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.

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

    1. It’s definitely a tricky game, and the rules keep changing. But I think as long as you keep in touch with yourself and keep drawing that line between “should” and “want/can” you’ll be okay. You seem to be doing pretty well so far!

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