Having worked jobs that required me to be nocturnal, travel across states every week, and put in fourteen hours a day, I am well acquainted with the concept of burnout. I know the rest of you are too, it’s pretty much a universal concept. And yes, I mean truly universal, because as much as I never expected it to be a thing when I started writing for a living, I’ve found that even in a job like this, doing something I legitimately love, it’s a very real issue.
And, just to digress for a moment, know that I feel like an asshole even typing that last paragraph. When all your friends have jobs that involve offices or retail, it’s hard to feel like you actually have any right to complain about your gig sitting in the house making up stories all day. That’s part of what makes burnout on a job like this so insidious, you don’t feel like you should have it, so you try to pretend it’s not there, which ultimately only makes things worse.
So, what’s the first rule to fighting burnout as someone who has a creative, self-employed job?
1. Accept That Burnout Is Real
Yes, your job is less demanding in a lot of ways than people who do 9-5’s, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make demands on you. Writing books can be stressful; from worrying about plot points, to trying to keep a release on schedule, to making sure the income is properly budgeted, to dealing with negativity, to meeting deadlines… look I’ve had way harder jobs than this one, but don’t mistake that to mean it’s a complete cakewalk.
Writing takes a toll, and as much as it’s a thing I need to do to keep myself sane, that doesn’t mean I can keep up an indefinite pace all the time. Which, coincidentally, is why I advocate for new serialists to make themselves a buffer, because eventually the day will come when they need a week off from writing but also have to uphold their contract with the readers.
Anyway, if you work without rest at anything, even art, your tank will eventually run dry. That’s okay to admit. It’s okay to factor into your life and work schedule. You’re not being lazy, you’re giving your mind the time it needs to recharge so that you can be excited when it’s time to work again. But now that you’ve accepted burnout is real, how do you fight it?
2. Try New Projects
I’m not necessarily saying the way to get over burnout from writing a book is to write another book, but sometimes just switching things up can be a welcome respite. For example, my blogs are something of a “light day” mechanism for me. I don’t research them, I don’t need to worry about continuity or character issues, I can just say what comes to mind. It’s still writing, and still soothes the brain spiders, but it’s a lot easier on me. When I have days where I know I need a break, that’s when I fill my wordcount by doing blogs. Work still gets done, and I get to ease off the gas for a bit.
Alternately, you can do mini-projects with low-stakes. Part of the reason I love Halloween is because I get to do the Choose Your Spooky Outcome series I’ve made tradition over the last few years. Those, to me, are sheer fun. I’ve set them up in a way that it’s impossible for me to overplan them, because until you all choose what’s happening I have no way to write the next scene. And when that time comes, I can focus on doing things that are fun, or make me laugh, since the concept is so light to begin with.
This is also why I do my podcasts, or short stories, or other mini-projects. Yes, I could just take the time off entirely, but I’ve found that still doing creative tasks can help me rekindle the joy of my work, and that is a huge help in fighting off the burnout.
3. Absorb Other Art
At least once a quarter, I take a week off from writing entirely and just spend the whole time lying in bed with my dog, reading book after book. Some are indie, some aren’t, some are amazing, some are dreadful. I just pick ones that look interesting, and go on a tear. Not only is this good for me as a writer, because it shows me techniques that work and ones that fail miserably, but I also feel creatively jazzed up when the week is over.
That’s the thing about art, good or bad tends to inspire me. When I see something really good, I think, “Damn, I want to try my hand at that genre. It seems like there’s a lot of cool concepts to play with.” And when I see something bad, I think, “Damn, why didn’t they go down another path with that idea, or flesh-out those characters? I bet I could do something in that vein that would actually be fun.”
Take the time to just drown yourself in other things. Try genres outside your usual comfort zone, shows you would never normally watch, recommendations from people you trust. At the very worst, you’ll see good or bad techniques to keep in mind when you go back to work, and at best you might leave the process feeling re-energized. Perhaps, even inspired with a new idea or two.
4. Take a Break
Sometimes, you just need to walk away for a while. Maybe it’s to take a vacation, maybe it’s to sit on the couch and drink wine while re-watching favorite movies. During these times, it’s really easy to feel like you somehow slipped off course, like you’re not resting, you’re failing at your job. Please, let me take a moment and assure you that’s not the case. Everyone needs a full on break occasionally, and while people with those 9-5 jobs are done when they clock out and on weekends, that’s not the situation with us.
We’re always thinking about plot threads, dialogue, new book ideas, and a dozen other things simmering about in the back of our heads. From a day-to-day perspective, it’s not so bad, but eventually that shit will build up. And if you don’t take the time to clear the mental cobwebs on occasion, it can bring you crashing down.
There are too many examples of writers, comic artists, etc, that I’ve seen have to quit entirely because they didn’t allow themselves to step away from time to time. Everyone needs that total disconnect from their job, even when their job is their passion. So take a week on the couch, or go to the Grand Canyon, or camp, or glamp, or hit an amusement park. Do whatever you need to walk completely away from your work for a little while, to put it totally out of mind.
Because, sooner or later, you’ll start to miss it. The creative well that seemed to be running so dry before will bubble up with new thoughts and ideas. You’ll remember why you started this sort of thing in the first place, because writing (or whatever your art is) seemed like something you physically had to do. And when you stop, truly stop, it’s only a matter of time before that need reasserts itself, and you can come back more determined than ever.