Writer Fuel: Navigating Through Creative Burnout

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

For the past several months, I have been going through a period of creative burnout. Maybe it’s the aftermath of COVID and how it has changed the way we learn and interact online. Or maybe it’s because some things in my non-writing life have just been really hard lately. Or maybe it’s the result of having been working at building DIY MFA for fourteen years and a part of me is starting to itch for something new. Whatever the reason, the last six months or so have been really tough on the creative front and I’ve had to change up my process to fit this new creative drought paradigm.

As I reflect on my own experience with burnout, it occurs to me that a lot of other writers might be facing a similar situation. I’ve certainly heard a few of my colleagues express that they were experiencing burnout, and I’m guessing some folks in our word nerd community might be going through that as well. Today, I want to share a few techniques I’ve been using to help me work through this creative drought and get back into the flow of writing and building creative things.

1) Take baby steps toward incremental progress.

As writers, we often like to dream big and set lofty goals. These ambitions can motivate us in times of creative flow, but when we face burnout they can feel overwhelming and unattainable. This is where baby steps come into play. Instead of focusing on the horizon, lately I’ve been looking just one or two steps ahead of where I am. Breaking big goals down into smaller, more manageable increments, is like chipping away at a mountain one pebble at a time. Each step doesn’t feel like much, but over the course of a few weeks or a month, you can see real progress happen.

I was once at a conference where a speaker said: “Dream big, execute small.” This phrase has since become a mantra for me. Yes, big goals are great, but in the end, these are no more than vaporous aspirations. It’s with the day-to-day action steps that true progress happens. Not only that, when you’re in a state of burnout, it’s a lot easier to focus on baby steps than a big, lofty goal.

It’s easy for us to ignore those incremental steps and focus our attention only on the end goal. The problem is, when we do that, everyday work can start to feel like a grind. This is why it’s so important not just to take baby steps, but to celebrate the small milestones as well as the big.

2) Zoom in on what lights you up.

This period of creative burnout has made me realize which aspects of my work I truly love, and I’ve made a commitment to myself to focus more on the parts of DIY MFA that light me up. My creative passions are twofold: I love building curriculum and I love working with writers on their books. On the other hand, the marketing and sales side of the business is really draining for me, as I’m sure it is for many writers.

For this reason, I’ve decided to step away from our bigger marketing and sales-related projects. We haven’t done a big course enrollment in almost six months and we’ve shifted our attention to smaller, one-off workshops where I can focus my energy more on building new material and less on the marketing and sales. I’ve also shifted my teaching focus primarily to the DIY MFA Members HUB, using that community as an outlet where I can flex my creative muscles and build new craft-related curriculum every month. If you’re interested in learning more about the HUB and getting notified when it reopens, click here.

In addition, I’ve been feeding my love of working with writers on their books by doubling down on my one-on-one book coaching. Because I can only take a few clients at a time, I don’t generally advertise that I do this work, but it’s probably one of my favorite parts of my work at DIY MFA. I love stepping into different stories and helping writers problem-solve and come up with new possibilities for their books. I love seeing the amazing progress that my clients have made. Milestones include getting book deals, publishing their work in prestigious magazines, and winning awards. 

As writers, we need to figure out what aspect of our work ignites our passion and we need to zoom in on the things that light us up. Whether it be crafting compelling characters, painting vivid settings, or weaving intricate plots, when we reach a point of creative drought, we must rediscover the elements that bring us joy and purpose. This is how we refuel our creativity.

3) Set constraints on what wears you down.

The creative life is full of ups and downs. Yes, there are moments of creative euphoria where we reach a state of flow and the words pour out of us as though channeled from a muse. Yet, not every part of writing is fun. We all have aspects of the process that we dislike or find draining, and while we can focus our energy on the things that light us up, sometimes we have to grit our teeth and do the not-fun stuff as well.

For me, the things that tire me out are short but intense writing projects, like crafting a newsletter or other in-depth email. In the past, I used to delegate some of this writing to my team, so I only had to write a long essay once every 4-6 weeks. Now that I have taken on all the writing myself, I have to get creative on demand and knock out an essay every 1-2 weeks. I still feel strongly that I need to be the one to write these newsletters and they have to get done, so the key has been finding a way to contain this project so as to minimize the stress.

What helps is to set constraints and limit the task to a set time frame. I set a “Writer Fuel day” every couple of weeks and on that day, I focus on just writing newsletters. Sometimes, I can knock out a couple of them in one sitting. Sometimes, I can barely get through one. But the point is that by containing the task to a specific time frame, it frees me up to not have to worry about it at other times. I do the same thing with marketing tasks, where I set aside a single day to work on a marketing campaign and just get it done once and for all. This approach helps to lower my stress because it means I don’t have these more challenging projects constantly looming over me. Setting constraints allows me to reclaim my creative energy and channel it toward the things that I truly love.

4) Find moments of quiet joy.

Creative burnout is a prickly beast, in particular because it leads to so much chaos and uncertainty in our lives. If we’re not sure where our next great idea is coming from, that can fill us with a sense of panic. We start to operate from a place of creative scarcity rather than abundance, and we start to work on whether this good idea will be the last one we’ll ever have.

In moments like these, it’s important to find hidden pockets of quiet joy. This joy can be related to our writing, or it can be something completely separate. For me, moments of quiet joy include knitting socks (you would not believe how many pairs of socks I own!), snuggling with Office Cat, or playing cards in the evenings with my kids.

I’ve also been on a massive tea kick lately; hubby gave me a sampler set for my birthday and I’ve been drinking 2-3 pots per day. I drink tea mostly while I’m writing and it adds that little extra bit of warmth to my day. The point is you need to find the little things that bring you joy, and weave them into your creative life.

Now, let me make one thing perfectly clear: self-care doesn’t solve everything. You can’t burst your way out of depression or revamp your mental health with a spa day. Still, these small bits of happiness can give you that extra boost of comfort you need to get through a challenging creative moment.

5) Use mindful distractions to keep stressful thoughts at bay.

Related to the previous point, sometimes the stress is so much that you just have to distract yourself. When that happens, I like to find distraction by burying myself in a good book (or two, or ten!). The more stressful life gets, the more “comfort food” I need on my reading menu.

Right now, I’m devouring romance novels and cozy mysteries because they’re the most comforting things to read. With romance I know there’s going to be a “happily ever after” and when real life gets stressful, I find it’s nice to read something where you know it will all turn out okay. The same is true with cozy mysteries. Yes, there’s usually a murder that spurs the story into motion, but we all know the sleuth will solve the crime in the end and the criminal will be brought to justice.

Some people find these genres too predictable and formulaic, but I find the structure of these books give me comfort. I know what to expect and I can trust the book to deliver. This is probably why I especially love reading series: it’s like coming home to old friends and I don’t have to meet a whole new cast of characters every time I start a new book.

Some years ago, I did an 8-month program of DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) and one of the main things we discussed was the use of distraction as a way to get through tough moments. Of course, the goal is not to avoid the negative circumstances altogether; that would be illogical. Distraction is not an excuse, but rather a mindful choice. This is how I use reading. It’s not purely an escape, but instead serves as a brief respite from the stress of real life. 

6) Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Asking for help is not one of my finer qualities. I have a hard time admitting when I can’t do something and asking someone for help means coming to grips with the fact that I can’t do it on my own. Still, there are times when you need to lean on someone (or something) else. This might mean delegating some tasks that are outside your skillset, or using a tool to help you get something done faster and more easily.

For this particular essay, I decided to ask for help. In particular, I used an AI tool called Magic Bookifier to help me get the creative juices flowing. I fed the tool a five-point outline just to see how it would work and what the results would be. Truth be told, most of what it produced was not useful—I ended up not using 99%—but in a few small instances, it gave me an interesting turn of phrase that I could shape into something that was my own. But that wasn’t the most useful aspect of this tool.

The one big help this tool provided was that I didn’t have to face a blank page. For me, getting started is the hardest part of writing, so having something on the screen in front of me—even if I wasn’t going to use most of it—helped me break through mental blocks so I could start getting words down.

Navigating Through Creative Burnout

Finding our way through moments of creative burnout can be hard, particularly because with drought there often comes self-doubt. By using some (or all) of the techniques I’ve outlined here, writers can traverse this difficult terrain with resilience and grace.

Finally, we have to remember why we write in the first place. Most of us don’t just do it for ourselves. Rather, we have a deep desire to connect with readers. We want to transport these readers to the worlds we create and we want to help them engage in new experiences vicariously through our characters on the page. We write because we want to be read. 

Sometimes all it takes to break through our self-doubt is to imagine that person who will receive our words, that person who will think: “Wow, this author gets it. It’s like they wrote this book just for me.” We’ve all had books that changed our lives, and we need to trust there’s a reader out there who will feel the same way about our books.

Until next time, keep writing and keep being awesome!

P.S. For more info on Gabriela Pereira, the founder and instigator of DIY MFA, check out her profile page.

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