Avoiding Burnout: How to Write Happily Ever After
By Michelle Barker and David Brown
We talk a lot about pacing in a novel, but it’s rare to discuss pacing in a writer’s life. And yet, it’s equally important. If you don’t pace yourself as a writer, there’s a good chance you’ll hit a wall sooner or later and just… not feel like writing anymore. More than that, putting your mind and body through a sustained period of stress can have lasting consequences for your mental and physical health.
What is Burnout?
Everyone works differently. Some writers, when they’re on a roll, will sit at their desk for eight or ten hours a day until they finish a draft. Others can only manage three or four hours a day before their productivity level drops and the rate of return is not worth the time spent. We are two of the latter writers. After four hours, it’s time to step away.
But that’s burnout on a small scale.
According to WebMD, “Burnout is a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped. It’s a result of excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress.”
Burnout is typically associated with a hectic job or toxic work environment and remaining in a state of burnout for too long can lead to a health crisis. According to MayoClinic.org, symptoms of burnout include disengagement, low motivation, irritability, fatigue, and general dissatisfaction, and even insomnia, headaches, and digestion upset.
In early 2021 when the Darling Axe was busy with a post-lockdown manuscript rush, David reached a high level of burnout—working seven days per week for months on end—which culminated in a trip to the hospital for chest pains, numb limbs, and a sudden onset of migraine symptoms.
The only way to treat burnout is to reduce the amount of time each day that your mind and body spend in a state of stress. Taking a short vacation isn’t enough. You can’t reset and make burnout go away. Instead, you need to make some life changes. Mayo Clinic recommends seeking support from co-workers, friends, and loved ones, engaging in relaxing activities, getting more exercise and sleep, and trying out some mindfulness activities.
Keep in mind that the effects of full burnout can last for months or years. Burnout and the Brain, an article by PsychologicalScience.org, notes that a prolonged state of stress can impact “cognitive skills and neuroendocrine systems—eventually leading to distinct changes in the anatomy and functioning of the brain.” In tests on rats, researchers found that the damage caused by burnout was reversible with four weeks of relaxion. But for those of us with lives to live, it’s not always possible to check out for a full month, which is why recovery can take much longer.
In David’s case, it took almost two years to fully recover to a point where his motivation and creativity feel like they’re back to his previous capacity. To get there, he had to scale back on his workload, starting by being strict about not working on weekends. Staying physically active and making time each day for non-work activities like drawing, playing ukulele, and (most importantly) writing have been significant parts of the healing journey.
Writing Might be the Problem, Not the Solution
Sometimes people overstuff their schedules to make sure they have time to write each day—which leads to burnout. But sometimes burnout occurs when you’re so busy that you no longer make time to write. So, writing is not a one-size-fits-all solution. If you see writing as a way of taking time for yourself, even as a form of meditation, then perhaps it will help you prevent burnout. If, however, you see it as a stressor, then you might need to scale back.
David found that screen time was part of the problem, so he switched to writing long hand which he finds more relaxing.
Take Time Away
After Michelle finishes work on a large project, she finds it useful to take time away from writing altogether. It’s the athlete’s equivalent of an off-season, and it’s essential to staying healthy and avoiding injury—or, as a writer, continuing to love the process. Usually what she does instead is read. Julia Cameron calls that filling the well. That’s what Cameron’s artist dates accomplish in her book The Artist’s Way. Take a vacation, spend time doing something other than writing; anything that creates a change in your routine is a good idea.
If you don’t take that time away and instead simply dive into a new project, there’s a good chance your work will feel stale. We can’t be on all the time. We need rest, time to recharge. It needs to be built into every day, but it also needs to be inserted like a buffer zone between projects.
Just Say No
Burnout can crop up in another form, though—by taking on every little project that comes your way and never saying no. This gets especially onerous if the projects are unpaid.
Another hazard of the writing life is that it can spread into all hours of the day and all days of the week. Set boundaries. Whether it’s a boundary of no unpaid work, no work after 6PM, no work on Sundays—choose what works for you and stick to it.
One of the ways Michelle breaks up her day is to exercise between her morning of writing and afternoon/evening of editing. Writing is hard on the body. Sitting at a desk all day is terrible for your back, neck, and shoulders, and if you’re staring at a screen all day, your eyes will also suffer.
Get up. Do something you like. Make it a habit. It makes a huge difference to how you feel, and your work will improve as a result.
Taking a Break is Not a Failure
Pushing through, working hard, writing as much as possible—yes, it’s tempting, and yes, the more you write, the better you get. Stephen King writes on Christmas Day. Ray Bradbury advises you to write two thousand words a day for the rest of your life. If you can do it, great. But there’s a risk. If you find yourself dreading the process—if you start to feel like you’re spinning your wheels on the page and nothing excites you anymore—it might be a sign that you need to take a break.
It’s not a failure. You will come back rejuvenated, excited to work again, and full of new ideas.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.
David G Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer with over twenty years' experience as an editor. He has published poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in magazines and literary journals, and he volunteers for the Malahat Review where he interviews writing judges and screens contest entries. He holds a BA in anthropology (UVic) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). As an editor, he pays special attention to structure, relationship arcs, and voice. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018.