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Avoiding Burnout and Writer's Block

Updated on May 22, 2012
Can't say that I really get in this state; I usually just close my notebook in disgust, and then read a book or turn on the telly, whichever is closer to hand.
Can't say that I really get in this state; I usually just close my notebook in disgust, and then read a book or turn on the telly, whichever is closer to hand. | Source

I am sitting in Starbucks, cradling my caramel macchiato, and gibbering. I am looking at my lengthy list of writing projects and I am beginning to sweat, despite the fact that the temperature in here is Arctic on account of me sitting directly below the air-conditioning unit.

I think there are two types of writer's block or burnout: one caused by being over-productive, and the other caused by a complete lack of productivity resulting in self-flagellation and stress brought about by over-thinking. I have never experienced the former, being the kind of person who celebrates a small amount of writerly success by taking several days off. I may currently be experiencing the latter, which still surprises me because I always believed that I would never get even a sniff of that old chestnut, writer's block. I also believed myself to be immune to stress - but I now see that that is just because I never have anything to be stressed about, and in actual fact I do deal with stress quite badly, in terms of physiological symptoms relating to the heart rate and adrenaline and so on.

I would imagine that burnout caused by over-productivity is the easier problem to deal with, the solution being thrust upon one at the point of burnout: stop working, have a break, a breather, step back and take stock, get some perspective and all of that. Go back to your writing feeling refreshed and excited about it again. Of course, I'm not stupid, it's not so easy as that, I'm sure - but in a nutshell, that's what needs to be done. Forcing oneself to carry on working will surely only produce low quality writing, and a feeling of having wasted a lot of time.

But I am not experiencing over-productivity, I am in a transitory period of zero productivity. And I think that the key to not panicking is that word, 'transitory'. A spell of writer's block is rarely permanent (though I have heard cases of it continuing for years). I am not an expert, but from what I can gather from my musings and readings around this problem, there are a number of solutions. All of them involve the writer taking some responsibility for the problem, and making the hard and fast decision to do something about it.

One could, if one wished to wallow in self-pity and self-indulgence and other such selfish passtimes, sit and gibber as I did a few moments ago. Gibbering, however, will always be counter-productive, and no good will ever come of it. I never heard of a long-term gibberer achieving any of his or her goals in life. Ideas and inspiration particles avoid long-term gibberers as though their front doors have been daubed with a hastily painted large red cross. Long-term gibbering is bad for one's health, causing one to avoid sunlight and fresh air, and resulting in curvatures of the spine or scoliosis from sitting in a hunched position in the corner of the sofa for too many hours each day (this may or may not be true, I am not a spine specialist, and made up this spurious claim off the top of my head).

If not gibbering, then what? Well, some positive thinking needs to be engaged in if you want to break out of this glut of nothingness with a smile on your face and with your writing hand itching to be exercised. You need to do something. Sounds simple, and obvious, but it's surprising how often the obvious is missed. If you are task avoiding as part of your block then you could look at my hub on Making a Writing Timetable, (and you could try sticking to it, because it does not contain a magical formula that once read will banish periods of inactivity forever), or you could try my hubs on Procrastination, here and here.  However, if you are trying to stick to your timetable, but it is not working because your mind goes blank and reflects the piece of paper or empty screen that you are looking at then you could do what I've just done: that is, WRITE.  I did not know that I was going to write a hub today, but now I have.  I have produced something, which is usually better than producing nothing.  Now it may not be an earth shatteringly lucid or original hub (*gasp* don't tell Them, They'll remove it!) but that does not matter.  I feel better for having written it, because I have filled four sides of my notebook with it, at a time when I imagined that I could not fill one line.  This is a start, and a start is what we're after.

Well done for making a start - enjoy some balloons.
Well done for making a start - enjoy some balloons.

The next stage is to capitalise on this very small success, and try a bit of different writing, which I will do in a few minutes.

Lots of writers like to make lists, lists of writing tasks to be done (the writing of the list is another form of procrastination, so beware). That list of writing tasks is probably best not viewed as a list of jobs to be done, but as a menu of delicious sweetmeats to partake of - the trick is not to be greedy and gorge yourself on all of them at once; you will only make yourself sick. No, rather you take a little of one, and then later in the day try a bite of another. It depends on your priorities doesn't it? And we all have different ones. If you have assignments or articles that must fit to deadlines, then they will require more attention, and your 'less important' writing (less important to your bank balance, but maybe the most important to you) could be used as doggy treats, rewards for making progress with the harder stuff. This works differently to the approach that should be used for burnout due to over-productivity; in that case, more doggy treats are needed, not less.

Let me show you my list of writing tasks:

  • Blogging ( x 3; I have just created two new blogs which I hope to find a platform for)
  • Novel #1
  • Novel #2
  • Novel #3 (that's just greedy, isn't it? I should probably finish one before I even think about another)
  • Short stories (I would like to start entering competitions in the hopes of raising my confidence and my profile)
  • HubPages (firmly in the doggy treats category, and I would do well to remember that)
  • Reading for MA in English (beginning in October 2011)
  • Assignments and exercises for proofreading course (this will hopefully be how I earn a living)

Now my list may seem long to you, or it may seem very short. It certainly seems short to me, now that I've written it out. Writing it out like this has actually made it seem more manageable, and certainly easier to visualise than when it was just floating around in my head. So you could begin there. But then you must prioritise, and choose what you need to do over what you would like to do. Remember those doggy treats, and reward yourself with your favourite writes after you have done some hard graft - don't see it as depriving yourself of those treats, see them as something to look forward to.

Revise the list regularly.

But making a list will not magically conjure an oasis of words and ideas to slake your literary thirst. You still have to sit down and do the writing.

If the situation is desperate, and if you sit down to do one of your top tasks on the list but you start to feel a gibber coming on, then you might - and this is only in extreme circumstances - allow yourself the doggy treat first. Now care must be taken that you do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of imagining that you have a serious block just so that you can give yourself the treat first - that is cheating (I cheat ALL the time, so I know, you can't fool me). Sometimes a writer's block is not as serious as a writer has allowed it to seem (the one I am in the middle of, for example), and often what is required is nothing more than a figurative kick up the bum. But like I said, in genuine extreme cases, using the doggy treats first can give you a boost of confidence and spur you on to do very well with the more taxing tasks.

You could always go and be naked in the rain - that's bound to get the creative juices flowing, and will certainly provide you with inspiring feelings and thoughts that need to be written down.
You could always go and be naked in the rain - that's bound to get the creative juices flowing, and will certainly provide you with inspiring feelings and thoughts that need to be written down. | Source

If all else fails, just resort to your diary, or your notebook, or whatever it is that you use to write down scribbles and waffle and errant thoughts. Sometimes writing about the block can exorcise it. Or writing about anything, even if it seems dull or uninspired, may help to trigger better ideas. You are more likely to come up with good ideas when you are writing, than when you are sitting in a panic, rocking back and forth and watching the seconds of your life tick away too fast. Stop panicking - what did I tell you?? Hmm? Panicking is counter-productive, do not do it.

One more thing: if your list is consistently too long, you might need to consider cutting it down by abandoning some projects (or at least shutting them down temporarily until you have more time to devote to them). Now don't have a fit about that! There are only twenty-four hours in a day, so trying to do everything in one of those days will just result in failure and a blow to the confidence. Be realistic, and be kind to yourself. Are your own expectations of yourself to high? If you lowered them a little would you be more likely to succeed in achieving them?

Oh, and one very last thing: don't forget to do some living; sequestering oneself in a cocoon of half-existence will not provide you with choice juicy topics to scribble about.

Now get off this hub, and go and write something!


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