Learning From Burnout

Back in the early- to mid-90s, I and a few other volunteers began a small non-profit for the Mid-Atlantic earth-based spiritual community. In the beginning, its sole activity was to produce a regular publication, and a small one at that. Within a few years, the project had become my full-time, all-volunteer (i.e. “non-paying”) job. The publication expanded into a full-sized newsprint periodical, distributed around this country and in several others. We’d added regular worship ceremonies, annual festivals, classes and workshops, networking with other earth-based faith groups as well as other mainstream religious groups in our area, occasionally speaking to the press, and much more. As you might imagine, the responsibilities involved in such an undertaking required a dedicated team of tireless volunteers along with countless supporters and contributors. During those years, I was rarely ever alone. Despite the fact that I am at heart an introvert, my role in the organization required me to be something of a low-level public figure. My calendar was packed cover to cover, usually a year or more ahead of any given date. The work fulfilled me, but often left me exhausted—a fact I ignored for far too long. I wasn’t very smart about the extent of my involvement. I kept throwing myself into the fray instead of stepping back to allow others to take the reins once in a while.

Fourteen years after we began the project, burnout finally struck. I hit that wall so hard that I walked away and never looked back.

Two years later I began to write—not just the spiritual articles or essays I’d written in past years, but a novel manuscript. I’ve blogged before about that early attempt, the hundreds of thousands of words that meandered in fun but pointless directions and along numerous connected yet complicated paths. It was mostly a hobby, something I did to amuse myself outside the retail job I’d begun when the non-profit closed down. My calendar was no longer full, and I was content with that.

Now, ten years later, my writing is more than a hobby, and my life is the total opposite of what it was in those years of franticity. (It’s a word now.) Though I seldom venture out to non-writing-related social events these days, I am forever grateful for the network formed during that earlier time. It’s always fun to chat with old friends online. And on occasion, those contacts provide a helpful knowledge base. A good example: my short story “Upshot” features a character living in the cloud forest of Guatemala, and I foolishly used Spanish as her native language. I even had my friend Susan, who is a Spanish-English translator by trade, proof my usage for accuracy. It didn’t occur to me that this was erroneous until an accommodating editor rejected the story with the observation that my research was mistaken, and that I should look into which tongues would be spoken by isolated indigenous peoples in that region. Another long-time friend, Laura, travels to Guatemala on a regular basis and was able to provide input on the matter. I’m still working on the rewrite, but I am confident these well-established channels will provide valuable assistance.

My contact with those social circles of old is now mostly restricted to online activity, while actual real-world hours—when I do leave the computer behind—are spent alone or with my hubby in the presence of Nature (which feeds my spirit), or with other writers in an inspirational or educational environment (which feeds my craft). Because for the most part, writing is a solitary art. Every writer is different, of course. Some can write in cooperation with others, or pen their stories in a crowded and noisy coffeehouse. They can effectively block out their surroundings and focus on the voices in their heads. Not me. When I’m working on a story or a scene, I need quiet. I need isolation. And I need to be left alone.

I know I’m not the only writer who feels this way—it’s an oft-repeated sentiment among other writers I’ve met, and with good reason: the focus required to get the story from one’s head to the computer screen (or the written page) is immense. Distractions leech the creative juice that feeds that process. Each of us has our own methods of working. Some write best in the morning—sometimes early morning before the sun is even awake. Some write best in the post-midnight hours. Some write whenever their schedules afford them a half-hour slot between dropping the kids off at school and taking the dog to the vet for her annual checkup. (Look how J.K. Rowling started.)

However we manage to do it, writers know that the pursuit of writing as something more than a hobby is easily a full-time job. Add to that the pressures of a regular day- or night-time job (the one that pays the bills), family obligations, and the requisite solitude for self-care, and there is little time left for anything else. Having burned out once before, I know better than most how important that balance can be. Even so, I occasionally overschedule myself and spend a day (or two) in recuperation mode where even if the Muses do speak, I am too fried to hear. I am still learning to step back, take a breather, allow downtime to recharge, and not be too hard on myself if I don’t make my daily-word-count target.

What’s your process? How do you avoid burnout in your writing routine? Share your ideas with me!