Burnout in writers
What’s this episode about?
Welcome to the first season of The Pen Garden Podcast. Listen to episode 4 in full above and/or scan the show notes below for the main takeaways.
I’m a writer just like you and as I’ve said before, I have been writing actively for the past 8 years. Burnout is not an unfamiliar to me, I have experienced the symptoms and have managed to keep it at bay for the most part. So I will be using science and my personal experience to educate you to do the same. For this episode I will focus on the definition of burnout, why writers are so susceptible to it and I will outline a few things you could do to recognize it before it’s too late.
This episode aims to be informative but not negative. I’m giving you this information because knowledge is power and especially with mental health issues the first step to prevention and improvement is recognizing the issue for what it is and admitting it can happen to all of us.
Definition of burnout
First things first, if you Google burnout and reach for the third definition of the word, it stands to mean physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress. Simply speaking, it is what happens after you are under continuous pressures you struggle to cope with and you don’t or can’t recognize the symptoms. Then they mount up and you reach a point you can’t go on anymore. It is a worst-case scenario.
In 2017, an online survey asked more than a 1000 adults whether they had experienced certain burnout symptoms: 90% said they felt they were achieving less than they should and 85% said they felt run down and drained of physical or emotional energy. A state like that is not conducive neither to creativity nor to productivity.
Before I go into the details, I want to preface this that symptoms of burnout are common and burnout itself is something people recover from and continue to lead successful lives. If you experience burnout as a result of difficulties with your writing practice, whether self-inflicted or external, don’t view this as a reason to quit something that once brought you joy and fulfillment. It will have that impact again, as long as you nurture that self-compassion that we talked about in previous episodes.
The three aspects of burnout
According to research, burnout has three distinct aspects: Emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduction of personal achievement.
In writers of all kinds, emotional exhaustion can manifest as continued writer’s block and the acute feeling that you can no longer create, that you are empty and have nothing left to give as a writer. This is a key component of burnout and if you feel this way often and writing exercises and support from others seem of no help, chances are you’re on your way to burning out. Focusing on your mental health through self-care and counseling support may help you rest up and replenish your creative well, dodging a full-blown burnout.
The second aspect of burnout is depersonalization – this is when you lose sensitivity to your writing environment. This may present as isolation, for example refusing to go to your regular writing group or not wanting to engage with writer friends; or may come as rejection of all things writing – from reading books, or studying or even disliking writing-related social media posts. It may just be apathy towards the achievements of others in the same field as you or displaying a lack of interest in feedback and critique. It would feel like nothing matters. This kind of numbness towards something you know in your mind you’re supposed to be passionate about is also a symptom of incoming burnout. As with emotional exhaustion, acknowledge, rest, get help. Rekindle your passion.
The third and final aspect of burnout is reduction of personal achievement, which in writers can manifest as hatred towards everything that you write or playing down your achievements when others mention them. It is a decline in self-esteem and a sense of guilt that won’t go away whatever relative successes you accomplish. It is a feeling of not being effective and as such is very detrimental to the creative mind.
If you experience all three of these, chances are you have burned out. Don’t panic. Don’t suffer alone through it, it’s a real condition and part of your creative experience. Acknowledge it and seek help. It is the worst-case scenario of these symptoms but it’s not end of the line. It’s treatable. You can definitely get better. Seek help from a qualified counseling professional and rest up.
Burnout does happen to writers
Data shows us burnout is very common for people in certain high-stress jobs like physicians, nurses, social workers, teachers and attorneys. You would think that because most professional writers are somewhat flexible, they wouldn’t really experience burnout. Well, that’s clearly not the case, otherwise where am I even going with this, right?
The good thing about all this is writers have easier access to tools that can help prevent burnout and can more flexibly incorporate them in their writing routine, creating an overall mindful practice. So while it is not as prevalent in writers, burnout is very real and very damaging to the creative mind. If you can stop it in its tracks, why won’t you?
That’s why I created this podcast – a lot of writing advice involves rigorous practices, it focuses on productivity in a way that may work great for some people, while for others it will cause disproportionate amounts of stress and guilt. I will give you an example – one of the most common productivity advice for aspiring fiction writers is to write every day. And by all means it’s good advice. But it’s not for everyone because not everyone can write every day, even if they want to. Maybe they have children or care for a vulnerable adult, maybe their day job doesn’t allow them enough mental rest to nurture creativity. Maybe they have pre-existing conditions that mean one day is good and one day is bad. These things are out of your control and if you strive to write every day and then fail, you’re on the slippery slope towards felling guilty, inadequate and unproductive.
I believe you should tailor your routine to your situation so you can sidestep all those nasty feelings and just embrace your own creative process, whatever that might look like. Productivity is relative and only you can be the one to set realistic, achievable goals to ensure your writing practice is sustainable.
Where does burnout come from?
So how can a writer get to those three symptoms of burnout we talked about earlier – emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduction of personal achievement?
Writers are often juggling other things, not just writing. It could be a day job to supplement writing income, or teaching and studying if you’re in academia. Even full-time authors have to juggle marketing, finance and business management for their own small companies. So the causes of stress and then of burnout are not going to come as a surprise.
Lack of key resources for example is very detrimental. You could argue writing requires very few resources and that is true, but the important resource for writing is time. Time to plot and plan and research, and time to sit down and write.
Writing is also a creative endeavor which if suppressed too long will drive you insane. I don’t have fancy research to back up this one claim but I’m speaking from personal experience. Frustration when things don’t work out is another cause of burnout. No one was born skillful and good writing takes time. Getting to a point where you’re proud and happy of your creative output can be a long and tedious road.
Similarly, when you struggle to find your priorities in your writing career, you may feel overwhelmed. Things might start happening out of order, leading to tension and self-imposed guilt. Perceived risks to your financial future or your mental health might lead to crippling fear, leaving you unable to put a single word on the page.
People around you might be less supportive than you’d hoped for or your work might be getting feedback you hadn’t anticipated.
sO, TO SUMMARIZE…
I’m not telling you all this to panic you. I’m passionate about self-care for mental health and about writing. I try to bring them together in my own life as much as I can and through this podcast I want to give you the power to do the same by educating you about what burnout is and what causes it. In further episodes. I’m going to break down the causes one by one and suggest actions and inspiration on how to tackle them in your own situation. I want to empower you to create words you love by feeling productive and accomplished. I hope you’ll stick around as I give it my best shot.
Next week, I’m diving straight into season two – Your personality, where I will dig deep into what are the best approaches to a writing routine for the different MBTI types. Come join me by subscribing to the show on your favorite podcasting platform.
If you want to be up to date on Pen Garden news, subscribe to the show and sign up to my newsletter. I promise no spam, only cups of writing joy.
If you want to continue the conversation, you can poke me on The Pen Garden Facebook page or tweet me @laineydelaroque. Thanks very much for listening everyone. Hope you have an awesome week and speak to you soon.
- Percentage of adults in the U.S. who very often or often experienced select stress and burnout symptoms (journal article)
- Entrepreneurial Burnout: Causes, Consequences and Way Out (journal article)
- Which Professionals Are Prone to Burnout? (blog)