Writer Burnout and Disillusionment (or why Twitter shouldn’t be by the bedside)

*I considered writing a tongue-in-cheek article, but that expression gives some people licence to just be rude and/or condescending, so I decided against it*

I have been ill recently but don’t really talk about it. I have been poked and prodded, cut and stabbed, all in the hope of curing my ailment. It’s the ailment which gets brands to change the colour on their labels, gets collectors out on the street, and cyclists to wear wristbands. It makes everyday life difficult, and patience can be hard to come by. What my enforced rest does do is make me sit back and wonder if I am still on the right path with writing.

A writer is a writer not because she...

It’s better to burn out than it is to rust  -Neil Young

I have shared my opinions of book releases and writer’s block in the past. I realise a lot of people don’t believe in burnout as a real condition, but I most certainly do. I have had a lot of experience with burnout, mostly through sports and sports psychology. I have suffered it, and so have those who are close to me. When you’ve spent time on something that has consumed your life, not just a hobby or job, but a whole lifestyle, the end can be devastating. Whether or not you know the end was coming is irrelevant. Jobs, projects or events which consume your life, make you trek the world, throw away everything you have in pursuit of a goal, can be hard to let go when the finish comes. I often see people I know wander aimlessly for months after finishing a long regatta, as they end one cycle and start another in their lives. Writing a book is no different. Now that I have finished four books, there are a few things I have learned but never shared. None these things are especially mind-blowing, but I have wondered if others feel the same way.

1 ) It is possible to feel like you need to grieve when a book is finished, people you have created have died or moved far away, and you may never see them again. They won’t occupy your mind anymore. They were there with you, at your desk, whispering in your ear when you were trying to sleep, following you when you go running, moaning while you try to do your grocery shopping. Now, they’re gone. They grew up and moved away the moment you shared your work with the world. It is entirely possible to feel bereft when fictional people leave you. For people who don’t write, that might sound ridiculous.

2 ) When someone has consumed all your writing time, how can you simply move on? There are no hard and fast rules about how long to wait before starting new story. I’ve seen authors become tired with a part-finished manuscript and stop, because a new idea has suddenly appeared. Then, that idea dulls after weeks/months and is also tossed aside. Yes that is part of the creative process. For me, I have ideas lined up around the corner, so that is not a concern for me. But how long does it take to leave the mindset of one set of characters, and pick up another successfully? In the next year, I will complete two different series of books. They have no similarities. When I’m writing one, the other seems boring, and then they swap over. Right now, I am trying to kickstart a manuscript which I will soon finish, but feel bored with it. It could take months before I find my rhythm again after the big flourish of completing a novel. I want to say this feeling is okay, but it eats into writing time. After climbing the mountain of book completion, finding the strength to turn around and climb a bigger mountain makes you want to grab the first flight out of base camp.

Writing a novel is like wrestling an octopus into a mayonnaise jar.

3 ) Publishing a book doesn’t always feel like a victory. You write – you edit – you edit – you get a flurry of ideas – you write – you edit 189523852 times – you get others to critique and edit – you edit again – you promote and you sell. The day a book hits the shelves (in the virtual way mostly these days), it’s a little like having a baby. Things should change! You’ve had this great success! But, chances are, you’ve exhausted yourself over the work, and if you read those same words one more time, you may scream and pull your own hair. And then you still have to constantly plug those words in order to sell them. People talk of storylines as if they’re the hard part of the equation – they are the easy part! The day your book is released, you will still have to get up, and go about your regular day. It’s a bit a like a birthday – it should be special, but mostly it’s just a cake at the end of a regular day. I squealed like a 15-year-old fangirl when the first ever copy of Night Wants to Forget arrived, and likewise when it went on sale. But since then, rather than feeling pride or excitement, it’s more relief. The monster I have been fighting has been beaten. Vengeance in the Valencian Water definitely felt like a monster – it had so many tiny details required to fit together that I checked everything 20 times. The shine of success isn’t as big as expected/hoped for. Releasing the book felt like puffing after a marathon.

Nothing is more sad than the death of an illusion – Arthur Koestler

Illusions are everywhere. I’m a big fan of the expression ‘never meet your heroes’. People idolise others but up close, those people can be real jerks. As a youngster, I had heroes, role models. When I grew up and got to meet them, the illusions were shattered. This happens to everyone. Illusions are everywhere in everyday life – if I work for this long, I will be able to have (insert item here) and be happy… if I get married I will be happy forever… if, if, if. Ever reached the top and then realised what you were aimed for isn’t that great after all? If you haven’t, lucky you.

I am a highly emotional person. On any given day, I can wake up and have no idea how it will end. Will I fire up with a burst of  enthusiasm, or will I sink into my depression and end up ripping someone a new asshole when they cross me? Some days, both can arise. The trick is to avoid all the things which annoy you, but life is never that simple. When you suffer depression, you can go for months without a moment that bursts the bubble of what some call happiness, and then a trigger is set off and it’s like a rollercoaster – once you’re on, there is no stopping. All you can do is sit and wait in the knowledge that everything ends eventually. When when you are emotional, you ride the highs, but can sink very low very fast. We all have illusions, and in writing, they definitely exist. Trouble is, no matter how often you shift expectations, something can appear and shuffle everything around.

I was reading a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ article the other day, reading through someone basically tearing down others enjoyment of things while coming across as smug, and I felt disillusioned.  Writers write what they believe, their opinions, their ideas and their thought processes. This article I was reading – not something I have shared, or is even on the list of subjects I normally post about – gave me such a sense of disappointment. That is something Twitter so often does to me; I now ban my iphone in my bedroom in favour of another alarm. Waking up and grabbing my phone is dangerous – no one needs to start the day with Twitter or Facebook – they can act like a vortex of disappointment and no one needs that at 6am. One example was a few weeks ago. I couldn’t sleep and was reading online instead. On Twitter, someone was having a shitty day and decided to rip the guts out of everything anyone around her was writing. I thought ‘why do I spend hours on posts and writings, just so someone can be belittling because they need to take their shit out on people?’ This tirade wasn’t directed at me as such, but that wasn’t the point. We all have shit to deal with (read my first paragraph again) and stabbing others with hate is not a solution. Telling someone they are wrong isn’t a way to live, nor is attacking someone’s efforts. Twitter is rife with debate and a lot of it isn’t constructive. But it can give off a feeling of disillusionment, a feeling that someone is ready to knock you down for their own satisfaction. The illusion is that a creative safe place exists. There’s always someone lurking, ready to knock you down (especially when you post about feminism. Equality is coming, learn to cope). Whether someone is being awful because they are simply a miserable old soul, or if they just flippantly upset a person (not sure which is worse) can make you cynical about what you bother to participate in. My illusion that everything was fine, and the controlled circles I move in on social media are a comfortable place, once again broke.  Is this a stupid illusion? Yes, I know that. ‘Get over it and moved on’ people say. Yes, I should and do. But I’m also becoming increasingly tried of having to move past stupid things in the first place.

For the most part, writing is great for me. I love it, and do it because I literally can’t stop myself. My most common question is about where I find the time to write. I don’t know; it just slips into every tiny crevice of time, and if you want something enough, you can make time. Yes, I forgo sleep, or down time. I don’t want to cut corners off time with my children, but my social life take a real hammering so I have time to write. Now that Vengeance in the Valencian Water is done, I have felt almost bored by the chaos of normal life, because there are suddenly gaps in my day and my consciousness. While writing does bring satisfaction, there can be some downsides.

~ Terri Main

1 ) When a book is released you lose all control. Every time I get a message about my new book (or any others for that matter), I cringe. What if they hate it? Suddenly my happiness is dependent on what they think. No two people ever read the same book, so this feeling is having no power shouldn’t happen, but it does. Constructive criticism can be a good thing, but also a rare thing. Some people can’t be argued with, their minds can’t be changed, they hate what they hate. To be honest, I’m not sure I would want to attempt to satisfy those readers. Some people rave about my writing, and I appreciate the feedback (sometimes it just feels like relief). Some people rave, but then rave about something else, so I go and read what they’re reading, and find it appalling. It’s all a matter of opinion, so while you can brush off criticism (‘you can’t please everyone’ is a classic), sometimes you can’t trust praise either, due to its subjective nature. Sometimes praise is as much of a bubble-burster as criticism.

2 ) Perfectionism. Yes, I realise this is a fallacy. But when I write, I want it to be perfect. The first year I was writing, I wrote all the time, and I put whatever my little heart desired. Then I had 600 pages of complete bullshit. I hid it in shame and started on my Canna Medici series, with larger success. I kept nothing but the main character, Luna Montgomery, from my bullshit manuscript and had to start all over again. I paused on every new page to make sure it was novel worthy and finally got something to be happy with, Blood in the Valencian Soil. Now, I check everything over to make sure it’s perfect – even though nothing will ever be perfect. Perfectionism gets in the way of creativity, which breeds self-doubt and then disillusionment with the work. 

3 ) Ambivalence. My books are my babies, so how could I lack passion for them? It can and does happen. I am trying to write now, and I feel so bored with it. I worry readers will be bored with it. I look at my last book and see action, drama, disasters, murders, devastation – and then look at my new book and worry that I’ve become boring. But rewind to last October, when I was editing Vengeance in the Valencian Water, and I read it over and over, thinking it was boring after the August release of Violent Daylight, which was filled with mysteries and drama. I know I should just push past this perceived ambivalence and the passion will come. If anyone knows how to speed up that process, please let me know!

The anxiety disorder within me is screaming right now – ‘don’t post this, it doesn’t talk about everything being perfect and easy! Don’t let people read it, they will know you have weak moments! Everyone else blogs are all about success, boasting or perfection; what will they think of this?’ I’m posting it anyway. I have writer’s burnout and writing about it might just be the solution. What I do know for certain is that life is never as shiny as it looks on social media. Sometimes taking a step back of Twitter, Facebook, book reviews and the like can make a big difference to how you feel about yourself, and your writing.

Comments on this post are closed. The author doesn’t need to hear that not everything on social media is true, that’s things will get better, or that she shouldn’t take things personally. She knows all of these things to be true.