I first wrote this post back in August 2022. It’s taken me until now, February 2023, to edit it. That’s how uncomfortable and sensitive this subject is for me. But it’s an important one we need to discuss, so here goes:
I’ve burned out several times in my life, and every single time has been different. The triggers are different, the symptoms are different, and the way out of it is different.
Sure, self care helps, but it’s not a panacea.
Unfortunately, those of us who love our jobs are more prone to burning out.
Yes, you read that right.
Because we’re more invested in what we do, so we work harder.
When we’re not as invested in our job, we work the required hours, then go home (or close our laptops) and disconnect to enjoy other things like gardening or watching movies or time with family.
When you love what you do, it’s really easy to become a workaholic.
It’s easy to work late, especially when you work from home or you’re doing something around your day job or family life. Most authors publish alongside other commitments, which makes it much easier to work long hours without rest.
Just a little more writing in here or a bit more there.
And look, I get it.
Sometimes I start next week’s writing projects on a Friday, that way Monday morning feels calmer because I’ve already got first drafts, I just need to edit them.
There are times, however, when that time is better spent watching Happy Valley on the sofa with Millie, instead of doing more writing.
Work work work work work
Until recently, I felt guilty for taking a couple of days away from work to binge watch Stranger Things – one of my favourite shows – when the new season came out.
I shouldn’t have, though. I am a workaholic. I rarely stop writing, and when I’m not, I’m usually thinking about it.
For instance, I planned this post for over twelve hours before I started writing it.
Because I’m a workaholic (writeaholic?), it’s harder for me to stop my brain from thinking about something else, which is why hobbies like watching TV are good for me.
Not because they switch off my brain – although if watching TV does that for you, go for it – but because it’s a different type of stimulus to me than writing for my clients or readers.
I’m still analysing the writing, the setting, the costumes, the dialogue, the pacing, and all the other things that make for great movies and TV, but I’m not consciously trying to apply any of it to what I write, not even my fiction. (That does happen sometimes, but rarely.)
Becca Syme’s brilliant book, Dear Writer, Are You In Burnout?* really helped me see how I recharge differently. She states that writers get their fuel in different ways – reading, watching TV, even playing games.
It took her laying it out so plainly for me to realise that that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.
Watching TV is how I recharge. It also inspires me. It taught me how to tell stories, write great characters, come up with witty dialogue. Why should I feel ashamed for spending so much time watching it?
How I burned out – the first time
Ok, I confess. I’m not entirely sure this was the first time I burned out. It’s just the first time I remember.
My brain likes to block out traumatic and stressful memories, which makes it really hard for me to explain things sometimes, or get to the root cause of anything.
It also means I tend to remember how I felt during a particular time in my life, rather than the specific events.
That’s ok, though. That’s actually more useful for therapy. Reliving events puts us back in that moment, which is traumatic for our brains because it can’t tell the difference between past, present, and future.
Remembering and processing emotions is what helps us get over things.
Unless we bottle them up, in which case they hold us back and lead to chronic health issues (which is what happened to me for a long time).
Right. Where was I?
After I published What Happens in New York, everything felt kind of anticlimactic.
Everyone else’s lives were carrying on as normal, even though, for me, I’d done this momentous thing that had taken a tremendous amount of effort.
So much effort, in fact, that after publishing it, I became really, really depressed.
That’s pretty much all I remember about that time. Just the sheer emptiness and hopelessness that I hadn’t felt for about five years.
Everyone assumes publishing your first book is a happy time, but it’s much more complicated than that. It’s stressful. It’s draining. And when things don’t go how you expected, it makes you feel even worse.
Little did I realise, this is a common phenomenon. Sportspeople who achieve their gold medal feel the same sense of depression, fatigue, or low mood because they’ve worked towards something for so long that then they don’t know what to do with themselves. Matthew Syed covers this more in his great book, Bounce*.
Expectations lead to burnout
Expectations. They damage us a lot more than we realise.
When we interviewed Nicholas Erik for The Writer’s Mindset in the summer of 2021, he said that expectations can be damaging.
Becca Syme reiterated that point in her book and our interview with her – she also went on to say that expectations can cause burnout.
If you expect to make a life-changing amount of money from your book, and it doesn’t happen, you’ll work harder to make it so, right?
Or, if you expect to get great reader responses and you get crickets, you’ll work harder to achieve that goal, right?
We’re constantly chasing dopamine, and when we don’t find it from that source, we push ourselves harder to try to get the results we want. And the harder we push ourselves, the closer we get to burning out.
Burnout number…I lost count
My aforementioned defence mechanism means I don’t know how many times I’ve burned out, but for the sake of argument, we’ll say three times.
The second time was tied to my chronic health conditions. I did too much. I gave too much. And I had no time to rest and recover my spoons.
(Side note: the spoon theory is a way of measuring energy levels when you have a chronic health condition.)
Yet I kept giving my time and energy away to other people because I felt like if I reinforced boundaries, I’d cause arguments or let people down.
I ended up being signed off sick from my day job for almost a month and having to leave my full-time job. My health was so bad that I could barely walk or think clearly.
The worst part?
My brain fog was so bad I couldn’t read.
How could I keep writing and publishing if I couldn’t fucking read?
One more time for luck
The second time sounds bad. And it was. But the third time was the worst. This is an event I do remember.
I was talking to my boyfriend in the kitchen, he asked me a question, and I could barely speak. I started bawling. Words turned into gibberish. It was scary.
It could be because this was more recent that it feels worse to me. It felt more like a make or break moment than anything else in my life.
I don’t want to go into details about what triggered it, but what I will say is that it was a slow progression.
Working on Hollywood Heartbreak – an emotionally draining book that covers everything from death to eating disorders – and having to reread my own work – something with was deeply emotionally challenging for me – on top of other personal and professional issues, wasn’t a good combination.
It took me well over six months to recover, and it took me almost a year to feel semi-comfortable discussing it. Even now, thinking about it eighteen months later, I still cringe.
The positive side
While burnout is a bad thing and not something I’d recommend, the foundations that took me there were positive.
In February 2019, my nan passed away. This was the first significant loss I’d ever experienced and it hit me like a truck.
Focusing my energy into being productive, into writing and publishing my books, helped me process my grief. It’s why grief is such a strong thread in What Happens in Paphos and why I went on to write a ghost-hunting series.
My books played a huge rule in helping me overcome how much pain I was in without directly confronting it on a daily basis.
Had I focused on my writing while also slowing down on the publishing, and growing my content marketing business, I may not have burned out.
The problem was going so hard and fast on publishing them.
At some point in the last six years, I stopped getting as much dopamine from the process of writing. It became all about publishing the end product. When I actually hate the publishing process, I just enjoy the writing and (sometimes) the editing side of it.
I wanted to capitalise on the popularity of the What Happens in… series when it took off, which meant turning books around quickly.
And when I moved into fantasy, I wanted to get the first four books out fast because they’re a complete arc and I knew readers were more likely to stick around if they could complete that arc quicker.
But finishing it left me feeling empty again, even though I have enough ideas to last me at least another six more Afterlife Calls books (probably more).
Since we’re being honest, I’ll be blunt, too: I don’t know if I’ll burn out again.
I take many steps to stop it from happening, but life is unpredictable, I work in an unpredictable industry, I’m neurodivergent, and I have a lot of health issues. So if anyone is prone to burnout, it’s me.
That being said, I am lucky to have supportive friends who are there for me when burnout looms. Or I’m in the throes of it.
I’ve also connected with a lot of indie authors lately who are experiencing similar feelings of malaise, burnout, and just general fed-upness about the way the industry is evolving.
On a bad day, my friends remind me to do simple things, like taking my omega 3 supplements (important if you have brain fog and don’t eat fish), or meditate. These may sound futile or odd, but they really can and do make a difference. The more you do them, the more the benefits build up and build you back better.
In fact, there’s a clear pattern over the last couple of years: when I neglect nutrition, meditation, and exercise, my mood – and my ability to write – nose dives within a couple of weeks.
Will they alone stop burnout?
Of course not. Nothing in life is ever that simple.
It also involves changing how I do things…even if I don’t want to.
That’s part of why we put The Writer’s Mindset on hiatus. Out of everything I do, it took the most effort for the least financial reward. And in a recession, spending time on things that don’t make enough money but eat into my time and energy just isn’t sustainable. Not to mention I didn’t enjoy doing it anymore, either.
When we love what we do, we’re more likely to burn out
Which brings us back to our introduction: the people most prone to burnout are those of us who love what we do, because we’re driven to work harder and find it difficult to leave what we do at our desks.
That’s even harder for us to do as authors, since many of us write from home, perhaps on the sofa or even from our bedrooms depending on what space and mobility levels we have.
If we can’t physically separate our writing and relaxing locations, our brains can’t make that differentiation, either.
Being open to new systems and ways of doing things is an important part of being an author. It’s an important part of life.
Our needs change as we get older and our circumstances – be that personal, professional, or even health – change.
For instance, I couldn’t have used the same outlining method for What Happens in New York that I used for The Mean Girl’s Murder or future Afterlife Calls books. Outlining extensively made my brain shut down when I was working on my early books. It terrified me.
But now, I crave the ability to do that because it gets ideas out of my head and makes me feel calmer.
It reduces the urgency to get the book done, meaning the first draft is less frenetic and more polished, so I can reduce how long it takes me to write and do fewer drafts.
I had to go on a journey to discover that, though.
And some of that journey involved the lessons from my burnout.
Yes, that’s right – my burnout taught me some hard lessons I may not have learned any other way.
Does that mean you have to get burned out to learn something?
No, of course not.
But when you’re stubborn AF and can’t take advice, well…you’re not going to listen and take onboard what someone who’s been there has to say, are you?
(If you said yes to that, you’re just being stubborn, aren’t you?)
After all that…
This post very much didn’t go according to plan. It was actually meant to be a client piece, but I realised I was going off on too much of a tangent about my own personal experiences for it to be relevant to them.
I think it’s important to share our personal experiences, though.
And as an author with a small platform, I want to share mine in the hopes that it will inspire, or at least free, someone else.
When we talk about our experiences, it not only frees the writer, but it can free the reader, too. Free the reader from the restraints of their own expectations and beliefs; give them hope that there really is a light waiting for them.
Writing is a power we should use wisely. And that includes on ourselves.