Tuesday, October 20, 2015

How I avoid burnout

Burnout is a huge issue in the creative industries, especially when the passions of artists are exploited by those who tell us the work is its own reward. Because for us, it's true. We write, paint, sing, and dance because that's what we love doing, whether we get paid for it or not. And that makes it easy for people to expect us to do these things for free in exchange for "exposure."

Now I'm not saying that working for exposure is always a bad thing. Heaven knows I'm perfectly happy to speak at events, lead workshops, write blog posts, and even contribute fiction for zero zip zilch nada. And I'd be a hypocrite to say the practice is always bad since I asked fellow authors to donate stories for the Brave New Girls anthology (since we were on a shoestring budget from a crowdfunding campaign and all the proceeds from sales go to a scholarship fund). Those who ask us to work for free are usually doing so because they have no money themselves. Like small conferences/conventions, where attendee and vendor fees barely cover the cost of renting the venue, and the like.

And of course, there's the ever-present favor-swapping that occurs when no one has any money. I'll read your book if you'll read mine. I'll write that blog post and thank you for hosting it because I need content for my social media pages. I'll make this book trailer if you'll read and review my novella.

Then, finally... I'll write this book, with all the research and plotting and toil that goes into it, even though there's a very real possibility that no one in the world will ever deem it good enough to read.

The problem with this kind of work-for-the-sake-of-the-work world is that it can very quickly lead to burnout. You're working your ass off for a reward that may or may not happen day in and day out. Sometimes, you feel like you're working into the aether, expending tons of energy for no return. And wondering if any of this is worthwhile, or if you're doomed to work, work, work and never receive anything in return.

I've fallen into that pit many-a time. Those moments of rage and despair and depression where I wonder, What the hell am I even doing? Would I be happier if I quit?

For some people, the answer is yes, and there's nothing wrong with that. Our creative pursuits will seldom lead to any kind of material reward, so if it's not fun anymore and it's making you unhappy, there's really no point. Screw those who look down on "quitters." Do what's right for you.

For others, the answer is no. I realize that despite the thankless toil, I just wanted to tell stories. That if the universe collapsed and I was somehow left alone in the abyss, I would tell my stories into oblivion until I, too, fell.

That "aha" moment was the main factor that kept me from burning out. But there were other factors too. Steps I took, sometimes purposefully and sometimes subconsciously, that keep me from collapsing under the endless work and exhaustion. They are:

  • Don't hold yourself to someone else's standards. People work at different paces. Just because that obnoxious author on Facebook posts his/her 10,000 word a day victories over the WIP doesn't mean you have to write that fast as well. Just because that prolific author on Twitter is self-pubbing a book a month doesn't mean you have to keep up. If it's not right for you, it's not right for you, and what's working for them isn't a universal standard.
  • Don't compare yourself to others. I know, I know, it's hard not to look at that author who subbed her first draft NaNo novel to an agent, got signed in a week, then sold the book a month later to a Big Cat Publisher who gave them a six figure advance and heralded them as the Next Big Thing. But most of us won't be that person. That person literally won the lottery. No, I'm not just being a Millennial. I mean literally. Because this whole world of creativity is completely, utterly, and eternally subjective, and it will never be "fair." Just like the lottery. No, it's not a perfect storm of perfect characters and perfect writing. It's a stroke of insane luck that struck a chord with either The Powers That Be or The Masses. We can't all be unicorns.
  • It's okay to take breaks. Even long ones where you don't touch a book for months. Your brain needs time to reset. In fact, during these breaks, it's okay if you don't even read or look at writer forums or anything. Think about it this way: If you were training for a marathon, wouldn't you have days where you just don't run because otherwise you'd rip your muscles apart? And you don't run marathons every day, for crying out loud. Some people are superathletes and do a number a year. Others of us are less suited for that, and doing just one is a big effing deal. So let yourself reset. It's not laziness. It's recuperating.
  • Don't pin all your hopes on one thing. You never know what's going to be your "big break" so don't obsess over that one novel thinking this will be it, only to find yourself curled under your blankets in a fetal position when the world gives a collective shrug in response. In fact, many people never have that one Big Break that skyrockets them into Stephen King territory. For most, it's a slow and steady trickle of books balanced with a day job that pays the rent. If you hate your day job, don't count on your book to get you out of it. Even famous writers you've read about in the newspaper have day jobs teaching at universities and the like.
  • If you're already published, stop staring at your sales. Because at a certain point, there ain't nothing you can do about 'em unless you've got ten million dollars to spare on a huge publicity blitz and a print run that floods bookstores so people literally have no choice but to see your book. Keep doing publicity pushes, by all means, but understand that there's only so much you can do without a Fairy Godmother or Daddy Warbucks. Zero effort will lead to zero sales, but a million percent effort won't lead to a million sales. I know. It's not fair.
Basically, this all boils down to Acceptance. That last stage of grief. That Zen principle of letting go of desire. Which is counterintuitive in a creative field that's all about desire. But trust me, sometimes the only thing to do is to care less about certain things and remember why you're doing this in the first place. For your book. For your characters. For you.

OH, and of course there's this:
  • For God's sake, get some sleep. Seriously. Coffee is awesome, but nothing beats sleep for making sure your brain doesn't implode.


  1. So true. It's like we're all pretty butterflies, trapped in some sort of a dome.

  2. "Don't hold yourself to someone else's standards" and "Don't compare yourself to others." Pretty ironic, because the rest of us mere mortal writer get depressed or jealous if we try to compare ourselves to Mary Fan, because we mere mortal writers couldn't possibly (even if we never slept) compete with Mary, who is so incredibly prolific with her writing, editing, blogging, promoting, social-media-ing (okay, that's not a verb yet, so sue me!), teaching, traveling, convention attending, etc. all while holding down a full-time job! I still don't know how she does it.