WRITING: Stress and Burnout

There is a time at which deadlines loom over you. They crowd your space, poison your air, drag on your limbs. They drape over you like a heavy cloth bound into your skin. And the irony of them is that, as an incentive to push onwards, they also can destroy your ability to make progress.

This writers block, then, is not about the writing. This writer’s block is about you. It’s stress, sometimes burnout. And it’s awful.

I get writer’s block when I’m afraid the scene won’t be good. When I don’t have the safety net of a great idea, or an intriguing character that I’m buzzed to write. Or when I’ve thought about an exciting scene so many times that I realise I’ve tapped out the fun of the scene already and have nothing backed up to drive me through it. Writer’s block is about writing without the safety net of excitement.

That writer’s block isn’t so scary. You can, as I’ve written before, push through it. You don’t magically lose your ability to write well because you are worried about not having that safety net. You may not have that spontaneity and wit that you have when you’re buzzing, but your work isn’t going to be bad, so if you know how to push through, you can push through.

But there’s a time when your block isn’t about the writing, but about yourself. When you start to feel burnt out from worrying about the project; when you feel like you’re not good enough to do it justice, or that there’s too much on your plate and you’re overwhelmed. At that point, you don’t just have to get over your issue of no safety net. You have to learn to stop stressing, focus, and relax. Because that stress gets in your way of the only thing that can overcome it: finishing the project.

It’s hard, because these feelings aren’t about logic. If you look at it logically, the only way to solve the problem is to write, so you should be just writing. It’s about something bigger, something that makes you avoid writing as long as you can. Plenty of times, I’ve spent two days that, supposed to be devoted to writing, would become a long session of ‘after this, I’ll write‘. It’s when, in your mind, the project becomes the object of fear itself. Writing it would be acknowledging it, which would make you think about it, which causes you to re-enter the cycle of worry and panic. So you bounce between those worries and the self-hatred that is part and parcel with avoiding the project. And the coping mechanisms you pursue to put it off – watching a favourite show, blogging, playing a game – are in themselves coloured by worry.

In short, you’re not doing something else. You’re just keeping yourself busy while you sit there worrying.

I don’t have a cure-all for this issue. To be honest, I’m battling it at the moment myself. But I think there are a few things you can do that help.

  • Remind yourself that it’s just a project, and that you’re not afraid of it.
  • Remember it’s not the end of the world if you don’t finish it. That you could, in fact, dump it and move on… even if you don’t want to. In fact, remembering that it’s your choice to move forward might help you remember you want to do this. It’s not a burden shackled to you, but a choice you’ve made.
  • Remember that you are good at what you do, that people believe in you.
  • And that writing isn’t that hard. You’re just sitting as a desk. No pressure.

Whatever you can do to make yourself relax, pursue that. To defeat this problem, you have to allay your fears and up your confidence, give yourself space from the stress. Once you’ve relaxed – truly relaxed, instead of ‘watching a sitcom to avoid thinking about your stress’ relax – then you can focus on the actual writing.

This morning, I woke up early (early, for me, is 9am), and told myself I wouldn’t even think about my projects until after the morning was over. I sat down with coffee, breakfast and the last few episodes of Drop Dead Diva season three. And though I’d ‘done other things’ as a response to my stress before, this was different. Because I let go of my stress, took the pressure off myself to succeed, and reminded myself that the deadline wasn’t so scary.

And today, I will write.

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