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?