By ELIZABETH TAI
I write for a living.
I also write for fun.
This has caused a few problems.
When you write during your day job and free time, you never get a break from the keyboard. Unsurprisingly, writing my fiction has been a difficult task for me, because it felt like work. But over the years, I came up with a system that enabled me to handle that.
When I was a sub-editor for a newspaper, I worked nights and wrote my novels in the morning. Because all I did at work was editing, I was using different mental muscles -- writing my novels, while difficult, was doable.
But things changed when I decided to switch careers, hopping from journalism to the glitzy world of digital marketing. I am a content strategist, and I spend my days writing, editing, analysing data and thinking about new content to create for the companies I work for.
The effort of trying to make my career change a success and trying to build a fledgling indie author career at the same time, took a toll on me.
I have not written a new book for nearly two years.
Writer’s block aka writer’s burnout is real. Don’t let the gurus tell you otherwise.
Crispy on the inside and outside
First, I tried to write at the fringes of my day. I would stare at the blank screen early in the morning or after work, hoping something would come out. It usually didn’t work and what words that emerged felt like tiny droplets squeezed out of the dry, hard rock that my brain had become.
It didn't make me look forward to writing. In fact, it did the opposite, I began to put off writing. It used to be fun - now, it’s just work. Worse, sometimes it was torture.
I blamed myself. Why was I so lazy, so unmotivated? My friends said that my eyes would light up when I talk to my novels. But if my novels meant so much to me, why couldn’t I write them? I felt like a defective machine.
Then, I stumbled on Becca Syme’s series of podcasts on YouTube - the one about writer burnout was a revelation.
The road to writer burnout
In the indie publishing word, the word “hustle” reigns supreme. Get your butt in the chair. Write 10,000 words a week. Write a novel a month. But Becca was not about that.
According to Becca, everyone is gifted with certain strengths. If your writing process is not aligned with your strengths, it often results in burnout.
She also says that people write in different ways. They ideate in different ways. And we should not blindly follow a publishing guru’s prescription on how to “write better”, because what worked for them may not work for us.
“When burnout is the problem, no amount of discipline is going to get the writing to happen again. It has to be a recalibration or a filling of the tank or a rest. There is no other fix,” she wrote in her book, Dear Writer, are you in writer’s block?
Forgiving myself for being human
I believe part of the reason why I suffered from writer burnout was because I blamed myself for not being able to level up as fast as the superstars of the indie world. You know those - the one-book-a-month wonderkids that earn six-figure incomes.
I used to have an indie author acquaintance who once told me this: “I have a full-time corporate job and I still write a book a month, you have absolutely no excuse!”
It turns out that I do.
My brain worked differently from hers and comparing myself to her was futile.
In the last two years, although I didn’t produce anything new, I learned ways to realign my strengths to my writing processes:
Guard my emotional reserves
Due to my highly empathetic nature, I tend to get blocked when things are not stable in my life or in the world, or when I'm going through emotional turmoil. All my mental energy would go to maintaining my emotional stability. There'd be no energy left for my writing.
These days, to protect my mental reserves, I avoid unnecessary stimulation and negativity. I write when the day is young and the pressures low. Keeping this up takes a lot of discipline, but it has made a difference in my life.
Give myself time to dream
I prefer to “think over” a story in my head for some time before putting it on paper. Sometimes, for months! I know a story is ready to be written when I can picture it vividly in my head - as if it’s a movie playing in my head. So I have learned not to pressure myself to write, but to dream more instead.
Seek inspiration to refill my well
One concept I discovered that made me go, “Aha!” was that the ideas for fiction doesn't come from some magical void with inexhaustible resources.
Writing nonfiction is very different from writing fiction writing. When you write nonfiction, you have references such as interviews, research and more. That’s why it’s often easier to write non-fiction.
However, when you write fiction, you're literally recreating something out of nothing. And that takes a different kind of mental energy. But saying that we create something out of nothing is not quite right either.
Fiction is the culmination of the observations, insights, information and inspiration that we absorb in our day-to-day lives. So, what happens when you stop this flow? Your resource for your fiction dries up.
Ask yourself: What makes you go, “Oh gosh I need to write that?”
What makes your imagination go, “Wow!”
For me, filling my creative well meant watching movies and television shows - experiencing stories. (I wrote one of my short stories, Blood of Nanking, after watching the Christian Bale movie, The Flowers of War.)
Music also spurs my mind to imagine amazing scenes for my books.
In the last two years, I've been so busy with my career transition that I stopped reading books and watching television -- at least things that were not related to improving my career.
Revitalising the creative wells
So where do we go from here?
One of the first things I did was to forgive myself for not being a machine.
That’s a funny way to put it, but yes - we often get angry that we are human being that’s can’t write like machines! (Incidentally, I did come across a how-to-write book called Be a Writing Machine. Hah!)
I also try to stop guilting myself to write.
I have learned to accept that this is where I am right now. I am literally building my career from the ground up again and that takes a lot of energy and I shouldn't expect miracles from myself.
I also decided to take one tiny step at the same time towards making my indie publishing dreams a reality.
I am now at the editing stage with two of my novels. I'm so close to completion that at times, I want to rush towards the finish line, but I tell myself: Edit one chapter a day - that's all I can manage now. And if I can’t meet that schedule, I'm not gonna blame myself.
I am also curbing my tendency to jump into new, shiny projects. I have been a little obsessive about my blog because, perhaps, I felt so paralysed with my fiction that I wanted to feel successful in something creative. My blog was a convenient outlet and writing non-fiction was easy for me. I think that’s great, but I tend to use it as a way to distract myself from my problems with my novels.
But best of all, I’m now watching more television without guilt, knowing that I'm actually filling my well. I'm taking walks. I'm trying to dream about my characters -- perhaps I will try free writing again; it worked well for me last time. (Free writing is where I just let my mind wander and my hands type whatever my brain dreams about.),
If you are struggling with writer burnout or writer’s block, please realise that it's not your fault. It's not because you're lazy or unmotivated.
Perhaps your writing process is not aligned with your strength. Maybe something’s happening in your life right now and you need to focus on that.
We are humans, not machines, and we have to accept that we can't do everything -- no matter how much you want it.
Refill your well, friends. Well-being comes first.
Elizabeth Tai writes for profit and pleasure. She blogs about personal finance and simple living at elizabethtai.com and you can learn more about her fiction at taiweiland.com