B is for Burnout

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We are at the letter B in our series on “Authors’ Tips – A to Z of Writing

If you’ve read the ‘A’ blogs, you’ll recall that the eight of us – Devika Fernando, Preethi Venugopala, Paromita Goswami, Adite Banerjie, Ruchi Singh, Sudesna Ghosh, Saiswaroopa Iyer and I – are blogging on a myriad of writing-related topics with the topic corresponding to the Alphabet of the Week.

This week, the letter is B, and I’m going to talk about Writer’s Block and Burnout.


Let’s first distinguish Writer Burnout from Writer’s Block.
I read an interesting take on the topic at Litreactor.com:
When the voices in your head refuse to speak to you, it is Writer’s Block, but when they’re shouting at you to put pen to paper, and you simply cannot, that’s Burnout.

The reasons for the two conditions overlap to a large extent, except that the problems leading to burnout tend to be exponentially more intractable and last much longer.Burnout

Writer’s block, or more complicatedly “neurotic inhibitions of productivity”, was a term coined by Edmund Bergler, a psychiatrist, in the 1940s. Every writer experiences it at some time or the other and many causes are expounded, some simple and easy to overcome, while others sound very clinical and scary.

Procrastination, loss of motivation to write, and failure to find any joy in writing are all symptoms of block and burnout – how horrifying to be so afflicted!

This post is not about organic causes – which are serious and require interventions by specialists.

These include agraphia (physiologic inability to write) and alexia (inability to read) which may appear in writers who have suffered a stroke or have injured their heads. These two conditions are mercifully uncommon and need neuro-psychological interventions – I will not dwell on them any further.

Then there’s writer’s cramp, which is a physical inability to write or type – it is a neuro-muscular disorder that affects the fingers, hand, or forearm and is brought on by prolonged writing or typing. Finally, writer’s block can occur in psychiatric diseases and in substance abuse, both of which need expert care.

Of the other, more common causes, stress is a big one – if you’re stressed over work, about family issues, have health problems, or are just horribly over-worked, it can impair functioning in all spheres of life, even writing. It is best to recognize the signs and seek counseling. However, you may be a perfectly healthy and happy person, but are stressed over a scene in the story you’re writing – in that case, it’s wise to employ strategies that have been shown to work and which I’ve listed here:

If you’re a perfectionist and are compelled to revisit your writing and edit again and again, thus finding yourself unable to progress, then you might benefit from evaluating and revising your expectations, or from developing a strategy before you start writing – there are apps that can help you pace yourself so that you write a mandated set of words in a time frame that you select. You can tell yourself that you will not look back at the words you’ve written until the time is up. That way you’ll get something written every day and can edit once the word count is in place.

If you’re a pantser who is struggling, then put the work away and think up a storm – do a tiny bit of plotting and make notes, and lists, on where you want the plot to go or how you think your protagonist should behave. Plotting helps break complex writing tasks into simpler steps that may help you overcome the block.

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If you’re a plotter who is struggling, allow your characters some flexibility and go crazy with changing up the structure of your story. Pantsing may help you overcome uncontrollable characters or a wayward plot that is obstructing your creativity.

It took me two years to write No Escape From Love, and eventually a combination of pantsing and plotting helped.

If you are spelling-disabled or grammatically-challenged, writing can become an onerous, fun-killing exercise. Fortunately, the invention of the computer and the development of automatic spell-checking and grammar-correcting software has solved that little problem, provided that you remember to enable them in the writing program that you use.

Sometimes you are compelled by your creativity to write on a theme that is new for you, or is outside of your comfort zone – it can make you insecure about your writing. The self-doubt kills your motivation. Fear is another big killer – it makes you nervous about going public with your writing – what if people ridicule your effort? If giving yourself pep-talks and positive reinforcement doesn’t do the trick, a good idea would be to join a group of like-minded authors and brainstorm with them to dispel the anxiety and to build confidence.

I am a member of one such supportive group and I can vouch for how excellent they are in keeping me going when uncertainty creeps in. Be prepared for criticism, which is usually constructive and goes hand-in-hand with praise, and use both things to get out of the writing slump.

When I don’t have a clue what to do with my writing, something that helps me is to engage with the text. I open my manuscript, read a few back pages, stare at the last few words I wrote, and an idea pops into my head. Even the task of editing pages of back-story could inspire you with a new direction for the story and help you push the work forward.

Conversely, walking away from your writing is not a bad idea – it may be that the distance, and the change in environment, will help you crystallize your thoughts and the writing will benefit from the time spent apart. Just walk to the park, or to the nearest window, drive to the mall, or…take a vacation!

Do something else – anything that gets the happy hormones flowing – read, exercise, cook, listen to music, eat (oh no – don’t – unless it is chocolates!). The one thing that definitely works for me is that I put the work away and dream, and I try to dream in technicolor. Forming images in your mind from your current project – constructive mental imagery – is found to help overcome writer’s block. If nothing else, it will convince you that you are still capable of creativity – that should kill your self-doubt, at the very least.

Do look up these resources if you’re seriously blocked or burned out and need more information:

Jeff Goins: How to Overcome Writer’s Block: 14 Tricks That Work
M. Castillo: Writer’s Block
P Huston: Resolving writer’s block.
Maria Konnikova: How to Beat Writer’s Block

Every writer is different – the causes and the solutions, therefore, are very individual.

What works for you? How do you deal with writer’s block – or, if you ever felt burned out, how did you get over it?

Read other posts related to Authors’ Tips – A to Z of Writing

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