Monday, March 24, 2014

How Skyla Got Her Groove Back

Remember this post? Remember how utterly miserable I've been for well over a year, writing but hating it, wanting nothing more than to close up shop and sell artisan hummus instead?


Last month, I finished a really rough draft of a book I'd started last year, and I'm now 53K words into the next book. I should finish it within the next few weeks. And I am enjoying every goddamn second of it, even when I think it's terrible, or incoherent, or reads like a video game on paper. I wrote 400K last year, but this...this is different.

I wake up in the morning...thinking about The Story.

I go through my day itching, using all of my concentration to work on paying gigs...while thinking about The Story.

My gaze trails to the side mid-sentence when I'm talking, brain tuning everything out...because I'm thinking about The Story.

When I finally, finally get to write, I'm practically jumping out of my skin and stay up far past my bedtime, getting in up to 9K some days...playing with The Story.

And I drift off to sleep, playing upcoming scenes in my head. I dream...dream of The Story.

It's obsessive and probably not healthy, and my apartment is a mess, and I've eaten so many nachos I probably smell like jalapenos...but by god it is GLORIOUS.

How did it happen, when I didn't think I'd ever be at this place again? Because, really, last year I thought this was it for me as a writer. I was done. I panicked at the thought of trying to find something else to do with my time, some other career. I was miserable.

If you find yourself in this place, where your words are broken and you're burnt out and unhappy...these are the steps that worked for me.

First, a caveat: I'm talking to the workaholics and career writers in the crowd. If you're a dabbler looking for someone to reassure you Writer's Block Is A Real Thing, you won't find it here. STFU and go sit in the corner, I don't have time for you.

Second: major credit goes to Lilith Saintcrow, for reassuring me I was going through a normal thing and giving me strategies for dealing. Go buy her books.

Now, here are some basic steps, broken writers.

1. Acknowledge This Is A Thing.

If you are churning out thousands of words but you still hate the process of writing; if you've lost that burning need to tell the story; if you'd rather watch Psych reruns and knit than're burned out.

People are going to tell you that you're not broken, that your writing is fine, that it's all in your head. On one hand, yes, it's in your head. So are a lot of things.

It doesn't mean it's not real.

They're trying to be reassuring and mean well, but you don't need to be reassured right now; you need to be validated. So I'm telling you, this is an actual thing. You're not crazy, it's not just in your head. You are going through a real thing, and you can't recover until you acknowledge there's something you need to recover from.

2. Make Other Arrangements.

You're a professional writer? You have deadlines? Make other arrangements. Not always possible, I know, but you want the minimum amount of pressure right now. The self-imposed deadlines? Toss 'em. If you're writing to keep a roof over your head and you absolutely, 100% cannot set things aside, fine. But I'm going to go ahead and say it: if you can, get a part time job stocking shelves for a few months. Which sounds stupid and crazy, I know, but just do it.

And the reason for this is...

3. Stop Writing.

Just stop it.

Generally I tell people to never stop. Write through the suck. Write through the doubt. Write when it's hard and scary. Write through exhaustion.

You can't when you're burned out. Lili put me on a three month regime of exercise, refilling the well, and a limit of fifteen minutes of writing a day.

Of course, just when I was feeling it coming back, I lost my full time job and was thrown into a tailspin of panic and depression. I completely lost my focus--it was several months before I could buckle down and do things that required my brain, like reading and editing, etc. But the benefit there was that it forced even MORE months of rest onto me. Which was ultimately the best thing for me.

4. Let Go.

I tried to get back on the horse in January. And I hated it. Hated hated HATED it.

Then I said, fuck it.

Flipping that switch changed everything. I know it's cliche, but it's true: you have to let go ENTIRELY. Let go of the expectations. Let go of the pressure. Just say fuck this noise, I will write when I'm good and ready. Because the more you try to force it, the more damage you'll do to yourself, and the longer your recover will ultimately take.

Interestingly, also in January I had a particularly bad episode of dysphoric mania that *probably* should've hospitalized me if I wasn't so goddamn stubborn. It resulted in a week of being sedated in bed and, you know, it was probably the next best thing for me. Like a brain reset. Because I let go of absolutely everything, keeping a focus on getting better instead or worrying, and that somehow shuffled everything into place.

5. Be Aware.

I can't say how or when, but it'll click again.

If you have faith in nothing else, have faith in that. Just learn to pay attention and listen, and when you feel that tickling of the Story against your consciousness, listen to it. Follow it. Learn yourself, learn to know when you don't want to write because something's wrong with you versus when you're avoiding because you're a lazy bitch.

6. Take It Easy.

Writing after burnout--after a long absence--feels mentally like you've been in an accident and you're re-learning how to walk.

You can't push it. When I got started again in February, I was very careful--I knew trying for 5K days wasn't healthy. I started small, just 2K and 3K here and there. It was a month before I built up to long days.

It's scary. There's a constant feeling of doubt, of terror that the magic is suddenly going to slip away again. The need to second guess, to go back and edit, is stronger than ever. There's a shakiness, reworking muscles that haven't been in use, struggling to find the balance between stretching and not straining.

You can do more damage to yourself in these early stages. So don't push it. At the end of writing sessions, leave yourself wanting to do more than pushing so hard you're burned out again. If you have a particularly productive day, force a break the day after.

So there are my tips. That's how Skyla got her groove back.

Have you been through long-term burnout? What strategies would you offer others?


  1. Party time! :D So glad you are back in the groove. :)

  2. THIS. Oh my God. I went through this for the entirety of 2015. And it's like losing the use of your spleen. My god. I don't know what a spleen does, it just does it, like writing comes. And then one minute it was writing, and the next it was like dragging the carcass of my cold dead book over thousands of miles of enemy territory. I depended on writing for a lot of things, not least of which is cash money for the three kids I will have in college next year! And writing was gone. It was painful. I'd get a decent sentence down and it felt like I couldn't write another for hours. Bless you for sharing. This is burn-out. This. Thank you! (I fixed mine too but it took a year of doing what you've outlined here.
    Best, so glad you have your groove too!


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