Love in the time of burnout (or: how I killed and resurrected my writing career)

Love is the key by Tea Photography via Deviant Art

Burnout is real, people.

I know you know that, but it’s worth repeating.

What you might not know is that it happens to folks who aren’t “professionals”–rookies and amateurs (which was all Olympic athletes until the late 80s, just for perspective). People in love with their art, whatever it is, and are desperately trying to turn it into a paying career. People who haven’t made it but are hustling to do so. People like me. People like you, too, maybe.

That’s what happened when I quit writing last summer: I burned out.

I wrote my first book on a whim for NaNoWriMo 2012. It was a release valve, a fun project solely for my own enjoyment, just to see if I could do it. When it was done, people asked to read it, so I figured what the hell and self-published. To my surprise, it sold. And then people started asking what else I was working on. Eventually, I came up with Cora Riley, which started as a stand-alone but that had other plans for itself, sprawling out to become a five-book urban fantasy epic.

I spent the next two years turning the series into the foundation of an empire, cranking out three full-length novels and twelve short stories set in the Forgotten Relics  world. My schedule was merciless; outline to Amazon, including two edits and crowdfunding for each book, averaged nine months. I tirelessly posted on social media, angling for new followers, creating images with book quotes and asking questions to develop engagement for better visibility. I appeared at conventions, speaking on panels with distinguished authors and hawking books in vendor rooms. I attended writing workshops. I recorded videos. I started a Patreon. I squirreled away non-FGR ideas for when I finished the series so there’d be no gap to slow my growth.

I worked and worked and worked. The money wasn’t great yet, but there were other measuring sticks. I had a (small but fierce) audience who spread the word and spent money when I published or crowdfunded. I had good connections–friends,even –in the writing world who encouraged and advised me. I had offers to collaborate, invitations to anthologies, legit good reviews, and a rising number of likes, shares, and comments.

It was working. I was making it.

But by April 2015, I hated everything. Especially writing.

At the time, I didn’t understand why. All I knew was that I had a dull, tightness in my chest and that sitting down at the computer made me psychosomatically sleepy. While I kept showing up, it took more and more effort to get words onto the page or post, to be engaging on social media, to make the ask, to answer the email, to fill the well–to do the work. My head hurt, my heart hurt, and nothing I was doing felt good anymore.

In short, I’d run out of fucks.

And so I quit.

I quit as if I’d never come back. I packed up Elle Belle Media into cardboard boxes and shoved it into storage. I dismantled the Patreon. I stripped this site and unbranded my social media. I backed up my files and hid them in my hard drive. And then, same as you flush everything you know about calculus after the final, I let Forgotten Relics slip down the drain, along with my expectations of writing fiction–or anything–ever again.

I was out. I’d failed. I couldn’t hack it. Time to move on.

Honestly, I didn’t miss it. Not at first. I was simply enjoying the huge relief of pressure. While all my deadlines and goals were self-imposed, they were crushingly real. To suddenly not care about followers, likes, income streams, or wordcounts was freedom I hadn’t had since my first entrepreneurial days in 2009, six years and a wildly different path ago. I spent my days working part-time, watching House, being pregnant, and generally not doing much of value.

But by the time Christmas rolled around, I started to get itchy. I wondered if I really was never going to write again, a thought that gave me panicky chills. New directions were suggested–spiritual memoir, creative nonfiction–but that only made me itch more. I realized that I wanted fiction back. At the very least, I wanted to finish the series I’d started. But I wasn’t sure I could. The idea of returning to that straining, never-enough life made my sphincters clench. Not exactly the right attitude for your alleged dream career.

The breakthough came quietly, in a thin but steady drizzle, until it formed what should’ve been obvious from the beginning: I’d sucked all the joy out of writing.

I’d done everything “right”–scheduled, networked, engaged, diversified, shipped, funded. It should’ve worked. But the key to creative work is the artist’s love for their creation, and I’d traded that for success dictated by numbers rather than soul-satisfaction. I started treating writing as have-to instead of want-to or get-to, an obligation I increasingly resented. I was fishing for approval while burying my bereaved muse under impostor syndrome and algorithms.

I didn’t love writing anymore because I’d chosen a path without love.

Needless to say, I felt like a complete twat. I’ve literally spent years exhorting other people to cling fast to the joy in their work, to give the finger to how you’re “supposed to” do things and let their inner artist run the show (within reason, obviously). And here I was, a sorry victim of ignoring my own advice.

But underneath the ashes of that mortal embarrassment was the spark. The love of the work, the joy of spinning a tale, the elation of creating new worlds and people and seeing what kind of trouble they can get into and out of.

I laughed at myself when I realized what I’d done to destroy my love of writing; I cried when I realized the spark had survived the torch I’d set to it.

That’s when I knew I could come back.

It’s been a cautious return. Knowing I’m prone to squeezing the enjoyment out of creating doesn’t magically negate the tendency. I have to be mindful about my attachment to social media and analytics; I have to be gentle and balanced with my goals; I have to check my heart and keep praying for guidance. I have to hold it all lightly. Which is hard for a recovering perfectionist with a rep for producing high-quality work at a ridiculous pace.

But I’m doing it. A day at a time, a sentence at a time–I’m doing it. And although it’s harder work in some ways, it feels so much better.

So. That’s the story.

Here’s the take-home:

The world will always tell you it’s not enough. It will always come up with reasons why the way your spirit steers you is wrong. It will always show you a better way. It will always compare you with someone else and find you lacking. It will never be satisfied.

The world does not have your best interests at heart.

Fight back. Don’t let the world define your success. Listen to the voice inside that sings along with creation–little c and big C. Remember that the joy of your art is what brought you here. And no matter how many followers or sales you have, that joy must be your constant, your guiding star. You may never make it big, but that’s not the point. Not really. The work is a gift, and gifts are meant to be used, to be shared lavishly, not gripped so tightly they suffocate.

Let it be easy. Hold it lightly. Do it with love.

Do it for love.

Of returns and expectations

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory - the chocolate room

I never know how to start these “statement of intent”-style posts, despite doing them so often. Mostly because it’s utter ego-fluffing (why not write a real post and move along? why the commentary?) and I’m just self-aware enough to know that, so it’s also embarrassing, but I can’t not do it. I’ve got a genetic mutation that requires I make a Grand Proclamation whenever my life/work/blog status changes. Why couldn’t I have gotten telekinesis instead?

Anyway.

This is just a little note to say that the word factory is reopening.

It’s been nine months since I put out Mirror of Ashes and then declared an indefinite hiatus from writing. Five since I announced we’re expecting our first child. During that time, I’ve been spiritually smacked around, thinking and praying hard about why I write, why I quit, and why any of it matters in the grand scheme of things. The lessons I learned are precious and (I think) worth sharing, so I’ll be posting about them soon, but for now, the upshot is that the desire to write never fully disappeared.

So here I am, back at the desk.

Tricky part is, though, I’m six(ish) weeks away from giving birth. Six weeks from any semblance of normalcy and order being catapulted out the window and me having to start all over again. Again.

Given that, here’s what you can expect from me, this space, and my writing:

Nothing.

Yes, I’ll be working. As soon as this is posted, I’ll swivel in my chair and start laying the bones for Apple of Chaos, the next Forgotten Relics book, and I’d like to do more shorts and flashfic. But I can’t go back to the way I used to do things–all stress and striving and other yucky things that start with S. I’m poised to enter a new chapter of my story, one with intense character development and plot twists for which no protagonist can be prepared (cue melodrama). So I can’t make any promises about what and when. It wouldn’t be fair to you, dear reader, or to me or my husband or my impending daughter.

I’m holding this return lightly. It’s my hope that you will, too.

Thanks for sticking with me as I ebb and flow. I know I’ve said it many times, but it never stops being true: I’m so grateful you’re here. It’d be a lonely adventure indeed without you.

See you ’round the ‘verse.

Coming Soon(ish): The Littlest Di Julio

Baby Di Julio announcement

That’s right, folks! The Littlest Di Julio is on his/her way, much to the shock and amazement of all our family members and close friends (and me).

Now, I’m sure you have a lot of questions, so let me answer them as best I can. These are just the basic ones, though; any other questions or comments are graciously accepted below!


Baby FAQs

How far along are you?

9 1/2 weeks! Yes, I know it’s early and common wisdom says to keep quiet until after the first trimester in case anything happens, but folks are finding out because I can’t lie when they ask, so we figured we should go ahead and make it official. Besides, my mother might explode if she has to keep it a secret any longer.

When are you due?

I haven’t had my dating ultrasound yet, but it’ll be mid-May. If my calculations are correct — I’m 99.9% sure which day It  Happened — Baby Di Julio will be born on or right next to Daddy’s birthday, May 20th.

Was this planned or a “happy accident”?

Planned! We decided last fall that it’s time to start our family, and it took almost a year for us to conceive. Not that we were ultra-strict in our efforts (no calendars or temperature-taking); it was more about us building our intimacy than OMGMUSTSEXFORBABIES.

Do you want a boy or a girl?

We’re happy either way, although we both strongly feel like we’ll have a girl. Only time will tell, though (and yes, we will find out the gender — whenever that happens).

How are you feeling?

I am proud to report that I haven’t thrown up once. I’ve certainly wanted to throw up, but I refuse. Mostly, I just feel motion sick all the time (looking at digital screens makes it worse, which is why I haven’t been online much), and I’ve been sleeping 10-12 hours a night. Suuuper lucky, I know. The current struggle is figuring out how to eat. While I don’t have cravings/aversions per se, what doesn’t make me gag changes every day. What worked yesterday may be awful today. I’m told this goes away. Lord, let it be so — I’m tired of eating all these carbs. (Now there’s a sentence no one’s ever said before.)

No, but how are you feeling?

Weird? It’s no secret that until last fall, I never wanted children. To have that suddenly 180 and to now be hosting one is hard. Like, where most girls name their future kids in kindergarten, I’m having to come to terms with the idea of Being A Mom at a 30-year disadvantage. It both feels too real and not real at all. I’m nervous and scared, mostly. I also feel selfish and broken because I’m anxious about “my life being over” and because “I don’t love my baby yet.” But, I will say that excitement and joy are gaining ground. Prayer helps, as does talking to other(!) moms. It’s a process, and I’m trying not to rush to where I think I “should” be and instead be where I am without expectation.

Do you need anything?

People keep asking me this, but I don’t know what to say. Of course we need Baby Things, but after Googling what medicine and I can and can’t take during pregnancy, I’m terrified to look up even the most mundane of lists. Basic furniture has been spoken for, and Mom is already buying onesies. One thing I know I can certainly use, however, is advice on maternity clothes that don’t make me look like I escaped from PT Barnum’s shed. If you’re dead-set on helping out or just want to send a card, email me, and we’ll talk.


Aaaaand I think that’s it. For now, anyway.

If there’s anything else you’d like to know or secret handshakes I’m supposed to learn or suchlike, please leave a comment below or email me!

As always, possums, I appreciate your company on this new grand adventure.

30 weeks and counting…