May 2022 - Coping with Creative Exhaustion
How to Survive (And Recover) From Creative Exhaustion
Hello, and welcome to my May 2022 newsletter.
Most writers have heard of writer’s block. In fact, many of you may even have experienced it. But writer’s block is not the same as creative exhaustion.
What’s the difference between writer’s block and creative exhaustion?
Writer’s block is when we’re stuck and can’t seem to get going. We want to write something. We’ve got creative projects that we’re keen to work on, but when we sit down to write … the right words just won’t flow.
Creative exhaustion is completely different.
Horror fiction author Gemma Amor explains:
“It usually takes me a while to recognise that I am burned out, because my schedule tends to be so busy I drop straight off one project, novel, or deadline and run smack bang into the next. I get very little breathing room in general, between writing and juggling being a parent and other things, so burnout always creeps up on me unseen, until I suddenly find myself unable to write.”
“That's the biggest and most obvious symptom: if I'm in front of a keyboard and the words simply don't want to come out. I can always, always put words down, even terrible ones, except when I'm burned out. Then, not a single word. It's torture. My brain is willing, but unable.”
“This often goes hand in hand with a healthy dose of imposter syndrome, intense fatigue, anxiety and depression, and all that good stuff. It really doesn't pay to run yourself into the ground if you can avoid it: recovery takes twice as long as taking measures to avoid it in the first place.”
Psychology Fantasy author Jason Hamilton feels the same:
“It became rather evident that I was in burnout when I was no longer looking forward to writing. I would sit at my computer, my hands would hover over the keyboard, and I would feel like I was having a mild panic attack. I just didn't want to be there.”
“Additionally I felt depression, despair, and a general lack of interest in doing what I previously loved to do. This came after I released the first two books in a series I was writing and it completely failed. It made nowhere near the money I was hoping for, so writing the remaining books was extremely difficult. I was so focused on creating best-selling products that when I knew they weren't selling, I completely collapsed inward.”
You know you’ve got creative exhaustion when you can’t write. Writing is impossible.
Is there a cure? if so, what is it?
The cure, then, is not to write.
“I rest. I force myself to rest, but in a way my workaholic personality can cope with- so I often switch to a pastime that helps me relax whilst still allowing me to feel like I can create things. I paint a lot, sew, take photos, sing, record lines for a podcast, whatever- something that gets me away from the computer where possible. I also walk a great deal and listen to an awful lot of music, because I find with music, my imagination is triggered into fictional scenarios, conversations and visual settings that can kickstart an entire novel quite easily. I try to indulge in movie marathons and audiobooks (I'm having a hard time sitting down reading when I produce so many words every day, which sucks, because I miss reading, but thank god for podcasts and audiobooks).”
“I also use the time to reconnect with friends, get plenty of fresh air, sleep and all the sensible things a person should do when overwhelmed. It takes time, but it does eventually work- self-care is an extremely dunked upon but valid tool in your career tool box.”
Jason agrees, and for him, it wasn’t a case of just taking a few weeks off:
“It took at least a year, and could have possibly taken less had I been more intentional about it. For some, it may take longer. Creativity, I believe, doesn't come spontaneously. It comes through consistent practice in whatever art you are pursuing, as well as engaging in worthwhile endeavors that fill the creative well, i.e. other forms of art/music, meditation, taking care of yourself physically, etc. Had I been more intentional about doing these things, I might have recovered earlier.”
How can we recover?
Gemma’s advice to anyone who is burntout is as follows:
“That it's okay to stop. Stop trying, if the trying is making you feel terrible. I understand deadlines are a thing, I also know that it's not always possible to just put down the pen and walk away. But in general, our brains can only produce so many thoughts, ideas, scenes, and words. If you aren't enjoying writing something, chances are people might not enjoy reading it.”
“I can always tell when I am churning out stodgy stuff, deep in the throes of burnout. It loses its sparkle. After a rest, my writing shines again. So it's okay to stop and pause and recuperate- even if for only a little while. All rest helps. Also, I tend to reinvigorate myself by getting trusted readers to look at stuff I'm still working on.”
“Often, the feedback incentivises me to keep going when the going is tough. And I moan a lot to friends. That helps too. Some of us know what it's like to climb up the mountain, and having a climbing buddy is a definite advantage.”
Jason advice is to look at what you’re trying to achieve with your writing, as well as look at your overall physical health:
“Burnout can manifest in a lot of different ways, so I would just ask yourself if things are like they used to be. Are you still enjoying the writing or is it a chore now? Do you frequently sit down to write and feel exhausted? Then, if you feel you may be in burnout there are a few things I would focus on for improvement:
1) make sure your health is in order. Lack of sleep and poor diet (seriously, sugar is a drug) are the #1 enemies of a high-functioning creative mind.
2) I would advise people to focus on the journey, not the destination. It's easy to take one step rather than obsessing over all the many steps you have yet to take.
Ask yourself if you're in it for the money (if so, you might want to pick a higher-paying profession), or if you're in it to tell the stories from your heart, or to improve as a writer. These were the most helpful pieces of advice from my experience.”
So if you find that you don’t want to write, remember, it may not be writer’s block but creative burnout. But as both these writers have shown, it is something you can overcome.
You can become creative again.
Until next month, happy writing!