Thursday, September 02, 2021

Struggling with Writing Burnout? Try These Tricks

By Shanna Swendson, @ShannaSwendson

Part of The Writer’s Life Series 

JH: After years of difficult times for everyone, many writers are struggling with burnout. Shanna Swendson shares ways to deal with not wanting to write and how to handle it. 

Shanna Swendson earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas but decided it was more fun to make up the people she wrote about and became a novelist. She’s written a number of fantasy novels for teens and adults, including the Enchanted, Inc. series and the Rebel Mechanics series. She devotes her spare time to reading, knitting, and music. Her newest novel is the paranormal mystery Interview with a Dead Editor

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Take it away Shanna…

If you feel discouraged, unmotivated, and tired lately, and that’s making it hard to write, you’re not alone. A lot of my writer friends have mentioned dealing with burnout in recent months. The pandemic and the state of the world has made it difficult for many to focus. Others may have worked more than ever since they couldn’t go out to do their usual activities, only to run out of steam.

One of the best descriptions I’ve seen of burnout and what distinguishes it from normal stress or exhaustion is that it involves a sense of learned helplessness. You feel like what you’re doing doesn’t make any difference or that no matter how hard you work, you’ll never reach your goals. It’s exhaustion plus frustration, with a dash of hopelessness.

Writers can be particularly prone to burnout because the things we do for fun generally all involve stories. We became writers because we liked reading so much that we started making up our own stories. When we want to relax and take a break from writing, we read or we watch movies or television series. That means the part of the brain that creates and responds to stories never gets a break.

Once you start writing regularly, it’s difficult to shut off that part of the brain when you’re reading or viewing something, so while you’re trying to relax, your brain is doing the same work it has to do when you’re writing. You’re trying to figure out what should happen next, analyzing the characters, and taking note of the plot structure. It’s probably been worse for the past year and a half or so because there hasn’t been much to do for fun other than read or watch things.

(Here’s more with Writing Through Difficult Times)

The most obvious thing to do to make things better is give yourself a break, if you can.

That may not be possible if you have a deadline, but you can treat that deadline as a finish line, after which you can take a break. For at least a few days, spend the time you might have spent writing doing something else, even if it’s just sleeping.

Find something you can do for fun that doesn’t involve stories at all. Go walking, put together puzzles, do craft projects, listen to or play music. If you must watch or read something, try non-fiction. I enjoy watching travel documentaries. There’s no plot, no tension, just nice scenery, so it feels like an escape. Story ideas or thoughts relating to projects in progress may still pop into your head, but don’t force your brain to work like that.

Make sure you’re taking care of your physical health with proper nutrition, plenty of water, a good night’s sleep, and regular exercise. It’s hard to make your mind keep working when your body is tired or weak, and physical exhaustion only makes the mental and emotional exhaustion worse.

This is a good time to take a look at your motivation. Why do you write? What do you hope to achieve from it? If you hope to be able to make a living as a writer, there had to be a reason you wanted to pursue the career in the first place. Even aside from making a living that way, what was it that made you decide you wanted to write? Getting back to that initial spark and focusing on that rather than on the demands or worries of trying to write professionally may make you feel better about where you are now.

(Here’s more with A Lifeline for When Writing is No Longer Fun)

Unrealistic goals can lead to a sense of burnout because you can’t reach them, no matter how hard you work, and that makes your effort feel futile. You may have dreams of achieving something that you don’t totally control, like an Oscar-winning film being made from one of your books, and it’s nice to have dreams, but your actual goals need to be measurable and something that you can make happen.

You control what you write and how much you write. You can’t control whether an agent will take you on or a publisher will buy your book. You can’t control whether you become a bestselling author or sell film rights.

With independent publishing, you can make getting a book published a goal, and you can set benchmarks you’d like to achieve based on the promotional activities you do, but you still need to set realistic goals that you can measure. You may feel frustrated if your goal is to have a bestseller because no matter how much you write, you don’t have a lot of control over whether that happens.

If you set a goal, you can measure and achieve, you get an emotional boost that can help you keep going and you’re less likely to feel like you have some control, which avoids that sense of helplessness that leads to burnout.

Another cause for burnout is comparing yourself to others. When you see on social media all the things other writers are achieving, it’s easy to feel like your own efforts aren’t measuring up. Remember that social media only shows us the surface. It usually doesn’t show us all the rejections, struggles, and failures that came before the big success. You probably haven’t seen the days when those authors wanted to pull their hair out because the plot of the book that’s having all that success now just wouldn’t cooperate.

For your own sanity, if you’re struggling or feeling bad about your own work, you may need to take a social media break or mute the authors who are unintentionally making you feel bad about yourself. Spreading the word about successes is an important part of promotion, so these authors aren’t doing anything wrong, but if you’ve got a sore spot, you can temporarily remove yourself until you feel better and have restored your sense of perspective.

(Here’s more with 7 Ways to Deal With Burnout)

You might also want to consider taking a step back from the news if the state of the world is wearing on you. Staying informed is important, but it’s possible to overload to the point that you stay in a constant state of outrage over things you can’t control, and that frustration can combine with any frustration you’re feeling about work to intensify the sense of helplessness that leads to burnout. Maybe read a newspaper or watch a local newscast, but don’t follow the Twitter rabbit holes of news coverage.

If you don’t feel better after a few weeks of trying these things, you may need to get professional help. Your mind is your most important tool as a writer, and you need to take good care of it the same way you’d see a doctor if you had a problem in some other part of your body.

About Make Mine Magic

A chance encounter and a good deed send a librarian’s vacation in an entirely unexpected direction, drawing her into a side of the city that tourists don’t see—and neither do most New Yorkers. She’s become the accidental keeper of something every magical person in New York wants—a source of great power. If she ever wants to go back to her normal life, she’ll have to rescue an enchanted prince, find a way to navigate this magical world, figure out who the good guys and bad guys are, and mediate a centuries-old dispute.

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