When Writing Sucks: How to Deal with Writer’s Burnout

Greetings, Writer Tribe!

Last week I wrote about how taking the plunge and claiming the name writer can influence your thoughts and work. At the beginning of the week I set my goal to write two blog posts, two freelance articles for the paper, and two chapters of my novel. All of which I did…except for the novel bit.

I have this love/hate relationship with my current novel. It’s a YA fantasy set in the lovely and magical Northern Minnesota (the place I live and love the most!). I adore my characters, and the pretense, but for some reason working on this beast of a series can be draining. And to be completely honest with you, it’s now the end of the week, I did only one chapter, and it’s the last thing I want to work on.

Which got me thinking: can we talk about those days where we don’t feel like writers? Where nothing seems to be working and even the thought of looking at one more screen makes us want to tear our hair out? Where you regret everything about becoming a writer?

Author Libba Bray once called that feeling the “Perpetual Night of the I Suck Abyss.” I just call them Suck Days. But whatever you choose to name it, this frustration is real. I suppose it’s kind of the dark underbelly of treating your writing like a job: all jobs have days that make you want to throw in the towel and quit, and writing is no exception.

Which is kind of a bummer, when you think about it: here’s this wonderful dream you’ve been holding onto your entire life, but once you commit to it you find that some days are awful. It almost makes you want to go back to being an “aspiring writer,” or one who writes just when they feel like it and therefore doesn’t experience the downsides of discipline.

But if you’re wanting to take your writing to the next level, you’re going to have to learn to deal with Suck Days. It might not be easy, but here are four things I’ve found that make the Suck Days not only more manageable, but something you can use to your advantage.

1. Take a second to remember the “why”

When you’re in the throes of establishing yourself as a writer, it can be easy to get caught up in the whats, or the details of your goals, and lose sight of the why, or the vision behind why you want to be a writer in the first place.

During the summer, I focus most of my time and energy on writing and learning about writing. By the end of the week I can get so caught up in the research and tasks that it seems insane that I ever wanted this job in the first place. I lose track of my vision as the week progresses, and the motivated Rae you find on Mondays becomes Friday Rae that packs up her stuff and says, “yep, I’m outta here!”

There’s a proverb that says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Let’s be real: we’re really bad at doing things if we don’t see a good reason behind it, if we don’t see some outcome that we think will benefit us. If you lose sight of your vision as a writer, it’s going to be really draining to take care of all your emails and marketing and social media and everything that goes into the writing job. It’ll just seem like a bunch of pointless tedium.

That’s why when I’m feeling burnout, one of my favorite things to do is open my journal and jot down some reasons why I’ve always dreamed of being a writer. What was the original reason I started this work? What does it mean to me, and why does it seem to be that I can’t live without it?

Some people do this kind of recentering activity every morning before starting work. Even if you can’t fit in in every day, at least making it a weekly practice or a remedy for when things get hard can help get your mind out of the whats and back on the why. 

2. Take care of yourself first

We’ve all got things outside of our writing jobs that we need to care for. For me specifically, my mental and physical health can be precarious and need tending to. While “take care of yourself!” may sound obvious, I can be really stubborn about it, and feel such a mounting guilt about not doing anything productive that my “refresh time” ends up not being refreshing at all.

Yeah, not fun.

But I’ve learned that sacrificing my health for productivity is a very short-term solution, and will come back to bite me hard if I’m not careful. 

I think the most helpful things you can do to care for yourself as a writer are to eat well, exercise, and dedicate some time each day to be off screens. For me, this has meant severely restricting caffeine and sugar (they always backfire on me and cause awful energy crashes), breaking up work sessions with a quick walk or run, and leaving my phone and laptop in another room long enough to clear my head.

In college I learned that if I didn’t start my day with vigorous exercise, by the end of the day I would go stir-crazy from sitting down all day. You may not be that extreme, but learning to tune in to your tendencies and what your body needs is one of the best things you can do to keep youself healthy (and sane!).

Don’t think of self-care as time you could have spent writing: think of it as an investment in your writing. I really believe that our most creative work happens when we’re our happiest and healthiest selves.

3. Do something that gets you motivated

Writers don’t exist in a vacuum, and neither does our work. Authors are people first, and the work of a well-rounded person is going to be a heck of a lot better than the work of someone who exists in a little writing bubble.

While traveling in Europe, my husband met a writer who firmly believed that all writers should be involved in some other line of work, not as something that takes away from your writing, but feeds it.

So if things are feeling stagnant–or you’re obsessing about your writing problems–get out and live a little! Do something that makes you feel inspired. Hang out with friends or go mountain biking or explore an abandoned building or play your guitar. I think the connection between our minds and our bodies means that physically getting up and doing something different can give you some refreshing and different ideas. Give it a shot and see what happens!

4. Give yourself some grace

I really believe that goal-setting is important, and I’ll write more on that subject later. But I also think one of the best ways to start hating your goals and your job is to treat yourself as a work machine with no flexibility.

I don’t think any of us are work machines, and we all have days were we need a little grace and a little love.

This opportunity for grace can actually help you stay on track. One of the reasons I think people give up so much on things like New Year’s resolutions is that they set such rigid goals that when they inevitably can’t meet it for a day, it becomes a pattern of defeat and abandoning that goal altogether.

Don’t do that.

Set smart goals, goals that include a little leeway for the fact that you’re human.

Did I want to write two chapters of my novel this week? Yes. Do I still have one chapter to go? Yes. Is forcing myself to write an entire chapter tonight (or else!) the best idea? No.

Rather, this is a great opportunity to do a goal revision. Instead of wasting my energy getting all upset that I didn’t meet my goal, I can revise it and reclaim it. I didn’t write that chapter, and maybe I can’t do the whole thing now. But I can write for 10 minutes. I can set my timer and just write non-stop for 10 minutes, even if I don’t feel like it, and I know that when the timer is up, I’m done. That much I can (and will!) do.

You see, being willing to revise your goals can be an effective way to keep yourself working a little while also feeling positive about your progress. And what I find often happens is that while I’m working on my smaller goal (like the 10 minute session) I’ll get into it and work on even more than that. But that 10 minute limit is what I need to even get myself to pick up my pen. So I’ll start with that.

Do whatever it takes to avoid the pattern of defeat and giving up altogether. Listen to yourself, take care of yourself, then go and write some great things.

What are some of your writing struggles? What have you found that helps you stay motivated?

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9 thoughts on “When Writing Sucks: How to Deal with Writer’s Burnout

  1. I’m with you on the self-care struggle and the need for vigorous exercise. It’s an uphill battle some days, and it took me a very long time to understand what “self-care” meant. It’s hard for me to put the pen down sometimes but it is necessary to maintain stamina.

  2. Thank you so much for this absolutely amazing advice! I often struggle a lot with self-care because I am literally always taking care of someone else, which leads to self-neglect. I am working on this though and hope I will learn to take care of myself a lot more!
    I have found communicating with others that have a real love for writing very motivating. I think have this opportunity is not only helpful for building my skills, but these individuals are so motivating!
    I hope you had a wonderful weekend and I hope the upcoming week is nothing short of fabulous!

    1. Hey Alyssa! That does sound hard, but I’m glad you have such a positive outlook and have found motivation through communication…that helps so much! Hope you have a brilliant week as well <3

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