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Monday, February 1, 2016

I SPY: Burnout

Join the authors and friends of Not Your Usual Suspects for an occasional series of posts about their world of reading, writing and publishing.

Short and sweet, hopefully both informative and entertaining - join us at I-Spy to find out the how's and why's of what we do.


TODAY'S POST: I-Spy something beginning with ...


Burnout. Such a short, simple word, but with such a high impact. When it happens, it can derail even the most dedicated artists. For people who thrive on exploring their creative selves, mental exhaustion hits hard, but we only have so much energy—mental or physical.

So what does one do when one hits that invisible wall?

Survive, revive, and thrive.


I blogged about “The Write Balance” a few years back. As a counselor (in a former life), I’m aware how important finding balance is to maintaining health and happiness…and as a human with people and projects pulling at me from all directions, I’m just as aware how difficult that balance is to achieve and maintain on a daily basis. 

This time, when my turn to blog came around, the only writing craft or career-related topic I could think of right now was the one thing that has consumed me for the past several weeks: Recovering my lost mojo. My motivation. My sense of balance. Whatever you want to call that need, that drive to create, I had lost track of it sometime back in early December. It's possible I misplaced it earlier than that and was just going through the motions for many weeks, meeting deadlines but feeling no joy in the process.

It wasn't until my health started suffering (both physically and depression) that I had to admit to myself that I'd hit a wall. Whether it was the current work-in-progress that threw that wall in my path or the holidays and a couple family emergencies combined with deadline after deadline throughout 2015, or just my inner two-year-old coming out to throw a tantrum, I just. Didn’t. Wanna. Anymore.

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When my physical health started to fail and I wasn't enjoying time with my kids during the holiday season, I knew these were signs I needed to slow the heck down. I had to focus on survival, making the holidays as bright for my kids as possible, and rest my poor, tired brain.

I worked on nothing but enjoying each moment, especially with my family. I read as much as I could. I communed with nature and binge-watched movies, trying to reabsorb any and all forms of creativity and storytelling while not having to work on my own stories. My only job became to nurture and restore myself.


I was convinced (and more than a little worried) that I was done with writing. Kaput. For about two weeks, until the holidays passed and the kids were back in school, I focused on family stuff. During that time, I hung out with family, played mindless online games where I grew crops and entire towns populated by imaginary people who didn’t care if I finished my book. I also jumped into several household projects that had been bugging me—such as repainting and reorganizing my pantry. 

And I tried not to think about the manuscript that I’d already put weeks of hard work into, that already had a beautiful cover and two-thirds of a rough draft and was now languishing on my computer.

And I assessed what I wanted. Was this career still my goal? Was I simply tired? Did I need to try something new, even if it was simply switching to a new genre of writing?

Emailing with friends (writer friends who've been there, in particular) was helpful at this time. And I think the self-preservation part of me was trying to keep one foot in those writing waters. I wasn't ready to give up the career I'd fought so hard for.

My friends kept asking me "can you really walk away from this?" And, "what would you do if you didn't write?" The tone suggested that, as a writer, I couldn't NOT write. But I thought that maybe I could walk away and not look back. After years of working toward this career. (This was scary.)

So, analyzing why you're pursuing a goal—Money? Passion? Fame?—can help you discover whether the pursuit is still worth it for you.

For me, I need to finish a project I've started. I've always been that way. So I'll get back to it and finish. And I enjoy being a writer. At least, I'm discovering that I can revive that joy, now that I've had a break from the deadlines. It also helped to remember I could take a step back and it didn't mean I was quitting. I just needed perspective.

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The answers didn’t come easy. In fact, I’m still working on finding that inner "zen." I'm not sure where this path is taking me, or whether a different path might be better. But after about four weeks of regrouping, of doing other “writerly” things other than working on the book I’d stuck in the corner, and totally non-writerly things like finally working on getting my youngest's baby book together (he'll be 6 in a couple weeks!), I decided to reopen the work-in-progress and take a peek. It wasn't so bad. I know it went off the rails somewhere, otherwise I wouldn't have stopped. And when my brain's rested, I'll find the answers. Despite my recent struggles, I have faith in this process.

Slowly, I'm getting back into the groove. (After all, I've already got that beautiful cover and don't want to waste it!) I'm learning that I need to pace myself, and part of that was setting time limits and reassessing goals. Instead of having a daily word count or page count goal, I've switched to a time goal. I know that, if I put two hours a day into this manuscript, eventually it'll get done. And I'll probably build up my stamina again in the process.

When committing to a word count or page goal seems daunting, or exhausting, I know I can still manage a time goal. One or two hours seems manageable.

And one day, that energy will be back and I'll thrive again.

Have you suffered burnout in your job? Have you had to take a step back and reassess? Do you have any tips or tricks of the trade for recovering from burnout and/or maintaining balance?


jean harrington said...

Anne Marie, Your blog reached that dark, scary place in anyone who has ever tried to write a book. The self-doubt, the brick wall, the burnout all sounded familiar. No doubt,you did the right thing--regrouped, focused your energies and rested from constantly having to "produce." Glad it worked! Also, setting yourself a time goal for writing rather than a word count goal is wise and will, as you point out, lead to a complete manuscript with far less pressure on the journey. And you've made me curious about that cover!

Anne Marie Becker said...

Thank you, Jean. It was really hard to write this post, and I debated whether to post it at all. It is scary to admit that we can hit that wall. (And I can't wait to share the cover! But I AM waiting until I have a release date and a blurb to share along with it. :) ) thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Elise Warner said...

A beautiful blog--you did all the right things to recover. A piece for all of us to remember when we hit the doldrums. Thank you.

CathyP said...

Thanks for sharing, Anne Marie. It's tough to admit we aren't SuperWoman.

Your post really resonated - too many balls in the air, pulled too many directions. Thanks for the insight - and empathy - into a way forward.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Oh, Anne Marie. I know exactly what you're going through. I'm only now starting to pull out of a six-month drought. It was scary. I just could not write. Finally I gave up trying and gave myself permission to do other things, like reconnect with friends, go to concerts and plays, go to art shows, spend time in coffee shops, binge on television shows, and read, read, read. It worked. Slowly I realized that a story idea was starting to crowd every else out and now I'm about a third of the way through the new novel.

Sounds like your mojo is back, too. Sometimes, you just have to take a step back.

Anne Marie Becker said...

Elise, thank you. I'm still working on that recovery, but I feel much more balanced by limiting the time I focus on writing. It's helping, and I'm starting to get that spark back. :)

Anne Marie Becker said...

Oh man, Cathy, that's so right. I really debated about posting this. It's hard to admit I'm not the Wonder Woman I want to be. :) But being human isn't so bad, either.

Anne Marie Becker said...

Marcelle, thank you for commiserating. :) "Drought" is the perfect word for it. I felt dried up, used up, or whatever. Just wanted to crawl into a cave until I could rehydrate. ;) And yes, once I stopped fighting myself and listened to what my body and mind needed, it helped SO much! Congrats on finding that oasis!! :D

J. Thomas Ross said...

You could be writing about me! Back and leg pain, numbness, and muscle spasms distracted me from writing for months before I got off my duff and saw the doctor. Now, with physical therapy, I'm getting back on track physically so I can get my mind back on track for writing. I also attended the Writers Coffeehouse (a once-a-month meeting of writers at all levels in Willow Grove, PA) yesterday, and that get-together has re-energized my will to write.

Thanks for writing this post. It's always heartening to know you're not alone.

Rita said...

Hugs. I feel like this will be the year of authors taking control of their writing. So much of the business is changing and the only thing we CAN control is the writing. None of us are super people not should we want to be. I could go on for days about this. I love writing and I'm writing what I want. It's fun and freeing.

Anne Marie Becker said...

Thanks for stopping by, J. Thomas. It's so true that having writer friends helps. Writing is such a solitary endeavor. I'm so glad to hear you're feeling better physically and getting back on track. The physical pain sure can mess up everything else!

Anne Marie Becker said...

It makes me smile every time I think of you writing what you want, Rita. I love that attitude. And it's self-preservation, too. :) And I agree that this seems to be a trend I'm seeing...the overproduction leading to burnout leading to finding a new balance and taking control. It'll be interesting to see where this leads!

Toni Anderson said...

Anne Marie, it's kind of crazy in many ways. The pressures we put on ourselves as authors is intense. No wonder you hit the wall.

One of the reasons I only get a couple of books out a year is that I do give myself permission to take a break sometimes, although it also feels like I never actually stop working LOL. But--I think I know my limits and pay more attention to them now. When I don't, I pay for it.

I am glad you took time off. I had two weeks at Christmas and could do with another week to recover :) But 'a change is as good as a rest' as they say.

I hope you get through it. I hope you find a more workable schedule with more things that you enjoy doing as part of your routine. <3 ((())) I'm always here for you. I hope you know that.

Unknown said...

Anne Marie...I read your post and the subsequent replies and finally felt like I wasn't alone. Thank you for sharing your experience. It took me much longer than it took you to realize that taking a much needed break wasn't the end of the world. And that even if I can't keep up with the pace of other writers, it doesn't make me any less of one. Thank you, again. Great post.

Anne Marie Becker said...

Yes, Toni, why do we put those pressures on ourselves? I figured I'm a perfectionist and Type A and all of that, which makes it that much more intense. I was trying to do 3 books in 2015, when 2 books is closer to my norm. So yeah, I'll be keeping that in mind for 2016. :)

Anne Marie Becker said...

Alison, I'm so glad you stopped by, and that you shared your own experience. It was intimidating to admit that I'm not all-powerful (shh, don't tell my kids!). But it does help to know we aren't alone.

And you hit the nail on the head -- just because we don't write at the same pace as others, doesn't make us any less than them. We have this gift for a reason, and we'll share it when we're ready. ;) Good luck!

Mia Kay said...

Anne Marie - what an awesome post for the New Year. It's a great reminder of how to take care of ourselves as build our careers.

Anne Marie Becker said...

Thanks, Mia. I'm definitely working on the self-care this year. ;)

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