole in my day, the exhaustion that overtook me as soon as the calls were done.

Did I remember all of Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful advice about dealing with fear? Reader, I did not.

Did I remember any of my own wonderful advice about just making your fingers hit the keys, even if all you end up writing is “I have no idea what to write”? Negative.

Did I…yeah I know lists are supposed to have three things in them. But whatever the third thing would be here, you can rest assured I didn’t do that either.

I moped. I pouted. I napped.

I felt like a hypocrite.

It's not always easy

And then I remembered that I’m not a hypocrite; I’m a human being.

So I popped a piece of dark chocolate and I sat my ass down at the keyboard. Well, in my chair in front of the keyboard.

And I wrote what I needed to write.

It may not be the most brilliant work I’ll ever do. But it’s done—and that’s the most important thing.

It’s not always easy. But you can’t let fear silence you.

So write, already.


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The “Scottish play” of writing

Last week, I wrote about that mythical state called “writer’s block.” Mythical? Yes.

I refuse to acknowledge that it exists. Borrow from Oscar Wilde and call it “the process that dare not speak its name.” Or borrow from superstitious actors and theater-lovers everywhere and call it the “Scottish play” of writing. (See the history of the theater superstition here – though some people have banned the word altogether. I have a friend not employed in the theater whose assistant said it once, and my friend told me a key piece of office equipment promptly broke.) Call it any number of things, but don’t call it a “block” because then it becomes a problem. And who needs more problems?

Anyway, the subject came up twice the other day and I am very pleased to discover that I am not alone. Prolific best-selling author Dorie Clark told me that she doesn’t believe in it either. And I just listened to Tim Ferriss interview Seth Rogen and his writing and producing partner Evan Goldberg. Goldberg thinks it’s bunk as well.

Now that’s not to say they haven’t been stuck from time to time. Rogen and Goldberg said it took them a year to come up with the third act of their movie This is the End. But it’s not like they just sat there staring at the script for a year. They put it away and worked on other projects. They wrote what they could, trusting that either they’d find a way to end the movie or the movie wouldn’t get made. Either way, presumably, they’d be good with the outcome.

And those are the keys here: Being willing to wait. Being unattached to the outcome.

Think about blocks we encounter in the physical world, like doors. If they’re closed and locked—and you don’t have the key—they make a quite effective block,

You can scream and pound your fists on the door, but that won’t make it open. Or you can take a step back and look around. Eventually you may notice that the house has windows, too. Maybe one of them is unlocked. Or maybe you can throw a rock through it and get in that way. Many possibilities, but they only reveal themselves at a distance.

So breathe. Take a walk. Start another project. Write something immensely silly.

And stop calling it “writer’s block.” I think I have a better name: “writer’s process.”

Things I don’t believe in

I don’t believe in Bigfoot. Or that thing in Loch Ness. I don’t believe in monsters under the bed (any fan of Pixar movies knows they come from the closet). And I don’t believe in writer’s block.

Probably half the people reading right now think I’ve just set myself up for something horrible. Like the scantily clad sorority girl in the slasher movies who barges into the deserted building with a blithe, “Nothing to worry about in here.” Famous last words.

That’s not to say I haven’t put in my time staring at a blank computer screen. Or praying, like Salieri in Amadeus, for inspiration to strike NOW. Of course I have; I’m human.

But I don’t call that “writer’s block.” I call it working.

Give it a label and you pathologize the behavior. It’s not a disease; it’s part of the process.

Writers need to think before we create. We need to synthesize ideas, macerate them so the flavors meld and create something new. Sometimes that process takes more time than we’d like. I’ve come to realize that if I can’t think of an idea on a topic I’m supposed to be writing about, it means I probably don’t have enough information. Time for more research.

Okay, it’s not exactly as smooth as that sentence made it sound. “I’ve come to realize”—yes, but do I always remember that “I’ve come to realize”? Or do I spend a few frustrating hours trying to pound a square peg into a nonexistent hole before I identify what’s going on? You might think I’d get better at doing this—or at least faster—after 25 years as a professional writer. (Well, you might not think that. But I do.)

Even if I’m not always quick enough to recognize and jump over the hurdle, I still understand that’s all it is—a hurdle. It’s not a disease, not a psychopath waiting to rob me of my ability to write. It’s a process.

Don’t make the fear stronger by feeding it. Walk away, clear your head, write something else. And if you must name something, name the glorious feeling of your fingers flying over the keyboard: the Write Stuff.