Dealing with creative burnout

Are you dealing with creative burnout? I know the feeling and have some thoughts to share.

A writer sent me an email saying she felt creatively drained. She said, “My book is good. How can I convince others?”

Reading between the lines, I figured she’d written a book she felt was excellent but agents/editors were rejecting it, and that was making her feel a lot like not writing any more books, and also that she wished she could figure out how to get an agent’s (or publisher’s) attention.

I’ll be the first to admit that beating your head against a wall is way more fun than querying agents and editors, and that the more rejections you get, the harder it can be to feel like doing it all over again.

I also know that making creativity your work – the thing that pays the bills – is a good way to want to shovel ditches for a living.

Basically, we have two connected questions: “How can I succeed in the commercial arena of publishing?” and “How can I, at the same time, renew and feed my creative energies?”

foundations of storytelling for writers

Proactively dealing with creative burnout

You do have to separate the act of creation from the act of publishing. The act of creation is something to be nurtured and protected, even on the days when you don’t feel like it.

The act of publishing is a business transaction, period. They are two very different creatures, although of course we’re bound to conflate them, being human and wanting to see our hard work rewarded.

Protecting your creativity – renewing it, feeding it, keeping it from shutting down when you get five more rejection letters this week – requires a couple of important habits:

  • Protect the time. Even if you’re just drawing doodles on a sketchpad, keep your creative time free from other encumbrances. My first two hours of every day are for The Work, even though sometimes they actually consist of talking to friends at the coffee shop.
  • Remember that sheer financial terror impedes creativity. Putting the entire burden of your financial health on the capricious whims of the publishing industry requires nerves of steel. Have different work to serve different purposes. It’s not selling out: you’re buying the time to do The Work. The Work is sufficient in and of itself. Yes, it’s nice to be recognized for your talent, but it’s not required. There are ways to share your work beyond traditional publishing, if it comes to that.
  • Keep more than one project going. Have new work you’re conceptualizing while you edit the old work and send out the older. Keep your focus on your work and not on the publishing business.
  • Get to work on the next book. Invest in getting better. Yes, this book is good. Focus on how the next one is going to be better. Read, attend conferences, join writers’ groups. Immerse yourself in understanding the craft and the publishing process. Experiment. Fail. Fail a lot. Learn something. Fail some more.
  • Recognize what you can control and what you can’t. Writing the best book you can? Completely under your control. Convincing other people it’s the cat’s meow? Not so much.

I think we can all agree that dealing with creative burnout is likely to affect us all at some point. But being able to enforce boundaries and take proactive measures will ultimately help our creatively continue flowing.

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