Is there something noble — or inevitable — in suffering for art? Or can you relax, practice mindfulness, and do your best writing?
The notion that creating real art destroys the artist is a persistent homily that pervades the writing world. Is there something intrinsically noble about being so passionate about your work that all other aspects of your life should suffer? Health. Relationships. Sleep. Peace of mind. There certainly are many stories of writers, painters, poets, and composers that support this theory.
So, if you want to become the best writer possible and also be a healthy, functioning, multidimensional human being, how exactly do you do that?
With work-at-home scenarios increasingly becoming the norm, trying to establish a clear line between working and not working can be a trial. Adrian Chiles, writing for The Guardian, outlines the difficulties in achieving what’s often considered the golden mean for a balanced life: eight hours each for work, leisure, and sleep.
“As a freelance writer and broadcaster,” Chiles says “there’s always something I could or should be doing. I’m not looking for pity here; in most ways, I love it, but I find it impossible to focus entirely on working or not working. As a loved one says to me, in jest as well as exasperation: ‘Your life is always half holiday, half work; it’s never one or the other.’ I kind of alternate an hour worked and an hour not, all day long. So the FYWLBI (Former Yugoslavia Work-Life Balance Index), I’m at 1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-7.”
Carve out time for yourself
If you’ve reached the point of imminent writer burnout, popular opinion is you basically need to turn everything off and carve out some time for yourself. The pre-burnout symptoms, according to an article by NY Book Editors, include waking up exhausted, feeling that all your writing sounds the same, convincing yourself that life is pointless (especially writing), finding it impossible to relax, and more.
The article advises, “You cannot replenish your creative self without taking a break. Taking time off allows you to hit the metaphorical reset button. Your love of writing is still there. It’s just buried under the stress of daily life, which includes deadlines, headlines, and social obligations. When you get away from your daily duties, you get a chance to reconnect with who you are at your core.”
If you’re like me, the thought of taking any time off seems like an impossible luxury. Most writers I know spend their time juggling multiple projects, most of which are unpredictable and resist any kind of scheduling. All I can say is, a large part of avoiding writer burnout means steeling yourself to deliver the word “no” when necessary.
Choose a week or two in the future for yourself, tell your clients you won’t be available, and just go. Whether it’s hiking along the Appalachian trail for a few days, scouting the streets of an unfamiliar city for restaurants or curio shops, or holing up in a cabin and spending time on a sunny porch reading books, the break from routine can revamp your writing chops.
Take regular breaks (even when you don’t want to)
Probably the best way to avoid burnout is to establish writing habits that contain enough breaks and relaxing interludes that you don’t get so stressed in the first place.
Looking for a science-based path for boosting your writing productivity? A study by the Draugiem Group that tracked work habits by computer revealed some interesting facts about productivity. As reported in Inc. Magazine, “It turns out certain employees were consistently more productive than their peers and they weren’t the ones who put their heads down and kept working till the job was done. They were the ones who took frequent breaks. Specifically, researchers found, the ideal work rhythm was 52 minutes of work time followed by a 17-minute break.”
There are apps galore that can nudge you to back away from the keyboard at preset intervals. The Pompodoro Technique, which has been around since the late 1980s, takes a highly structured approach to time management. Developed by Francesco Cirillo, it’s based on work sessions of 25 minutes with short breaks after the first two sessions, followed by progressively longer breaks. You can try it out for free without obligation or opt for other membership tiers. It’s simple and might just help you establish a relaxing rhythm when working, something that can carry through all your computer-based projects.
Choose tools that genuinely support your writing efforts
Whether you’re writing a novella, a series of novels, or a screenplay, the organizational side to the effort can be daunting, contributing to stress and leading you down that deadly path to writer burnout. A well-designed writing tool can be an organizational godsend to capture and structure all the ideas ping-ponging about inside your head. On the other hand, there are a ton of tools out there promising to help you lock into a magic formula, touting proven plot structures, push-button character development, and making other promises trying to convince you that the book will write itself.
For visualizing, structuring, and writing a book or other work, Scrivener is one tool that actually fulfills its promises, adapting fluidly to a writer’s individual preferences. Many writers who use Scrivener exhibit an almost religious fervor for the program, which I think is justified when you look at the way it can organize all the notes, timelines, resources, character descriptions, background material, web assets, and other miscellany into an easily navigable single file.
An article in writing.ie includes a quote from one user, Alex Barclay, that captures a bit of that religious fervor: “The software I use is the brilliant Scrivener — it’s so user friendly. I have no affiliation with the company, but I have a lot of love for it! Scrivener is such a customizable piece of software. I would venture it suits all kinds of approaches to writing. For me, it works so well for many reasons, but mainly because I can see, to the left of the page I’m writing on, not only an entire list of my numbered chapters, but also the titles of individual scenes. So, taking an example from Killing Ways again, I might have a list of chapters one to ten, separate files, one underneath the other, then below that five individual — titled — scenes that I know have to fit into one of the first ten chapters. Say, I’ve written a scene with the title ‘Ren & Everett in club, hammered’ — it’s right there, very easy to go into, cut, and then paste into whatever chapter I feel it needs to be in.”
The takeaway here is that any tool that suits your preferences and helps tame some of the complexity of writing a book can dial down the stress meter away from the red burnout zone.
A measure of mindfulness
Remembering that stress reduction is a key factor in avoiding burnout, the practice of mindfulness can go a long way towards taking the edge off your writing habits. Mindfulness is one of those things — like Zen — that can take some patience and a shift in perspective to fully capture the concept. Writer and teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it in these terms: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Supporting this idea, writing coach Heather Demetrios offers: “My work on and off the cushion with mindfulness and meditation — and the feedback I get from the writers I work on this practice with — has proven to me time and again that this practice is the very best thing out there (that I’ve found, anyway) to help you navigate the ups and downs of the writer’s life. It even helps you with craft and story.”
Demetrios chronicles the steps leading to a complete nervous breakdown in her blog, describing the personal journey from being (as she describes herself) a “Type-A hustler workaholic” to a becoming a writing coach and prolific author who centers her work around mindfulness.
Relax and do your best writing
Writing is a craft that not only requires mastery of language and storytelling, but it requires establishing a personal groove to write effectively and expressively. Relax, write mindfully, and pace your work efforts. A quote from Robert Frost seems like a fitting close: “You have freedom when you’re easy in your harness.”
Advice For Writers: Embracing The Cycles Of Creativity
Of Creativity And Madness
A Good Walk May Be The Best Writing Exercise There Is
How To Improve Your Writing (By Not Writing)
Writing Full-Time Takes a Work/Life Balance