I couldn’t figure out why my story wasn’t working.
When I’d first started this project, I had been so excited that I could hardly stand it. Yeah, I was busy, I had a job, and I was taking college classes, but none of that mattered as much as this story.
I was inspired. Words and ideas flowed from my hands onto the page. I had thought I would have trouble with the intense deadline of NaNoWriMo, but this story was proving me wrong.
Until suddenly, it wasn’t. It seemed like overnight that, instead of feeling inspired, I felt stuck and, even worse, burdened. Whenever I even thought about my story I felt like a large-print edition of the Lord of the Rings books had been dropped onto my shoulders.
It wasn’t until I talked things over with a friend that I realized (or more accurately, was lovingly told) what may already be obvious to you. The problem wasn’t with my discipline or my abilities as a writer or even with the many plot problems in my story.
The problem, as my sweet friend put it, was “you’re doing too much and you need to stop.”
You may find yourself in a similar place today, feeling like you have no words left and like you may never write a decent sentence again. You’re frustrated with your current project that you used to love, and even the thought of writing makes you feel like a weight has been dropped on your shoulders.
You could be just struggling with that nightmarish task: finishing your story.
Or you could just need to recognize that it may be time to stop.
Not stop writing. You have this gift for a reason.
But stop pushing yourself to the brink to meet your own deadlines, stop trying to juggle so many things at once, and stop feeling so exhausted all the time.
In other words, it is time to fight creative burnout. It’s time to rest.
How Do I Know That I Am Suffering From Creative Burnout?
How do we fight an enemy? We start by recognizing who our enemy truly is.
So how can you, young writer, identify burnout? What are some of the signs that show you are struggling with it? Here are some of the things that I found in my life that told me I was dealing with burnout:
- I found myself hating the very idea of writing. When you are blocked, you simply don’t want to write. With burnout, writing feels like the most insurmountable task imaginable. You don’t just “not feel like writing today”; the idea of writing at all makes you feel instantly drained.
- I hadn’t taken a break after completing a big project. I had just finished going through several rounds of edits in a full-length (50,000 words +) project. But instead of stopping after that, I forged right ahead into my new story… and wondered why no words would come! According to Rachelle Rea Cobb, an author and freelance editor who taught a course for the Young Writer’s Workshop, after completing a draft you should take a break of at least 2-6 weeks before beginning the editing process.
If you’re cringing right now, because you’ve never taken that long of a break, you have found the source of your burnout. It may be time to take a little bit of a break before diving back in. (Trust me, this is from the girl who had never taken more than a weekend off after finishing a project.)
- Other projects were draining my word count. I was a full-time student at this time, with a dozen or so papers that needed to be written. It wasn’t feasible for me to set such high word count goals, but I did. And I met them… at first. But the problem with such high goals was that I couldn’t sustainably keep them with everything that was going on. This kind of “production” inevitably led to burnout.
- I was busy. It’s a well-known (but often forgotten) fact that you can’t write as well after a ten-hour work day as you can on a day when you are doing nothing. If you expect the same amount of words on a day when you have had multiple school assignments, events, and/or responsibilities to work on, you may succeed. But you can’t do it forever.
For you, there may be other signs, but these are the ones that stuck out to me.
These aren’t excuses but symptoms of a bigger issue: signs that we are burning ourselves out.
How Do I Recover from Burnout?
If you’ve been googling solutions for burnout for long, you know that many, many solutions are given for recovering from burnout. From 43 bullet point patterns to Pinterest-able graphics of lists of tips, the Internet is overwhelmingly full of solutions.
But I think the answer is much simpler than all of that.
To recover from burnout, you simply have to rest.
Many people around the internet are trying to come up with different solutions because we all want something we can do to “fix” burnout. We want to be proactive, we want to solve our own problems. We can be so focused on fixing burnout that we ironically, burn ourselves out more (Yup, that one’s me.)
The truth is that none of us like to rest. Resting means admitting that we can’t handle everything all the time, that we are dependent on others, and that we aren’t all-powerful or all-self-sustaining.
That we are, in other words, human.
Our humanity means that we can’t handle everything on our own. There are times when we need to stop and rest. And it takes a strong person to admit that to themselves and to others.
The truth is that rest makes us better and healthier, as humans and writers. Don’t believe the “suffering writer” strategy that says you have to experience pain to make great art.
Just living brings us all the trials we are meant to have, without us purposefully adding to them by working ourselves to death.
When we are well-rested, we are more creative. Words flow more easily. We’re more focused, and we also just feel better. With all of this in mind, it is easy to see the valuable truth.
Resting should be a necessary and essential part of our lives and writing.
But how do we incorporate resting into our daily lives?
I think a good place to start is physical rest.
Taking Care of the Outside: Implementing Physical Rest
As writers, we make our living by using our imaginations. The worlds and characters that we create are what draw readers in, not the outside shell that we use to physically write.
That being said, it would be foolish to say that solving burnout is as simple as just taking care of your mental health and ignoring your physical health. Humans are complete and complexly created beings: bodies as well as souls. The one affects the other.
That is why, when you are burnt out, it is important to address the physical issues involved. Are you sleep-deprived? Have you been eating well? Exercising?
It may sound out there, but the truth is like I said above, a healthier writer is a better writer.
As this relates to rest, I would suggest starting with a good sleep schedule. I know you’ve been staying up to all hours of the night trying to break your way through the wall of burnout, but consider this your permission to go to bed.
And I don’t mean just sleep in tomorrow and then stay up till 2 am the day after. That can make your sleep worse in the long run.
Look at it this way: our bodies were meant for regular sleep and irregular late nights, not regular 18-hour days and irregular eight hours of sleep.
A good way to start developing a sleep schedule is to start tracking your current sleep for a week. Then see what changes you have to make so that you are getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep every night.
Sleep. Let your body and brain recharge. Then wake up, pick up your pen, and write.
Where Stories Are Made: Implementing Mental Rest
The second important part of implementing rest is addressing mental energy. I could spend hours talking about this (and in fact, I have, sorry Mom) because I truly believe that this is where a lot of writers burn themselves to a crisp and don’t even realize it.
It makes sense. Writers make their living (or find their joy) in creativity. It’s easy to keep on being creative and keep on writing until you simply have nothing left.
This is when you need to not simply physically rest, but also incorporate mental rest.
You have physical energy and you have mental energy. They are interconnected, but they do not always overlap. (You may be physically exhausted from a run, for example, but still coming up with amazing story plot ideas.)
You can use up your mental energy just like your physical energy by being creative, multitasking, and doing things that require a lot of thought. That’s why you can be more tired after reading a textbook that you have to think about really hard to understand (hello, economics) than when you’re reading your favorite fiction.
This is also why we need to mentally reset, and recharge the mental energy we need to use for writing. Wondering how to do that? Here are some ways that I have found helpful:
- Have some quiet time. It’s really easy to want to use up every second of every day with “helpful things”, listen to a writing podcast while doing the dishes, read a book on craft while in the car, and try to scribble down some notes for your WIP at a baseball game. But the truth is that we can’t go at full throttle all the time. This is your permission to turn off the music, put down the book, and just sit in the quiet. Give yourself some mental space to breathe.
- Cut out multitasking. As I mentioned above, I tend to try to take advantage of every spare minute in my day to do “beneficial” things. But the truth is that multitasking takes up more mental energy for me than just doing one thing at a time. So I started turning off the music, listening to the quiet, being completely wherever I was, and doing one thing at a time. When I cut out some of the multitasking that I was constantly doing, I was surprised at how much more energy I felt mentally and even physically.
- Do something creative, unrelated to writing, and just for fun. For me, this is baking. I put aside my stories and just be for a minute. For you, this may be drawing or movies, or something else. Whatever it is, do something creative that brings you joy and lay aside your current project.
- Realize what tasks drain your mental energy. So far I’ve told you what works for me. But the truth is that there is no hard and fast rule of what will drain your mental energy and what won’t. For example, I tend to be more introverted so I lose mental energy when I am interacting with people. For you though, you may gain mental energy when you’re around others. Take note of when you feel energized mentally and when you feel mentally exhausted, and make a plan for how you can utilize that information to better manage your mental energy.
- And, most importantly of all, DON’T believe that rest isn’t productive. The truth is that we all need rest. We all run out of words eventually and need to recharge. Rest not only helps us write better, but it also reminds us of our humanity. It’s ok. You can take a break, turn off that writing lesson, and put down the craft book. It’s not wrong. It’ll even make you better.
Set up regular times in your schedule to work and regular times to rest. Maybe that will look like taking a day off writing once a month. Maybe it looks like having a dedicated hour to write instead of writing at different times throughout the day. Whatever that looks like for you, set up that time to be.
Trust me, you won’t regret it.
I Am Recovering from Burnout… What Now?
So, you now know how important resting is and have some practical ideas for accomplishing it. You’ve begun to hope again that you can actually enjoy writing instead of it just being a chore.
But I want to leave you with two final thoughts because I think writers do tend to fall into two different traps when they are resting.
The first is giving up writing altogether. This, honestly, is where I have been for the past month. I was so determined to take a break that I just didn’t write, and I lost the writing consistency habit that I had been developing for years.
You don’t have to not ever touch writing again to recover from burnout. I would encourage you to keep writing, even as you are strategizing (and actually) resting. If the thought of words on your WIP sickens you too much, try something completely different.
Write a poem a day. Journal once a week. Do something to keep the habit of writing alive and well.
Second, just because you are resting doesn’t give you permission to isolate.
I know, we as writers like to hide away in our own little world. (Isn’t that why we’re writing in the first place?) But introverts still need social time, work-alones still need teams, plotters need pantsers, and writers need other people.
Lean into a writing community. Like I said at the beginning of this article, I had no idea that I was burned out until a friend told me. Sometimes we’re too close to ourselves to see the truth.
Writers need rest and writers need community.
Do you have a writing support system and community: a solid group of people you can talk about writing with who will encourage and inspire you? If not, or if you want more tips for developing your current writer’s community, check out this free PDF guide I have put together specifically for this post on developing a writing support system that will positively impact both you and your writing.