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Burnout for Writers

Making art can push you to burnout — but it can also save you from it.

By now, millions of people have read Anne Helen Petersen’s recent Buzzfeed article, How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, which examines how and why millennials (people currently aged 22-38) seem chronically unable to escape from a sense of perpetual overwhelm.

The essay has inspired many pieces that have deepened and expanded the discussion in important and thoughtful ways, including Tiana Clark’s exploration of black burnout, Shannon Palus’s argument that burnout is not a condition specific to one generation, and a selection of burnout testimonials that represent a diverse and widely varied spectrum of experiences, collected by Petersen.

The portrait they paint is one of people trapped in an endless cycle of doing that leaves no time or space for being. Petersen explains that “exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.” Take a look at these quotes pulled from Petersen’s article and see if anything here sounds familiar:

  • “Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time.”
  • “How... can I optimize myself to get those mundane tasks done and theoretically cure my burnout?”
  • “The feeling of accomplishment that follows an exhausting task... never comes.”
  • “Burnout... takes things that should be enjoyable and flattens them into a list of tasks... everything... becomes tinged with resentment and anxiety and avoidance.”

While the idea that one should be working all the time may be a product of factors like a shaky economy and tech that binds us to our jobs, it’s nothing new to writers, many of whom go to bed every night believing they could’ve, should’ve spent more time writing and determined that they will tomorrow. Over the years I’ve worked with countless writers who’ve had to force themselves to celebrate milestones — finishing a chapter, getting over the hump of a tough revision — because they felt weighed down by the knowledge that there’s still more work to do. I spoke with a novelist recently who told me she couldn’t even enjoy her latest book’s publication day because she was already worrying about how long it would take to finish her next book.

These symptoms of burnout are nothing new to writers; they seem to be part of the job. And it's no wonder; after all, the majority of artists cram their art into the cracks between everything else that fills up life: paying work, family, romantic relationships, caregiving, friendships, and the many obligations that keep us from spending time pursuing our passions. When life is packed that full, it’s easy to feel burnt out.

And yet most of the artists I know would never trade their creative practice for more time spent doing anything else. In over a decade as a life coach for writers and artists, I have never had a writer I worked with set a goal of spending less time on their creative work.

Artists who make time regularly to create may be busy and tired, they may be dogged by guilt, obsessed with optimizing, frequent procrastinators, and neurotic as hell, but they would seldom point to their creative work as a source of burnout.

Making art doesn’t suck the oxygen out of artists — it adds fuel to their fire.

Creating art is work that is inherently restorative. Certainly, there are days when the writing process is nothing of the kind — it can be a painful slog or, as David Rakoff once memorably put it, “like pulling teeth. From my d*ck.” But at its best, when you’re in that flow state, it can be a transcendent experience that elevates you from your life and intoxicates you like a drug.

Getting to that flow state also requires stepping away from email, texting, social media, the day's headlines, and all the other ways our devices contribute to burnout. Being a creative practitioner forces us to set boundaries around our time and space in a way that little else does.

Work that is labor can distance us from ourselves, but art is the type of work that reconnects us with ourselves and helps us process our lives. Making art is not a quick fix for anything, which is why it makes a different impact than the pseudo-remedies Petersen dismisses in her article (such as taking a vacation, using a meditation app, bullet journaling, and “overnight f*cking oats”). On the contrary, building a sustained creative practice is a slow, incremental process — which is exactly what makes it rewarding.

Writing is therapy, writing is meditation, writing is self-care. Writing is overnight oats.

When writers and artists are pushed to burnout, they have a built-in reserve of mojo to draw from, an outlet for working out complex emotions and experiences, and sense of deeper purpose that can mitigate the frazzle of a hamster-wheel life no matter what happens with their work out there in the world. It’s not about how others experience consuming your work — it’s about how you experience the process of creating it.

And that process just might be what keeps you on fire.