Writer Burn-Out and Other Things.

Writer Burn-out, and other things

Burnt-out.

Conjures images of forests devastated by wildfire, of cars reduced to shells of blackened metal and puddles of melted rubber and plastic, of electronics smouldering and going “pouf” before expiring in a spiral of evil-smelling smoke.

In the case of a writer, it’s often nothing visible. They just go very quiet. Or they become very noisy, bouncing around social media being terribly cheerful. But there’s a brittle nature to the good cheer, hiding an edge they’re often aiming to conceal at all costs. The edge is a sharp one, a foot sticking out of a shallow grave, ready to trip you up and reveal a horrible secret: you can’t write any more.

People suggest tips to get you writing again. Writing prompts, courses, a break away from writing, a holiday, time spent reading instead.

I’ll let you into two secrets. The first you may have guessed: I can’t write any more. The second: I don’t think I want to, either. It’s the second that’s the killer.

I stopped writing once before, stopped it dead in the water, in 1995. Following the stress of (among other things) trying to do rewrites of a novel for one of the Big Six (as it was then), I became almost fatally ill. Something inside my brain said, “Blow this for a game of soldiers!” and popped. When I recovered enough, I finished the rewriting as requested, waited, and after a committee discussed it, it was dismissed and that was that. Contrary to what I have believed in the years since, I don’t think I made a conscious decision to stop writing. I just…stopped. It became a memory, part of my past, something I didn’t do any more. I think now I shut down the vaster part of my psyche, because I couldn’t face it. I couldn’t face the inevitable failure and loss of hope.

You see, me and stories go back a long, long way. Pre-literate me wrote stories, in my head, and used my father’s typewriter to try and get them onto paper. Didn’t work, obviously, but full marks for trying, eh? My whole childhood and teens, I worked on stories. I didn’t do anything much between going to university and becoming a mum, but that was as much circumstances as anything else. My first round of trying to get published, I was in my late twenties. My second round, late thirties. There wasn’t and won’t be a third round. I still believe that self-publishing is the only route for someone like me; on a practical note, now I am in my fifth decade, publishers aren’t generally interested anyway. Youth is what interests most of them. I’m not sure if it’s because a young author has decades of writing ahead or whether they believe they can mould a younger person.

But my God, I am TIRED. Tired of trying to do things that I’m not cut out to do, of trying to understand things that are beyond me, and of the entire landscape. Books are mere commodities, nothing more. Or so you’d believe. I don’t. I believe that a book is a holy, sacred thing, a wonder of the civilised world, a joy and a gift. I’ve loved that the e-book means I can carry a whole library round in my handbag, but the down-side is that there are now millions and millions of books out there and no way to easily find ones I might value. It means that good books and great books whose authors (whether self published or not) are not able to do the right kind of hustling, schmoozing, and generally selling of one’s assets now required to get a book in front of potential readers, fail, sink and disappear without trace. Heaven only knows how many beautiful, life-changing gems have gone unseen, their authors losing heart and finally faith. My own did well at first but have started to sink and disappear and the only thing that has even a tiny chance of raising them is to put out more books. I’ve got more books on my hard drive, written in the productive frenzy ten years ago that followed the unexpected return of my mojo. Yet the process of polishing, of editing, of producing a cover, blurb, publicity and so on, daunts me more than it did, because it feels futile. I can’t kid myself that this one might be THE ONE; I’ve done so for each and every book I’ve published, and each time the results have been poorer than the last. The market is saturated and making an impression sufficient to not only generate but also to sustain sales is now impossible for me. I know I have wonderful people who buy and read and love everything I’ve ever put out. It should be enough. But it isn’t.

At this point, some are going to be thinking, just take a break, stop for a few months, do something else instead. These are things I have tried. Writing is not only part of me; it’s who I am. It’s so interwoven with my essential being that I will break if it is taken from me, even by my own hand. The picture here is of what happened when I stored a long thin vase inside a bigger one; when I came to need the smaller one, the glass had shifted ever so slightly, (glass is a strange thing) and it no longer slid out. In removing it, the bigger vase shattered in my hands.

Big vase little vase

Big vase little vase

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25 thoughts on “Writer Burn-Out and Other Things.

  1. Fallow time is good. No outer imperative to write can fight it, past a certain point. Let it rest and if it bubbles up again, fine. In the meantime, that mysterious melting back into the greater universe that is abiding. Many blessings!

  2. All the feelings apply here equally! If I resume ( and there is a glimmer of hope) it will be because I can’t not. Without writing I don’t exist. ‘The unwritten life has not happened’ to paraphrase BUT I am very close to accepting that nobody will read it. That acceptance is new born and may not live!

  3. I can relate. I am taking a long time to get the next story, Love You to the Moon, into a novel rather than in research and thoughts form. I loathe the state of writing today , as you describe (very well) – all the hassle, and the emphasis on Youth (which is true in all the arts really). Presentable, mouldable, and financially useful too. And thinking in the culture of the day. I’m lucky that writing isn’t my whole life in the same way as it is for you, painting is as good. But, I truly want to get this novel written … so I hope I shall. As for courses, prompts, etc, I can’t think what I’d use those for – like competitions, they are irrelevant to what I have in my head and want to say. IF I’m not writing, please do n’t ask me, (I say to these prompts & things), don’t expect me to ‘just sit down and write anything, for 10 minutes flat, every morning.’ No. I don’t ‘want to be a writer’ – I simply wish to communicate the stories I have within me! That is different, right, prompt people? Gosh, so many people are so different to us, I am different to you – etc.
    I hope you resolve this.
    And I thank you for buying The Labyrinth Year which I so hope will not disappoint. Once I am organised (after Hawkesbury and much else besides) I shall try to do a review of Strangers & Pilgrims, which I enjoyed.

  4. Hi Viv, it may be just my limited knowledge of English BUT …As far as I understand what you’ve written. I believe you still want to write you’re just utterly pissed with the publishing of books. Take a break from it and just blog until…who knows
    Namaste,
    Markus

  5. I, too, believe that books are holy, sacred thing. I have lived for books, for reading and writing since *I* could read and write. I’ve been writing 40 years now (not published nor ever will be) because I had to.

    I don’t think any-one can take writing from you, even yourself, and also no-one can take away the writing and books you have done.

    My wish for you is a return to joy in writing, the kind we feel when we’re in the ‘cone’ or when we’re young and it does not matter what or how we write, the joy comes from the ideas pouring out.

    Publishers might be interested in youth, but I think writing is enriched as we get older. Lots of {{{hugs}}} to you.

    • I tend to agree; reading work by really young people sometimes seems to lack a certain something that age and experience may bring.

  6. Pretty dire feelings Vivienne, to which I often subscribe. There is nothing I can add or subtract from what you say. Except, maybe to continue writing because it is who you are. Like this post for instance –

  7. Writing prompts or courses are not for people who feel really blocked and dried up. Only time can open up the fountaine of writing. After all it is a kind of magic we do, and we cannot depend on it always staying with us. I’m convinced that stories will stay with you, will be in you and, maybe, one day will want to be written by you. As a reader, I really hope you will write and publish again. Your books have given me joy and strength. Thank you for the books you published.

  8. I understand. I stopped writing a while back, I just couldn’t do it anymore, & part of me didn’t want to. Oh, I still write on my blog, but it’s back to being more of a personal journal, rather than a place for fiction and poetry.

    For the past year and a half, more or less, I’ve been focusing on crafting in various mediums – wire, clay, paint, crochet. Whatever strikes my fancy. And – it’s been very rewarding.

    Now, there’s only a small part of me that feels guilty about not writing, anymore.

    • I can’t really craft but I do paint at times. By the way, good to see you; it’s been ages. We seemed to be newish bloggers at the same time. I don’t feel guilty, just bereft, as if I have lost a cherished sense or ability.

  9. Nine years ago, when I was 67, a dear friend of 40 years passed away. She nor anyone else saw this coming, and so I expected her to be around a bit longer when I complained via long distance phone call that I couldn’t write anymore. She laughed and said “of course you can; you’ve just made a move and are trying to adjust.”

    I wasn’t suffering from depression at the time, though I’ve had bouts of it, mostly what I would call situational. But a couple of times were debilitating, one of which I wrote about in a memoir, first and only book I’ll likely ever publish. And only one published book is okay as I’ve accepted my ongoing mission of caregiver (30+ years now) of a beautiful disabled daughter. This is first priority. And also keeping myself healthy (people tell me that at my age I’m amazing. They don’t know how sometimes I am SO very tired…)

    I think what I’m trying to suggest from the above ramblings is that unless we’re totally debilitated we will keep writing, one way or another, because we want to; because it probably is “in our blood” to do so. I had thought I would be fine the rest of my life just reading all the books I’ve wanted to during the years I wrote/got a publisher/edited/promoted my memoir.

    BUT, five months ago I started a website, with the help of a non-scam course I signed up for that walks you through WordPress setup.I had done Blogger, had to, for my memoir promotion five years ago, but wordpress terrified me. I’m not a techie. Like you, I grew up typing stories on a typewriter 🙂 Ah memories…. so many to write about… really, when you get “older” you have so many experiences to draw upon…goldmines, really. I’m certain I’ll never run out of “subjects” the rest of my life!

    Anyway….I’m using my website to write essays, at least 1500 words for the search engines. This is a challenge and is energizing me as I’m heading into my 76th year on earth. I have been thinking of an essay about …. guess what ….Depression. Memories of my father’s first “breakdown” when I was 10 … Memory of my feeble attempt once at suicide (this before my disabled daughter’s accident). Etc.

    And I just downloaded to my kindle what looks to be an interesting and informative read: your slim book Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking. You have a wonderful talent for titles! I’m excited to read it as I’m confident it will add to ideas I’m collecting for some posts on the subject.

    Your post here is superbly written. You must keep writing, in any genre!

    I’m so glad I discovered your site. I’ve checked both boxes below to keep in close touch with your posts/writing.

    • Ah bless you for that. That’s a joy to hear. It’s very good to meet you hear; I’ve blogged since early 2009 and it’s become a big part of my life. I have previous posted several times per week and am now trying to keep a weekly post going but sometimes even that is hard. Onward, eh?

  10. You wrote … I stored a long thin vase inside a bigger one; when I came to need the smaller one, the glass had shifted ever so slightly, (glass is a strange thing) and it no longer slid out. In removing it, the bigger vase shattered in my hands …

    I like the graceful vase. Maybe it needed protection and got trapped. Maybe the protective vessel has outlived its purpose.

  11. Try this: keep writing, but stop publishing. Might take some of the stress off your back. Writing must be fun. If you MUST do it, keep doing it. And leave it on your hard drive.
    Or put it out there and leave it alone. Check the pulp writers: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/topic-of-the-night-pulp-writers-abilities/
    Let it go. Think long term. Stop checking Amazon rankings and the like. Just write.
    This comes from a writer who is completely fed up with her day job and can’t quit it yet, but would never give up writing. When I’m sick of drawing my characters or writing blurbs, I’ll stop publishing. Never writing.
    I’ve just put out a story I (re)wrote in 2014. I don’t like it. I put it out there anyway. You can’t write perfection. Just write what comes out of your creative brain. Have a proofreader go through it and set it free. Move on.
    Big hugs!

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