Saturday, November 1, 2008

Suffering from Burnout? Here's what to do.

The word burnout was not even in my vocabulary when I first started writing. I knew that I would never tire of it, never want to do anything else, never stop. I wrote at every opportunity; and most of those were after work, after the dinner dishes were done, after the dog had been walked, and after the kids were finally in bed. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it, except that I was young and obsessed. I ran on adrenaline and addiction to writing, I suppose. All I wanted in life was to write full time.

Fast forward to 2001. I have now been living my dream for 40 years, either as an employee or as a freelancer, which I have done my whole career. In the beginning, I freelanced while I worked at an unrelated job; in the middle, I did it in addition to being an employed writer; and, for the past 20 years, I have done it full time. And, yes, I must admit that I have been worn out, exhausted, and burned out more than a few times over the years.

Here is what I have learned that may be of help to you when you see BURNOUT in neon on your computer screen:

Never say never. This advice applies to everything in life. It is the one word that is guaranteed to trip you up because we never (whoops) know what life is going to throw at us or how we will feel when we must deal with the unexpected.

Admit it. You’re tired. You’re sick of what you're doing. You hate your editor/client. You’re uninspired. You have writer’s block. You wish you were a carpenter. You want to scream. The point is, don’t deny it, and fight your way through it. Stop, and be aware of what’s going on inside of you. The body never lies, and, if it’s turning into pretzel knots, there is a reason.

Don’t panic. When you feel yourself burning out, getting tired, writing mechanically, or feeling too blocked to write at all — and you will — take a break. (Oh, but I can’t; I have a deadline!) Yes, I know, but whatever you’re doing or not doing isn’t working. So, stop and take a walk, a nap, a movie, a meal, or a vacation. Read a book, veg out in front of the TV, put on your favorite CD, wash the floor, fix your car, do yoga or tai chi or karate. Do anything but write.

Know that it will pass. You are still a writer, a good writer, in fact. You haven’t lost your skill or your love of the craft. It’s probably premature to throw up you hands in defeat and job hunt. Be a Taoist: go with the flow. You don’t beat yourself to death when you have the flu. Why do it when you are suffering from temporary malaise? Chalk it up to a passing phase, and get on with your life.

Think it through. If it’s serious, if it’s continuous, if it’s painful, and it won’t go away, you may have to do more than go to a movie or roller-blading. You may have to examine what is going on and whether it is indeed time to move on to something else. My guess is, that given time, you’ll find some way to refresh your mind and your creativity. But if that doesn't happen, you have a right to switch gears and find another outlet for your talents. You did not sign a life-long contract to be a freelance writer. If it’s time to do something else, go for it.