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Monday, May 16, 2016

Where There's Smoke


I'm not sure there is a more dreaded word in the writerly vocabulary. Some writers get panicky over Writer's Block, but block just means you took a wrong turn somewhere and you need to shift into reverse and find your way back to the road. Maybe there's a problem with the current project or maybe the current project IS the problem, but either way, Writer's Block is fixable.

Burn-out means there is no more road.

And your engine is smoking.

And the landscape around you is on fire.

A few years ago--about five years ago, in fact--I burned out. I had to cancel a slew of projects--in some cases it meant actually paying back advances. It was disastrous. I tried to be, well, not upbeat. It's hard to be upbeat about failing to meet commitments, having to repay money you've already spent, and disappointing your fans. But I tried to be pragmatic about it. Tried to look at it as a positive thing. I was pretty sure (though in my heart of hearts not absolutely positive) that I would be able to write again if I just gave myself time to refill the creative well.

So I took a sabbatical and used that time to do exactly that. I spent time with family and friends, I put a healthy schedule into place that included not eating at my desk, ending the work day at five-ish, taking vacations and even not writing every weekend. All those things helped once I got back to work, but getting back to work took a really long time. It took the full year. And while I read a lot and watched documentaries and movies and got out and about...I mostly worked during that year because a lot of my previously published work reverted to me right about then. And I was investigating translations and audio and print. All those little revenue streams kept me financially afloat during the time that I was not producing new fiction.

Since that time I've been pretty careful, pretty watchful to make sure that I did not get into trouble again. So imagine my surprise when I realized a couple of weeks ago that I was teetering once more on the edge of burn-out.

How could this be? I was working a reasonable (fairly reasonable) schedule, I was taking time out for family and friends, I took vacations and even traveled. Okay, I was falling back into the pattern of mostly working late into the evening and on weekends, I was committing to too many projects, and I was starting to panic over all the stuff there wasn't time to deal with (career planning, marketing strategies, new and additional revenue streams...)

The good news is this time I recognized the symptoms. I could have forced my through the current project but it would likely have been the final project of the year--and maybe the final project for next year as well. Instead, I faced facts and, as embarrassing as it was, told my publisher what was happening. Happily I got an extension, but even if the project had been cancelled it would be have been better than being creatively paralyzed for the foreseeable future.

Money will be tight because my financial health is built on that 90-120 day cycle we all live and die by now. But better that money is tight than having the bank cut me off entirely--and that's what we risk when we repeatedly overdraw from our creative resources.

The most important asset we have as writers is our creative energy. At all costs that energy has to be protected and nurtured. It means getting out of your head and into the real world on a regular basis. It means taking care of your physical health--get off your butt!--and it means preserving your sanity by not spending too much time on social media. There are a lot of variables in a writing career and some things can be fudged and some things can be faked, but the one thing we writers cannot do without are the words.

When we lose the words, the story stops. And when the stories stop, that is truly The End.

Now -- before you're in trouble -- is the time to take stock of your creative resources. How tired are you? How much effort do you put into replenishing that creative well? Do you have a career game plan that doesn't involve constantly producing new books to stay afloat?


Anne Marie Becker said...

Josh, thank you for this post. I mentioned a few months ago that I was feeling the stirrings of burnout. I slowed down my project timelines, but now that that project is (FINALLY) over, I'm not feeling like working on anything else. Luckily, I don't have to worry about any deadlines but my own, but that disappointing readers aspect can be tough. It's only been a few days since I wrapped up that book, but I'm going to try to take it easier this time around...

Josh Lanyon said...

The funny thing is how fast burn-out can overtake you. In less than four months I went from loving writing to starting to dread it again. And as far as I can tell, the problem only amounted to forcing myself back to work before I was fully recharged.

Non-writers picture the process of writing to be something along the lines of copying your imaginings onto paper (cyber or pulp) but in fact, it's really much more complicated, much more along the lines of doing calculus all day. Once you explain it like that, it begins to make sense. The mental focus required is brutal and that's what makes it so draining, so exhausting.

You really do have to build in recovery time between projects.

Rita said...

I learned this about a year and a half ago. I started doing other creative things that make me happy. I love writing. I've been writing what I want. What makes me happy.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Words of wisdom, Josh. I have to watch myself, too, though my schedule isn't as brutal as others'. The day job takes a lot of my creative energy sometimes, and other times, it tips me over into critical mode so that I hate everything I write. So I take breaks from writing. I work on other aspects--cover design, reading friends' works, etc. Being aware of our own particular warning signs is key.

Toni Anderson said...

Definitely words of wisdom. I'm pretty tired right now. Too many balls being juggled and not enough creative nurturing, but I have a big world trip to look forward to where I plan to slow down the word count and play tourist and research like crazy. The good thing for me is that reading/listening to biographies refills my well and sparks creativity. I'm bad with downtime but I need a break. My major resentment is others trying to force me to rest when I have something important to do. Let me do it and then I'll take a break. It's a balancing act, for sure.

But you've reminded me I'm not just allowed downtime, it's vital.

Sharon Calvin said...

I discovered this when trying to meet a (self-imposed) deadline and I simply ran out of words. It was like my brain said "no" when I tried to type words on the screen.

That's when I realized that drawing on a well that has gone dry is very frightening experience for a writer. Creativity requires us to nurture and feed it regularly, not as an afterthought.

Cathy Perkins said...

Wow, you really hit a nerve Josh. We all tend to keep adding another ball to the mix in the air, until one day our bodies, your minds, our creativity simply say, No more.

Lisa Q. Mathews said...

Great post, Josh. Thank you.

Josh Lanyon said...

Rita, these are wise words. I'm lucky in that I've always been able to write what I love, but even then pushing to produce too much too fast can wear you out. And one of the saddest parts of that is losing that love for the work.

Josh Lanyon said...

Marcelle, I think that's the key. Filling your life with...well, life. Making time for other creative projects, spending time with people who live outside the confines of our imagination...just getting out there and feeling the sunlight on your face!

Josh Lanyon said...

Toni, yes. What we all forget is that in order to have something to write about, in order to keep the words real, we have to stay engaged with the outside world. We have to have something real to write about. And that only comes from spending plenty of time in reality. The reality we don't create and cannot control. ;-)

Josh Lanyon said...

It's terrifying, isn't it, Sharon? Creativity is a powerful but yet weirdly fragile force. It has to be protected and a well in the desert.

Josh Lanyon said...

Cathy, yes. We all trust that this next ball will be the ball that makes the difference. But what is this "difference" that we all hope to see? I honestly don't know anymore. I already work harder and longer hours than I ever did at any "day job," and I remember thinking *that* schedule was unsustainable!

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