Burnout is all too common among writers, but we need not be as helpless as small animals trapped by a forest fire. Help comes from understanding how burnout happens, and from some paradoxical actions—much like the intentional setting of small, controlled forest fires to limit the spread of bigger, out-of-control fires.
A family therapist named Virginia Satir outlined the stages of what she called the Change Model, describing how change and learning happen. To understand burnout, we need to look at the stage called Old Status Quo. This is the place where our competence and success have been well established, and all we’re doing now is repeating ourselves endlessly. As dulling and depressing as it is to be in Old Status Quo, we still may prefer the misery of the familiar to the uncertainty of stepping out into a new place. When we’re in Old Status Quo, we’ll choose pain over risk any day. The pain might be only at the level of being bored, or it might be manifested as actual physical pain or even illness. But we hang on anyway because it’s tried and true and safe.
Among writers, many cases of so-called “writers’ block” are actually burnout. Many people remain in Old Status Quo all their lives. They’re the ones who are always talking about how they would just write that next piece “except for [reason#1, reason#2, … reason#infinity].” They finish school, get married, find a job, and stay there forever, just counting the days until retirement. For the real professional writer, though, this is not the usual course. They may have started along this path, but perhaps they were rudely shoved out of Old Status Quo by what Satir called a Foreign Element.
The Foreign Element is anything that comes along that forces you to try something different because the risk now feels like losing everything you have. For example, you may have published umpteen novels with Publisher-X, when one day, your royalty check doesn’t come, you find out that Publisher-X has gone out of business, but that somehow their bankruptcy proceedings have tied up the rights to all you royalty-paying books. Now, that’s a rude awakening! Suddenly, you become aware that you’ve been hanging on for a long time—and now you’re forced to let go. That awful awareness marks the beginning of burnout.
Much as you would like to remain in the Old Status Quo, that decision has been taken out of your hands. You might try to hang on by fighting things out in court, but finally you have to face up to the Foreign Element and do something else.
And now, instead of the mind-dulling “comfort” of Old Status Quo, you’re thrown into the next stage: Chaos, also known as Burnout Supreme. Nothing makes sense anymore. There are either too many or too few options out there. Every time you think you have a solution, a dozen more possibilities or doubts pop up in your mind. You feel as if you’re sailing a small sailboat in the middle of a rough and stormy sea. At moments, the clouds part and the downpour stops, but then it starts again even more forcefully. You feel—well, “crazy” is a good word for the emotions felt in the Chaos stage!
Chaos feels very different from Old Status Quo—in fact, almost the opposite. It’s not dull but agitating. It’s not safe but scary. It’s not depressing but turbulent with energy. There is no order. You feel off balance and confused.
But look at all the new ideas floating around in the churning waves! Notice the possibilities for creativity and for letting go of old assumptions and beliefs. The worst has happened: your sailboat has been torn apart by the storm. And look at all the wonderful bits and pieces of wood, canvas, plastic, and metal that are suddenly available to you.
This is the essence and power of Chaos. It’s in Chaos that we rediscover our ability to learn and grow. Chaos is where we find our willingness to risk and to play. For example, let’s go back to the case of Publisher-X. Hit with that Foreign Element, you might decide to take a break from writing and try something you’ve been thinking about for years. Perhaps you wanted to go back to teaching for years, but were not free to do when you still had a steady income from a new novel every four months and couldn’t afford the time or financial risks.
I know many people who have found the freedom, in the Chaos of losing their day jobs, to do marvelous things. Janey, for example, decided to take a few months off from a programming job and write a book about her design methods. Anson stopped writing and started teaching art history classes at the local community college. Patsy took an assignment to write travel brochures about Italy, a place she’d always dreamed of visiting. And Evie became a software tester, something she had always found intriguing but, as a highly respected writer, had never dared to do. As for me, I first started writing and consulting full-time when I was burned out on teaching in a university.
All of us used Chaos to our benefit, as a way to put burnout behind us and recreate our professional lives so that we were once again making important contributions. Risk-taking, inventiveness, and learning all come out of Chaos.
Getting The Most Out Of Chaos
Because burnout comes from the perceived constriction of choice—the Shoulds—you can use Chaos to take back control of your life. The first step is to find support and to practice self care.
• Value yourself, your beliefs, and your ideas. Avoid placating and putting the wishes of others before your own.
• Trust yourself. Know your bottom line, and honor it. If something isn’t right for you, just say No!
• Know yourself and your personal style and preferences. When you take time to relax, be sure that you’re really relaxing. For example, “relaxing” for me means physical activity, like a hike or some strength training, not “resting” (inactivity). For you, it might mean sitting down with a good sci-fi novel (which I love, too).
• Practice self care by honoring your own physical and emotional limitations. For example, you might find qualified colleagues to whom you can pass attractive assignments that are piling on you.
• Take a break. Getting away from the daily routine, even if it’s just for a day or two, can be refreshing. Make good use of your free time to do something entirely different. And, if you don’t have any free time, you’d better make some!
• Actively seek support from others. Talk to other writers, exchange stories, articulate complaints, verbalize your feelings and concerns about problem clients or assignments. And be open to ideas and suggestions that your colleagues offer. Talk and listen!
• Consider spending money to offload tasks that are bearing down on you, like mailing mss., answering fan letters, or just going to the post office. Or, if you don’t have the money, perhaps you can trade with someone and do jobs that burden them, but not you.
Because reinforcement issues are also a breeding ground for burnout, respect your need for meaningful, appropriate, and nourishing reinforcement. You will be rebuilding your self esteem.
• Remind yourself of your successes. Provide your own reinforcement by putting those “feel good” letters from satisfied readers or reviewers in a scrapbook,—something that can be useful when you need references. But remember to look at them when you’re feeling low, not just when you’re trying to convince a prospect of your value!
• You may not read reviews at all, or at least the unsympathetic ones. Find someone else to be the first reader of reviews of your work and pass on only the favorable ones. You should easily find another writer who will trade this job with you.
• Recognize your “boredom” as Old Status Quo—and then move on. Take courage to give up the comfort of familiarity for the riskiness of growth.
• Seek out the support of people who are more specific than just telling you how “great” you are.
Finally, cultivate and cherish the Chaos in which you find yourself. Experience it as a place to restore, refresh, rebuild motivation and excitement.
• Seek out new ideas—the wilder the better. Brainstorm with friends and colleagues. And then—just try it!
• Ask for emotional support when you need it. A sounding board or a soft shoulder might be all you need.
• Learn something new, and try it out on one of your projects. Give yourself some protection by telling your readers that this is a new idea. Most readers really appreciate the opportunity to participate in guided experiments and will respect you for your willingness to learn. If this one doesn’t, that may be a sign that there’s a burnout in your future if you stay here too long.
When I’m starting to feel burned out, I remind myself that there’s no way but up from there. Even though it may feel as if the walls are closing in on me, I try to focus on the many possibilities and new doors that Chaos opens. To find and open those doors takes awareness, understanding, courage, and support. And having been through this cycle myself, I become an even better support to others because of the help I can give when I see them struggling.
And, from watching the forests around me recovering from devastating fires, I know that nature has a special healing power, so I don’t need to burn myself out trying to escape burnout. I’ve got nature on my side.
A special appreciation to Dani Weinberg for allowing me to plagiarize her original article for dog trainers.
To Learn More About The Change Model: Read
Weinberg, G. M. (1996). Quality Software Management, Volume 4: Anticipating Change. New York, Dorset House Publishers.
To watch my interview about the Myth of Writers Block, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77xrdj9YH3M
Gerald M. Weinberg is a member of Book View Café and blogs here more or less regularly. His science fiction novel First Stringers: Eyes That Do Not See by Gerald M. Weinberg is serialized for free on the front page rotation.
For more about him and his fiction please visit his bookshelf here on BVC: http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Gerald-M.-Weinberg/ Or, visit his personal web page, http://geraldmweinberg.com