Suffering from Writer’s Burnout? Some Simple Tricks to Prevent and Cure It
I have a cartoon tacked above my desk titled: The Hardest Part of Writing… and the artist has drawn a series of empty desks with everything – even the family cat – sitting in the chair except the writer!
Finally, the cartoonist sketches the writer trying to haul herself up from the floor and into the chair. Once in the chair she is scribbling away and the caption reads: Is showing up.
But what happens if, for no apparent reason, you just CAN NOT make yourself show up at your desk and start writing?
You could be burned out which is different than suffering from writer’s block which I have written about here before and its antidote is simply forcing yourself to sit down and write something, anything. If you are only blocked you are still able to force yourself into the chair.
But force isn’t working for you now. With burnout, you find yourself constantly exhausted and after hours of agonizing you might finally get to your desk but nothing happens.
You lose all motivation and start surfing the Internet or scrolling through your social media accounts.
You have lost interest in all your writing projects. You feel crushed and overwhelmed just by the thought of stringing together a sentence.
How did you get yourself into this predicament?
After about a decade of being a newspaper reporter, I suffered a severe case of burn out. Yes, I was churning out content almost every day because I had trained myself to do it no matter what.
But I was miserable and resentful of the daily deadlines that did not allow me to do much more than eat and sleep in my off time. It was so bad I ended up taking a month long leave of absence during which I never wrote anything more than a grocery list!
I should have scheduled in more breaks – tough to do when you work at a daily paper, but still necessary. All it takes to prevent writer’s burn out is to give yourself a break – schedule down time in like you would for anything else – time to do something you love that is not related to your work.
But what to do if you are already burned out and a month-long leave of absence is not an option?
After polling my writer friends and doing a bit of research, I have curated a few ideas that have worked for me and other writers. With a little patience and dedication, you can pull yourself out of the pit you have fallen into.
First, like any recovery program, you have to admit that you have a problem and stop trying to force yourself into writing and this next part is important --- don’t beat yourself up about it.
We are humans not machines and burn out in any profession is likely to happen when we are over worked and stressed out.
Next, get away from your office or whatever space you use to write. Just don’t go in there. You have to give your mind and brain a rest.
When I suffered through a bout of burnout as a freelancer, I was so frustrated that I dropped everything, walked out of my home office and shut the door behind me.
I stayed out for over a week while I gardened and cooked. It was spring and I loved getting sweaty and dirty in my suburban backyard. After a few hours outside, I went to the kitchen and cooked up something besides hotdogs for dinner! My family, who hates when I get so involved in a writing project that I forget to shop or cook, loved it!
Even if you can only take a day off --- do it but don’t spend the day at home – take a day trip to a museum or city or anywhere that you have always wanted to go.
I know this is particularly hard during these Covid times, but you can always find a park, nature preserve or go somewhere --- maybe a day trip to a lake or beach where you will spend your time outside.
I have a 50-mile rule – I need to put 50 miles between me and my home office in order to get out of my head.
Sometimes you just need a change of scenery to feel good again.
If you feel the need to write something try free writing. Remember when you took the time to write in your journal about any old thing that popped up in your mind?
Start doing that again now.
Go get yourself a pretty journal or whatever you like to write on and write something only you will see. If you don’t normally work in a coffee shop, go to one now and write about what you see and hear. Just make it fun – this is to remind yourself how much you actually like writing.
Another antidote is reading books about writing.
I love to go back and read Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird or Word Painting – The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is another good one. I only do the exercises if I feel like I want to and it is only for fun.
If it is not fun to do them, skip it.
Finally immersing yourself in a good story is a strong cure for burn out. Since I write non-fiction, I go straight to fiction shelves at my local library. It’s a change I like and I love to read a fiction writer’s description of places and people. I love how the author can get into the head of any character she chooses.
Here are a few recommendations: All the Light We Can Not See by Anthony Doerr, The Septembers of Shiraz by Delia Soffer, the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, the Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel, the Testaments by Margaret Atwood.
This cure works with movies too --- I have several movies on my to watch lists on Amazon Prime and Netflix. There is nothing like getting away from it all by sinking into a great narrative whether film or book.
I am not a doctor and these are just my ideas on how to prevent and cure the dreaded burnout.
Tell me what works for you.