Burnout

I Was A Burned-Out, Middle-Aged Romance Writer =or= How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Process

Before I burned out in February 1992, I'd labored under many assumptions about the reality of work and writing and self-discipline. I believed that showing up was half the battle, that inspiration and artistic temperament were both highly overrated, that I could conquer outside forces by the sheer force of my will--and I believed burnout could never happen to me.

I was wrong.

Burnout is real, it's powerful, and it can sneak up on you when you least expect it. Burnout is the flip side of creativity and yet it's the least talked-about phenomenon in publishing. You'll find it easier to get a rock star to expound on impotence than to convince a working writer to admit to being burned out.

Seven years ago I felt the same way. Burnout was what happened to other writers, writers who weren't as dedicated as I was. Writers who didn't love the process as much as I did. Writers who weren't as creative, as disciplined (creative discipline -- there's an oxymoron for you), as clever.

Now I know better.

I had managed to work through the deaths of two grandparents, the hospitalization of a third, a broken right hand, and having my parents move one mile away from me without missing a beat. Yet after bringing in an important book on deadline I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly stopped cold.

A week without writing became two weeks. Two weeks became a month, and after two months I finally realized that the only thing I was doing at the computer was playing Gin Rummy with the Bull Dog in the Hoyle program. This was more than taking a break between books, more than your run-of-the-mill procrastination. No matter how hard I tried to put a good face on it, the facts were impossible to ignore. I wasn't writing and I had no idea when--or if--I would write again.

And that's when I made the smartest decision of my life. I decided to do the unthinkable: I told the truth. I told my agent and my editors exactly what was happening and discovered that there is more professional support out there than you could imagine. My agent was my staunchest ally during my struggle to regain my professional footing; that came as no surprise. What did surprise me was the depth of understanding and kindness I encountered from my publishers. Their patience and support remained constant.

There are those who maintain that acknowledging burnout, dragging it kicking and screaming from the closet, is tantamount to signing your professional death warrant. I disagree. At the first sign of trouble, gird your loins and make that telephone call. Pub dates can be shifted; schedules can be changed. But there's nothing an editor can do for you if you wait until the last minute to break the bad news.

Burnout feeds on anxiety. The same anxiety over deadlines and family demands and high expectations that got you into this mess in the first place. Demystify it. Expose it to the light of day. Don't grant burnout any more importance over your life than it already has.

Burnout isn't some dark and mysterious malady that swoops down on a creative individual in the middle of the night and wreaks havoc on you. While you might not be able to see it coming, you will be able one day to look back and determine the chain of events that led up to it.

And that's not to say you need to beat yourself up for your mistakes, both real and imagined. Far from it. You have nothing to feel guilty about. Maybe you could have avoided burnout and maybe you couldn't have. What difference does it make? The fact is you're in it and you need to turn all of your energies into regaining your creative balance.

I didn't deliberately kill off relatives, break my hand, and set out to roadblock my career. Yet all of those things happened and no matter how hard I tried to pretend they hadn't, ultimately their effect was cumulative.

Let's remember that we're not just writers. We're spouses and parents, we're best friends and co-workers and a hundred other things and when we lose sight of all the disparate parts of the whole, we lose what makes us good writers in the first place. You can't stop life from happening. God knows I'd tried my damnedest to control the people and events around me, but I couldn't and when I found myself asking my father to postpone his angiogram until after my deadline I knew I was headed for trouble.

That's not the kind of person I wanted to be. Self-absorption has never held a great deal of interest for me yet when it came to my writing I was a prime offender. I'd be the first to tell you that there's nothing more important than the people you love, yet there I was playing God with my dad's health just so I could make sure nothing interfered with making my deadline.

Be careful what you wish for. Years ago I wished I had the time to do nothing but write.

Eleven years later I found I had all the time in the world and nothing left to say.

It's an insidious process. The need to write, the love of it, is so intense, so all-encompassing that we're willing and eager to keep those creative fires burning, no matter the cost. Friends and hobbies fall by the wayside. Music, painting, the joys to be found in doing absolutely nothing--all of it sacrificed to the greater goal.

Not that it felt like a sacrifice. Most of us would gladly give up just about anything for the love of the written word.

At the lowest point in my burnout, I found myself at a writers' conference, feeling as out of place as Mr. Spock at a weekend retreat with Robert Bly. All around me writers talked about how much they loved their craft, how lucky they were to be able to make a living doing what they enjoyed most in the world. I heard their words. I recognized them as being in my native tongue. But those writers might as well have been speaking Greek because their meaning eluded me. I had no memory of ever loving the process. In truth I couldn't even remember how it felt to create worlds with only the power of my imagination.

I went home wondering if I'd ever publish another book, and wondering why I didn't care.

What I finally discovered was the fact that writing can't be everything for me. By identifying myself solely as a writer, I had effectively cut myself off from new experiences and old pleasures and as a result the creative well had run dry. For years I had done nothing but write, talk about writing, think about writing. I'd mastered the art of saying no to invitations from friends and after awhile those invitations stopped coming...and I never even noticed.

In the name of professional responsibility I'd narrowed my world down to the point where there was nothing but me and my computer and a never-ending banner of deadlines waving in the breeze. (I might add that I do have a husband but he was going for his Master's degree at the time which allowed me ample opportunity to bury myself even deeper in my work.)

Is it any wonder I finally crashed and burned?

Creativity is a capricious gift and I had done everything possible to force it into predictable--and boring--patterns.

Let's acknowledge that while we're seasoned professionals, we're not part of the mainstream of 9-5, with paid holidays, and three weeks vacation every year.

Being creative on demand is tougher than digging ditches for a living and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. We're incredibly lucky to be able to earn a good living doing what we love most in this world but being creative on demand takes its toll.

What we're actually doing is imposing left brain restrictions on right brain activities, the psychological equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. In an ideal world, the writing of a novel would determine its own schedule, the characters and plot would set their own pace.

Unfortunately we don't live in a perfect world. We live in a world of deadlines and due dates and expectations, and if we want to carve a place for ourselves in publishing, a place that will last, we have to learn to make the creative side of ourselves coexist with the professional. The secret to longevity as a writer is found in the balance between the two.

Things won't always turn out the way you hope. The book you loved most may not do well in the marketplace. The New York Times list might remain a dream unfulfilled. Your brilliance might go unrewarded except by family, friends, and three hundred devoted readers scattered throughout the country. Disappointment coupled with overwork is a surefire formula for trouble.

If the time comes when you feel you've burned out, remember this one important thing: your creativity is intact. You won't believe it at the time but trust me, it's true. What you are is tired. You need to step back and replenish the wellspring that feeds your creativity. Read for pleasure. Go to the movies. Wander through museums or stretch out in the grass and look up at the clouds. Crystals, racewalking, talking to plants--it doesn't matter much what you do. What matters is that you're doing something besides staring at the blinking cursor and growing more afraid by the second.

I admit there's nothing glamorous about pacing yourself, nothing earth-shaking about building time for fun into your schedule. Taking art classes and learning to play the piano didn't merit a sentence in the annual Christmas letter but they brought about a sea change for me.

Creativity doesn't vanish simply because you need time to rediscover yourself as a human being even if that means more time between books.

Which brings me to another important point: seeing your name in print is more addictive than caffeine, tobacco, or chocolate.

Somewhere it is written that Writer A will write two books each year...and this is good.

Somewhere it is written that Writer B will write eight books each year...and this is also good.

And somewhere it is also written that Writer C will write one book every three years...and feel guilty as hell about it.

That's when the trouble begins. We want to believe that if two books a year is good, then four books a year is better, and six is damn close to Nirvana.

Romance writers, in particular, understand that publishing is a business that prides itself on productivity. Our readers are voracious and it follows that publishers reward writers who can produce good books quickly and often. How many of us have juggled family obligations or scrimped on sleep, in order to squeeze another book into our yearly schedule?

And how many of us have paid the price?

You know what's right for you. You've probably always known. By the time you've written your second or third book, you have a pretty clear idea of how quickly you can write and still maintain the quality of your work.

Your natural rhythm is as much a part of you as your fingerprints.Respect it. Nurture it. Accept it. This isn't a race. There are no prizes for land speed. When all is said and done, no one remembers how quickly your book was written. They remember how well it was written.

Take away the contracts, the deadlines, the royalty statements. Take away the autographings, the conferences, and the long distance phonebills. Take away everything but the act of sitting down each morning in front of a blank screen and what do you have?

You have a writer.

Burnout doesn't change that fact and I'm the living proof. My career didn't come to an end because I hit a roadblock. My publishers didn't turn away from me, my friends didn't shun me, my computer didn't turn to stone. Maybe it takes hitting rock bottom to appreciate all that you've been given in life--and to learn how to make the best use of it.

Seven years ago I thought I would never write again.

Today I can honestly say I feel the same sense of excitement, the same joy that I felt when I sat down to begin my first book seventeen years ago.

You say you're burned out? Maybe you are.

You think you're washed up? Not on your life.

Regroup, refresh, renew. Your creativity and discipline will be there waiting for you.

I guarantee it.


This appeared in NINK, the monthly newsletter of Novelists Inc. Information on Novelists Inc. can be found at their website: http://www.ninc.com/


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