With one Bank Holiday until Christmas, Simon Whaley asks if we should take a break from our writing business.
As writers, we can work from anywhere. Whether that be a desk, a park bench, slouched on the sofa, or walking and dictating into our phones, we have no excuse not to write at any time. And what about all those times when we settle down to sleep with a plot problem, and wake up the next morning with a solution? We’re so lucky, we can practically work 24/7.
Or can we?
Our writing business is all based upon creativity. It doesn’t matter whether we write novels, articles, poetry, short stories or stage plays, without the ability to come up with new ideas, capture them, and then write them in an engaging and entertaining way, we have no business.
For some, the August Bank Holiday will be an extra day away from the office for them to focus on their writing. For self-employed writers, it’s just like any other day. But could taking a day off from our writing actually help our creativity in the long run?
Gemma Amor (gemmaamorauthor.com) is a horror fiction author, podcaster and voice actor, whose novel Full Immersion is published by Angry Robot Books in September 2022. During 2020, she experienced creative burnout, missing several deadlines.
‘It usually takes me a while to recognise that I am burned out,’ says Gemma, ‘because my schedule tends to be so busy I drop straight off one project, novel, or deadline and run smack bang into the next. I get very little breathing room in general, between writing and juggling being a parent and other things, so burnout always creeps up on me unseen, until I suddenly find myself unable to write.’
Burnout or blocked?
Writer’s block arises when we’re stuck with a plot problem, can’t think of the best opening line, and have fallen out of our usual writing rhythm. Creative exhaustion prevents our brain from thinking. As Gemma explains, it’s not that you don’t want to write, it’s that you can’t.
‘I can always, always put words down, even terrible ones, except when I’m burned out. Then, not a single word. It’s torture. My brain is willing, but unable. This often goes hand-in-hand with a healthy dose of imposter syndrome, intense fatigue, anxiety and depression.’
Jason Hamilton is the Content Manager for the Kindlepreneur.com website and a psychology fantasy author who loves mythology and history, which he explores through his MythBank.com website. He realised he was creatively burned out when writing gave him little joy.
‘It became rather evident I was in burnout when I was no longer looking forward to writing,’ he reveals. ‘I would sit at my computer, my hands would hover over the keyboard, and I would feel like I was having a mild panic attack. I just didn’t want to be there.’
As writers, we pressurise ourselves to perform. Those with day jobs and family commitments have limited writing time. The pressure to use that precious limited resource efficiently can be overwhelming. Similarly, full-time writers feel pressurised by the need to generate a survivable income, through successful writing projects, and by meeting various deadlines.
Jason felt this pressure exacerbated his burnout. ‘I felt depression, despair, and a general lack of interest in doing what I previously loved to do. This came after I released the first two books in a series I was writing and it completely failed. It made nowhere near the money I was hoping for, so writing the remaining books was extremely difficult. I was so focused on creating best-selling products that when I knew they weren’t selling, I completely collapsed inward.’
Other signs of burnout include constant exhaustion, poor sleep, an inability to remember things, and poor physical health. Using stimulants (alcohol, caffeine, or drugs) just to get some writing done is a significant warning sign.
Thankfully, we can recover from creative exhaustion.
‘I force myself to rest, but I often switch to a pastime that helps me relax whilst still allowing me to feel like I can create things,’ says Gemma. ‘I paint a lot, sew, take photos, sing, record lines for a podcast, whatever. . . something that gets me away from the computer where possible.’
She also physically takes herself away from her writing desk and consumes creative content in different formats.
‘I walk a great deal and listen to an awful lot of music. I try to indulge in movie marathons and audiobooks. I also use the time to reconnect with friends, get plenty of fresh air, sleep, and all the sensible things a person should do when overwhelmed. It takes time, but it does eventually work. Self-care is an extremely dunked upon but valid tool in your career tool box.’
Jason agrees a complete break is necessary. But he also used the time to question his creative motivation.
‘The biggest step, the most important, and perhaps the hardest one to swallow, is to take a break. I also re-examined my reasons for wanting to be a novelist. Was it for money, or was it to improve as a writer? Fame or skill? I began to focus on the process rather than the destination, with the knowledge that every time I write, I am learning and improving as a writer. Lastly, I began slowly building up my writing muscles again. I started off with tiny habits that I slowly built on from there.’
The recovery time will depend upon the severity of your burnout and the current situation. Recent freedom restrictions have hampered the recovery process.
‘During the pandemic,’ says Gemma, ‘I was burned out for nearly two years, and I still feel like I’m just climbing out of all that. I regularly burn out several times a year, if not more, and how long recovery takes is down to the circumstances. Obligations, parenting duties, deadlines…it’s impossible to put a time limit on recovery in the context of our messy everyday lives.’
But Gemma now accepts that if she looks after herself, burnout is only a temporary situation. ‘It always came back, though, the spark. Always. Sometimes in fits and starts, others in a slow trickle.’
Jason’s recovery was longer, and he wished he’d thought more intentionally about his recovery.
‘It took at least a year, and could have possibly taken less had I been more intentional about it. Creativity, I believe, doesn’t come spontaneously. It comes through consistent practice in whatever art you are pursuing, as well as engaging in worthwhile endeavours that fill the creative well, i.e. other forms of art/music, meditation, taking care of yourself physically, etc. Had I been more intentional about doing these things, I might have recovered earlier.’
Prevention is better than a cure, as Gemma now appreciates. ‘It really doesn’t pay to run yourself into the ground if you can avoid it: recovery takes twice as long as taking measures to avoid it in the first place.’
Gemma relies on her friends to support her. ‘Being surrounded with creative friends who often point out when I’m burning out is a big help. I can’t understate the importance of community in this gig. I have a group of friends who all tell each other to go to bed when they see us messing around on Twitter at ungodly hours. It sounds silly, but it helps.’
Jason also took a closer look at his physical health. ‘I had no idea how much sugar and processed foods had on my ability to focus and feel creatively fulfilled, but it really is a huge influence. Improving my diet has been the number one thing I have changed about my life that has led to burnout recovery. Exercise is great too, though not if you overdo it, and so is meditation.’
He’s also reappraised his daily motivations. ‘I try to focus more on creating daily habits rather than focusing on financial goals, or even project goals,’ he says. ‘If I can write steadily, those things will come eventually.’
Art is created, not produced. We’re not robots, yet there are elements of this industry that require us to be robotic at times. Those writing for publication are subject to deadlines. Reader expectations put pressure on us. When’s the next book out? You wrote two last year. Will there be two more this year?
But, as Gemma concludes, we need to get to know ourselves and, therefore, what our limits are.
‘I have extremely strict boundaries about what types of project I’ll take on, how many, and with whom,’ she explains. ‘How I like to communicate, how I like to spend my time, and routine really helps as well. And I moan a lot to friends. That helps too. Some of us know what it’s like to climb up the mountain, and having a climbing buddy is a definite advantage.’
Jason suggests we use the time to reappraise what we want from our writing, too. ‘Ask yourself if you’re in it for the money, or if you’re in it to tell the stories from your heart, or to improve as a writer.’
So, with our last Bank Holiday Monday of the summer approaching, perhaps it’s time to take a step back and give ourselves a day off. In the long run, our writing business, and our bodies, will benefit from it.
And perhaps we should remember that the man who introduced the 1871 Bank Holiday Act to parliament, Sir John Lubbock, was also a writer.
Business Directory – Creative Exhaustion Recovery Plan
Gemma’s advice: ‘It’s okay to stop. Stop trying, if the trying is making you feel terrible. I understand deadlines are a thing. I also know that it’s not always possible to just put down the pen and walk away. But in general, our brains can only produce so many thoughts, ideas, scenes, and words.’
Jason’s advice: ‘Make sure your health is in order. Lack of sleep and poor diet (seriously, sugar is a drug) are the number one enemies of a high-functioning creative mind. Focus on the journey, not the destination.’
(c) Simon Whaley