Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.
The cure for common burnout?
I’m not a long-haul writer. I’ve tried to live by the adage a writer should write every day, and to be perfectly frank, there are monasteries in the world that don’t live by more draconian standards. My best writing gets done when I work in spurts, crank out a project of one kind or another, take a break of weeks or even months, and then get back at it feeling refreshed.
By traditional standards, this is a pretty lazy and dysfunctional way to go about it. These things were determined long ago by the writing powers that be, and as far as they were ever concerned, it’s a bad idea to rest on your laurels when you could be mass-communicating incredible beauty and truth.
Milage varies on that last point, of course. Because after all, how can we communicate much of anything when we’re dog tired and in need of a rest?
If you’re like me, keeping up with a daily, monthly, yearly word count is hard work. For sure, being a writer is hard work anyway, so if we can make our jobs easier, even just a little bit, I think we owe it to ourselves to do so. But be warned, the advice which follows is not for the faint of heart. If the idea of going long-term without putting any words down sends you into an apoplectic fit, maybe stick to the way you’ve always done things.
I do, however, think you’ll find my method of working allows for much more personal freedom than the long-standing tradition of writing till you drop. Yes, you may get less done in a year. That is a distinct possibility. But do you want to know something funny? When polled, most writers who also work a typical nine-to-five job say they wish they had more time, and that if they did have more time, they’d produce far more writing.
But what if some of those writers are wrong? What if, somewhat counter-intuitively, more free time on our hands doesn’t always equal a higher rate of production? The thing about being an author of any kind is that it requires incredible creative and intellectual energy to pull off on a regular basis. Yes, taking breaks might damage your output. Then again, it may just boost it. You may also find that the quality of your writing improves the more slack you cut yourself.
I’m big on cutting writers slack. I think it’s incredibly important, and in my experience, most of us are simply too hard on ourselves. That’s really why my writing habits have developed this way. By nature, I’m hard on myself, which means if I don’t take breaks every now and then, I’m liable to tear myself down instead of fostering a mental attitude that helps me build myself up.
Now, the first thing to realize is that taking a break from your writing means your skills will not atrophy so much as cool down a little. Writing is not unlike riding a bike. You never forget how to do it. But let’s say you take a five-month hiatus, simply because you’re feeling worn out or you’ve got more important things going on in your life—happens all the time. After that five months, you might return to the craft a bit dismayed at your apparent lack of talent. Whatever you’re working on needs to be rewritten from page one, and it’s all because you took the lazy advice of that awful Bowles guy.
One key thing, of course, is that I never said to quit entirely. If you know you’ll be taking a siesta, if you can schedule that in for yourself, why not also schedule in some light exercises so you don’t feel like a total louse?
For instance, I write for this blog three times a month even when I’m not writing a book. Producing content for the internet is a great way to keep your skills in tip-top shape. You could also work on a short (and I do mean short) story or two, or in the very least, engage in some weekly finger exercises. It doesn’t really matter so long as you don’t miss the point. Rest, recuperation. This is the point.
Conversely, and this is always a good idea, you could increase your reading load. The worst kept secret of the craft is that reading a lot tends to make us better writers. And the good news is it doesn’t really matter what we read. The basic engagement of our minds in this way seems to keep our intellectual and communicative abilities primed. Reading’s good for you. It keeps the stupid at bay (it is to be hoped). Honestly, you should be doing it anyway, and if you’re not…
Another piece of advice I can offer is to decrease your writing load rather than to cut it off altogether. For a little while at least, try transforming your 2,000 word-per-day average into something more like 500 words-per-day. That’s not a bad count-up when averaged out over an entire year. If you could write a scant 500 words per day, you’d end up cranking out about 15,000 words in a month. That’s the equivalent of a novel or two in a year, and the best thing about it is that 500 words per day means you’re only writing for about an hour or so, half an hour if you’re quick. That doesn’t sound too daunting, does it? If you’re feeling burned out, this might be just what the doctor ordered.
And the truth of it is people do get burned out, fed up, exhausted, and all sorts of other tired-sounding descriptors that equal one thing: you’re a human being, not a machine. If you’re struggling with your work right now, if you’re having issues with confidence or anxiety or anything of the sort, try slowing down. Trust me on this, don’t even fret, your desire to write will return in all its power and glory, and then you’ll be ready to crank out another masterpiece.
You’ve got a masterpiece or two lurking inside you, right? That’s what I thought. Happy writing, everyone. Or perhaps I should wish you a happy vacation. I’ll be back with more Craft and Practice next month.
Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!
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Many of you authors out there are like me. You know what it feels like to feel an idea wiggling its way to the surface of your brain and popping up its head when you’re right in the middle of cooking dinner or in the middle of a project, or you’re two hundred miles from nowhere on a camping trip. You know what it’s like to feel that need to drop everything and run to put words on the page, or screen, as the case may be. You may know what it’s like to be on a roll, in the middle of a vital scene for your book, and have to stop and set it aside, because you have an important engagement to attend and you can’t show up looking like you haven’t slept for days, even if it is true.
Let’s face it. Writers write because they have a innate need to express themselves. We didn’t ask for it, but it is there. We didn’t choose it, although we have chosen not to ignore it in our younger days, when ignoring it was still an option. Writers need to write as much as they need to eat, sleep or breathe. (Probably more than we need to sleep, since writing often takes the place of sleep on many nights.) This needs stems from our creativity deep within us and is as much a part of our inner mental beings as water is to our physical beings.
When I was getting my M.F.A., I had an instructor who was a binge writer. When she was done with the prewriting and was ready to write her story, she would shut herself in her office and not emerge until it was done, be it days, or even weeks before she had the first draft of the story out. She said that her family members all knew better to disturb her when the door was closed, and she wouldn’t come out, except maybe to tend to urgent bodily functions. That was her writing process, and it was effective, because she was publishing and selling her books. But there was a cost. She was on her second marraige because her first husband hadn’t put up with her crazed writing frenzies, and frankly, I was amazed that her current husband and family did.
That’s one of the prices that we pay for following our innate urges and releasing our creativity. Human relationships often suffer. I know there have been times when I have gotten up in the middle of a family get-together, and pulled out my laptop to start typing away because an idea struck me, or I suddenly realized what really happens in a scene I’ve been working on. My family members may have thought I was being extremely rude, and I guess I was, but they didn’t understand about the idea or thought that was nudging away at me to get it down NOW. Those ideas are fleeting, and if I don’t get them down when I have them, they may abandon me and not be there later.
I never go anywhere without my laptop. It goes on camping trips and vacations, even to the laundry mat or out to dinner. I write while traveling in the car, even though I know it makes me car-sick. At a memoir workshop I took a few years back, we were asked to read aloud something that we had written. Everyone else came with sheets of paper in hand, printed out with what they intended to read. When my turn came, I paused to make sure the correct work was on the screen with an explanation that “My life is in my laptop.” That brought a few laughs from my fellow workshoppers, but you know, there is a lot of truth in those words.
Writing is my world. I am passionate about it. And I’ve missed more than a few outings with friends and family, jeopardized my day job by writing late into the night when I had to work the next day, let my grades suffer to get the words just right, and missed out on countless hours of sleep just to empty what’s in my head out onto the page. Writing is a wonderful outlet for creativity and self-expression, but as all good things usually do, it comes with a price. I’ve paid that price time and again, and never thought that it wasn’t worth the cost. So, how much are you willing to pay to be a writer?
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The first Wednesday of every month, writer Jeff Bowles muses on life, creativity, and our collective destinies as makers of cool stuff. You’re a writer, but have you ever thought about how or why? Here are some words to live by.
The Kid in the Machine
When I was a kid, science fiction was everything to me. Partially because my family instilled a deep love of the classics (you know, Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, basically anything with the word Star in it), I watched movies and read comic books, collected toys and built model spaceships. At some point I decided I’d like to tell my own sci-fi stories, and at a relatively young age, I began writing my first novel. I didn’t finish it, of course, didn’t even get past page twenty, but you know, intergalactic star port descriptions are real tricky.
Even now, I still love a good space opera. I never stopped being a fan, never stopped dreaming of distant galaxies and intergalactic wars. In fact, my appreciation for all things speculative and nerdy only deepened, especially once it became clear sports and girls were out, but Lord of the Rings marathons were in. I love that epic fantasy stuff, that twisted horror, that magical realism and those far flung futures, and don’t tell anyone I went to high school with, but I’d rather read a good comic than indulge in any kind of respectable adult activity. Bill paying, for instance. Never did get the hang of that one.
That’s me, I suppose, but I know for a fact on some level it’s you, too. In many ways, the things we’re fans of help define us. I know you’re still a dorky kid on the inside. I bet the inner you still wears braces and drinks juice from a box. What really does it for you? What gets you excited as a fan? Classical literature? Hard-boiled detective stories? The biggest mistake I see many established authors make as they transition from nobody to “somebody” status is that they stop being fans. It’s almost like the red curtain to the whole show gets ripped away from them, and they’re left staring into the cold, mechanical under-croft of the modern storytelling machine. Jaded, I think is the word. You must make me a promise, guys. If you ever get to that place, have yourself a good movie marathon or read a book series that has always been your favorite. A storyteller who no longer likes stories? Criminal.
Ancient sages and modern neuroscientists agree, our personalities are not exactly what we think they are. More of a patchwork, really, a cobble of external influences, internal pressures, beliefs, both valid and invalid, mixed with a healthy dose of daily psychological wear and tear and deeply recessed emotional ideation we’ve tried hard to suppress or which has simply faded into our subconscious minds during the natural course of things. In some lesser known systems of mysticism (since we’re clearly on the subject), our conscious minds are more or less counterfeit anyway, are in fact the byproducts of heretofore unseen spiritual forces that influence our thoughts, our actions, even what kinds of truths we cling to, as essential and impressively ordered as they seem. In concrete terms, you are a body, you are a mind, but you are so much more. You’re the hidden watcher, the presence behind the eyes, the witness and willing participant of the little dramas and tragicomedies happening all around you. If you’re a storyteller, you exist in even stranger terms, because you’re both the creator and the created, and the work you produce is not really yours, but rather is divinely inspired and orchestrated to flow through you.
I mean, all well and good, right? Philosophy and practicality are poor bedfellows. Because while you’re sitting in your cramped home office in the dead of night, staring with hollow eyes at your ten-year-old computer monitor—you know, the one with the cracked screen you can’t afford to repair because you chose to be a “divinely inspired” writer—the work is never as easy as you’d like it to be. I gotta tell you, for people who literally conjure something from nothing on a regular basis, writers can be a grumpy and sour bunch. Sometimes all the passion and love and internal lexiconic fandom in the universe isn’t enough to kill that 2:00 AM headache you acquired from yet another impossible deadline. Life is life, reality is staggeringly persistent, and even the most grounded and stable amongst us can have epic bare-knuckle freak-outs. That’s an industry term, by the way.
To wit, I recently stumbled across a long and uncharacteristically honest social media thread that got my wheels turning. I’m Facebook friends with a lot of people in the writing business, and though I don’t personally know the vast majority of them, I’ve always felt a certain kinship with like minded individuals who’ve chosen paths very similar to my own. The original post asked the question, Have you ever quit writing long-term? Did you regret it? Now people in our culture are often inclined to save face and amass a front when it comes to their careers. Somehow, we’ve gotten it into our heads that the way we make money says more about us than our emotional or mental states, our long-term habits and behavioral matrices, or even our unerring innate natures, who we were before we became. After all, nobody asked you when you were five years old, Who is the essential you? They asked, What do you want to be? Like, can’t I just be the kid with a juice box who likes Saturday morning cartoons? No, teacher says, you’re an astronaut, Cindy. Next!
The responses to that Facebook post surprised me. I expected a lot of business about I’m a writer this, it’s what I do that, and there were some comments to that effect, but by and large, most respondents had to admit that if they hadn’t actually quit, they’d sure thought about it once or twice. One older gentleman actually said he gave up his very lucrative writing career years before and hadn’t looked back since. Good riddance, that was the gist. Now why would that be? Is this the norm? Isn’t writing supposed to be a joyful act?
It is, purely so, but only when a person is free to pursue it without constant worry and stress. That thing about writers tending to become alcoholics? It’s a tad overblown, but it has a ring of truth. And that gentleman, he wasn’t the only one to chime in with similar enthusiasm. Now I am not what you’d call a seasoned professional, not really. I’ve published, I’ve faltered and thought I’d quit (several times, actually), and I’ve gotten back on the horse, back to the business at hand. Not because I had deadlines. There was no external pressure for me. Because I had something to say, new experiences I wanted to share, truths I wanted to communicate. And you know what gave me the courage to do it?
Star Wars. Star Trek. Battlestar Galactica. I hadn’t written in several years, long enough I found I was ready to be a fan again instead of a base, lowly, underdog creator. And being a fan, just like when I was eight years old, I found once more the desire to tell my own stories. I don’t begrudge a professional who is sick to death of the business and wants out for good. Truth be told, I’ve never been in that position. But I am intimately familiar with the love of these things, the passion, the unabashed joy. I’ve stoked those fires within myself my whole life, and I can’t imagine a day at least some part of me won’t thrill whenever I see Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star. Sure, it’s nerdy as hell, but it’s home, it’s the place I do my dreaming.
My advice to those who want out before they’ve said everything they want to say: go home. Go and be the dreamer awhile. Maybe even a long while. Dreams can manifest as surely as dawn follows dusk, Spock follows Kirk, Jimmy Olsen is Superman’s best pal. If you as a very impressive, very professional adult can’t touch base with the kid in the machine, apart from having my pity, you have my condolences. Rest in Peace, the guy or gal you really are. Consider the possibility the world is the lie, and that you were always the truth. Drive and the creative impulse are not inexhaustible. This is very true. It’s also true they can be recharged and brought back to tip-top fighting shape as certainly as Green Lantern charges his power ring.
Plus, you don’t have to lug around an alien lantern and swear an oath every time you do it. Unless you’re into cosplay, and in that case, why waste time reading some dumb article? You’re clearly needed elsewhere, space cop. Hi, my name is Jeff Bowles. I’m old enough for beer, but today of all days, I’d like a juice box, please.
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