How to Blast Through Writer’s Burnout . . . Or Block . . . Or Not
Writer offers ideas for staying productive and prolific
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
“I’m plagued with doubts about the quality of my writing.”
“I’m terrified about what people will think if they read this.”
“I don’t have the time. Or when I do, I’ll find a million procrastination excuses.”
"I'm just so burned out."
“It’s so lonely.”
These statements make me groan.
When I'm tired, I rest, stop writing, so burnout is a non-issue. And I’ve never had writer’s block simply because I’ve never called “not writing” being blocked. I’ve called it “gestating,” “reading time,” “submissions time,” “learning,” “waiting,” or simply “not writing.” I’ve written five published books, two more looking for publishers, and one that after five years of "suscitation" efforts (I can’t say resuscitation), I declared stillborn. I’ve written many produced plays, I made my living for seven years as a magazine editor, and I currently freelance book edit, write, and submit (a lot more on that later).
Writing nonfiction—magazine writing—was fairly simple after writing plays and novels. You don’t have to invent the world. You just do the research, then cut, paste, craft, make a beginning, middle, and end, and voila! The only time I felt blocked writing journalism was when, after attending a conference, I couldn’t figure out what the story of it was. So I wrote a mess and, after hearing me talk about it, another editor fiddled with it, and voila.
If you are writing nonfiction and are burned out, take a rest. But if you feel blocked, this essay is probably not for you. Or read on. Maybe you’ll find something helpful.
I’ve been hearing the above five writer’s block complaints from fiction writers for years and I would like to address and debunk them.
Doubts and Fear of Exposure
Write, pretending that you will never show it to anybody else. In fact give yourself an order: “I am not allowed to ever show this to anybody. I can change my mind, but for right now, this is as private as going to the bathroom.” Bingo! No worries about quality and what other people will think. The job is to make a mess, so failing (in your own eyes) fulfills the assignment. If at some point, you’ve got a whole manuscript, then, in my opinion, the real fun begins. Good writing happens in the revisions. And then you can show it to somebody if you want.
If you don’t love to write, and are perpetually procrastinating, there is absolutely no reason to write. Don’t write. Quit. Or quit for now. Unless you’ve got a contract (whole other story, in which case either do it because it’s your job, or return the money), nobody is waiting to read it, so you have no obligation to write it. How do you feel when you quit? If you feel massive relief, it’s the right decision. If you feel sad or angry, tell yourself you can always go back to writing if an idea chooses you, but for now, under no circumstances are you allowed to write until you are compelled. Another creative avenue may become apparent and you’ll laugh at all the energy you expended thinking you “should” write. Why on earth should anybody write? I would love to hear a rational answer to that.
If you love to write and it’s stuck, do something cardiovascular. Arouse yourself. I’m absolutely sincere in this advice. Writing is a physical activity. You are using your heart and gut (which have neurons in them; did you know that?) if you’re writing a first draft; later on, in revisions, you can switch to primarily your brain. You need to get your heart pumping. Nothing like an orgasm to do that. If that turns you off, do anything that gets your heart rate up. Don’t think about anything but what you’re doing, which is kind of easy when you’re sweating and panting. The ideas will come. I promise.
Or, instead of writing, read, read, read. Read books that excite you. Then read them again, studying how the writer did it. And then read more. My favorite book for this is John Williams’s Stoner, which I, as well as many other writers, consider a perfect novel. I also like Ian McEwan for his exquisite narrative. And to blast my mind into new areas, I adore Percival Everett. But you may have very different taste from me.
One of the best books to read for both story and technique (for fiction and nonfiction writers) is The Fiddler in the Subway by Gene Weingarten. It’s journalism and the introduction is the best shortest writing course you could take.
For a complete list of books that may inspire you, see You Don’t Need an MFA to Learn to Write Fiction.
I’m inspired by other media as well. Lately I’ve been binge-watching Breaking Bad, to be followed by Better Call Saul, created by Vince Gilligan, one of the best storytellers I’ve ever witnessed—on par with Shakespeare, in my opinion. These series are structured like a novel. If you love structure and technique, take a master class by watching Gilligan’s work.
Submit to literary magazines. There are gazillions of them and they’re always looking for work. I’m constantly investigating markets and it’s great fun—creative energy simply rechanneled in service to all my unpublished work.
Two of the best sources for lit and other markets are Erica Verillo’s site Publishing and Other Forms of Insanity and Erika Dreifus’s Practicing Writing. Also sign up for their free newsletters and you will receive a monthly treasure trove of markets.
When you investigate the possibilities, you may be inspired to rework old material to make it fit the markets. (That actually happened with this article. When Becky Tuch asked me to tailor it for a lit mag audience, I suddenly thought about adding this paragraph). Rewriting and revising are writing. Writing queries is writing. So, surprise, you are writing and the energy is unstuck.
If you don’t love working alone, consider the fact that you may not be a writer. Ask yourself why you want to do this? Be brutally honest. If you believe you will have some kind of glory from writing, you are deluded. If you are writing to get a release with a response from a large audience, you are fantasizing; a large audience is something that may or may never come. If you would prefer being around people, be around people instead; they will respond because you will be in relationship. Writing is a solitary activity, unless you are part of a team creating a television show, and this article is not for TV staffers.
If you are not clear why you want to write, try Financial Consultant and Change Agent Charlie Hess’s self-querying method using “Why” questions. Example:
Q. “Why do I want to write?”
A. “To express myself.
Q. “Why do I want to express myself?”
A. “To relieve my inner tension.”
Q. “Why do I have inner tension?”
Etc. Ask “Why” to each of your responses until you get to what feels like a “root response.” You’ll know it’s a root response by your body’s reaction to knowing it. (For more on this, see my blog “What Inspires Writers?”)
In short, no more energy-sapping excuses. Write if you love to write and have a good reason to do so; don’t if you don’t. And when you feel blocked, take a break and do something you love.