Have you ever felt like your creative ambition failed you? Writing used to light you up, but not anymore. The want is still there–you want to write your books, you want to do all the things that you think are required to make that happen–but you just can’t.
The idea of producing one more thing, one more word, one more social media post, or one more query attempt makes you want to cry.
You wonder how this thing you loved morphed into something so draining?
You are not alone, writer.
You are likely experiencing creative burnout or are damn close to it.
Being a Writer Is Taxing
Burnout is a buzzword these days and for good reason. We live in a fast and stressful world.
Creative burnout means there is no gas in the tank and no energy to push the car to the next service station.
It’s a state of mental, physical, and emotional fatigue brought on by chronic levels of excessive stress, and recovery can take months or even years.
We often take for granted the incredible amount of mental energy writing requires, not to mention all the things one must learn to put those words into the hands of readers. That something so thrilling and adventurous could one day exhaust us doesn’t seem possible.
So you commit to doing all the things you believe a successful writer does: Grow your platform, learn marketing, be consistent with social media, make meaningful connections, learn the skills, enhance the skills, read the books, focus on the craft, listen to the podcasts, sign up for newsletters, take the workshops, take the ads course, join the community, write the story, rewrite the story, rewrite the story again, find an editor, plan the next story, write blog posts, build a website, schedule newsletter swaps, make the time to write, sacrifice sleep all while juggling the rest of life–the day job, the family, the partners, the pets, the finances.
Suddenly you realize you’ve gained 15lbs, you’re isolated and unhappy, or worse–you’re resentful. You resent both the writing and anything that gets in its way.
You put all your eggs in one basket and every one of them feels broken.
Creative Burnout Can Happen to Anyone
This is exactly what happened to me at the end of 2022.
On January 1st of 2023, a day that is supposed to be filled with the excitement of embracing new possibilities (or nursing a hangover), I woke up tired. Bone tired and I couldn’t blame it on a good time. The idea of dragging myself to the computer for any reason hurt. It physically hurt. I wasn’t creatively blocked—I was broken. My creative energy (which I define as my ability to make something new) was tapped out. I still wanted to write my stories, still wanted my work—I just didn’t want it to kill me anymore. Something had to change.
When you become pain aware, you naturally seek the cause. For me, that was easy. I was the problem. Well, not exactly. More like my thinking, which led to my actions, was the problem.
My creative ambition, drive, and need to succeed had backfired.
This may not be true for everyone experiencing creative burnout. Sometimes things happen we cannot control and have no hand in creating. Life can throw cruel curveballs.
Personally, I had to figure out how to stop taking on too much, working too hard, and denying myself any semblance of balance. For this, I got help. I turned to resources like Becca Syme’s Dear Writer, Are You Are In Burnout?, James Clear’s Atomic Habits, and Steven Kotler’s The Art of Impossible.
From those blessed books and the help of folks who loved me, I began to find my way out of the abyss. Slowly. As I write this, I’m still emerging from the muck, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I feel more like myself than I have in a long time.
Here’s the process I used to begin my recovery, which involves phases to first protect and then gradually enhance creative energy.
If you are in a space where it hurts to create and yet you feel you can’t stop because the cost is too high, I sincerely hope this helps.
Three Phases of Recovery from Creative Burnout
The Admission Phase: Identify the contributing factors and their root causes to prepare for surrender.
What are you doing that hurts and why are you doing it? In short—get honest.
My inventory included over-committing and not asking for help, which led to sacrificing sleep, working every extra second, and ignoring my mental and physical health.
The cause: Lack of trust and need for control driven by fear of failure and a misguided belief that I “should be there instead of here.”
Now, I don’t like not having control and the idea of surrendering is hard to swallow. This is where humility comes in. I had to ask myself, “Is what you’re doing now working?” Uh… no.
Okay, Pride, next question: “If the process you’ve got isn’t working and is causing you pain, don’t you think it’s time to try something else?”
Begrudging head-nod from me.
Okay, there’s the willingness needed to move to the next phase.
The Surrender Phase: Otherwise known as pause, rest, reset, and lower expectations.
Sometimes you just need to stop all the things or at least all the things you can. Sometimes your body forces you to—control or not, it hits the brakes.
Personally, I let go of creative commitments. I quit marketing my book. I dropped work back to the bare bones. It sucked. At first, I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to let go of those goals, didn’t want to admit defeat, but doing so gave me room to breathe and think about how I wanted my life to go, and because of that, I moved into the next phase.
The Slow Rebuild Phase: (For which I give credit to Steven Kotler and The Art of Impossible)
Here’s where you slowly begin to get it together again, correcting and healing from what derailed so you can adopt a better process. This phase is ongoing for me and I’ve found it has three parts that work in tandem.
1. Protect your feel-good mechanisms and take care of yourself.
Find ways that naturally elevate your mood and take care of your body.
Get adequate sleep, make the damn doctor’s appointment for the check-up, drink a cup of water for crying out loud, do an exercise you enjoy, fuel your body adequately (no, cookies are not adequate, Stacy), be in nature, lean into gratitude, and practice mindfulness, journal.
I know this sounds like another laundry list of to-do’s, but these matter. A healthy body, mind, and spirit are the keys to your creative juice. And if you need to seek medical and or therapeutic advice, please do so. Don’t hesitate.
Have I done all this perfectly? Hell no. Changing all things at once is a recipe for changing nothing. Pick a couple or only one to start.
2. Make non-negotiable silence and alone time a priority. Steven Kotler terms this “non-time.”
You’re off the grid now. You have time to think, process, and feel. Finding these precious moments is difficult, especially with littles at home, but it’s doable. Twenty minutes is enough to begin, an hour is optimal for me. To make room for this, I wake up earlier but I go to bed earlier now, so I don’t sacrifice my sleep to do it.
Non-negotiable alone time also means not checking my phone first thing in the morning. Instead, I dedicate the minutes to journaling, meditating, and reflecting.
This alone time refuels me and opens my eyes to different perspectives.
3. Set up creative boundaries and slowly reboot your productivity system.
Say no. Unsubscribe. Unfollow. Delete the podcasts. Delete the apps. Pause the notifications. Unclutter your proverbial plate. Let go of all the items on the mental back burner that you have no time for now and won’t in the next six months.
When you’re ready, re-start a gentle writing routine and do your best to incorporate a spirit of play and discovery.
For me, this has been 30 minutes four mornings a week (included in my 60 minutes of non-negotiable alone time.)
I try (and succeed more than I fail) to get 7 hours of sleep. I don’t check my phone and all 600 notifications first thing, and I don’t start work at 3AM anymore.
One of the most eye-opening things I did was create a system to track my feel-good activities, moods, energy levels, and the days I wrote. It’s not fancy. Think bullet journal only messier, but I made a slick one for you. You can get your copy here. The goal was to see what activities boosted my energy and creativity the most. Hands-down exercise, sleep, and reading give me the most bang for my buck. When I do those things consistently, I’m refreshed and more ready to write.
Recovery from Creative Burnout Is Possible
Above all, see it as a lesson and not a failure. Easier said than done, especially when you are in the middle of the muck or the trigger was no fault of your own. Still, we must stand back up, however slowly, however shakily, and find a way to go again if writing is what we want to do.
We must honor the creative energy writing requires as well as all the other items on our plate, otherwise, we risk resenting what we love about our lives. So if you are where I was last year, I want to give you some hope. It can be okay again. Admit, pause, then take small steps to build healthy boundaries, fill the creative well, learn from mistakes (if you made them), and set yourself up for a brighter writing future.
Download The Write Habit: Creative Energy Tracker For Writers from Write It Scared to help you protect and enhance your creative energy. Live well and write better.
Stacy Frazer is a formerly repressed creative soul turned speculative fiction writer, YA fantasy author, Author Accelerator certified book coach, and the founder of Write It Scared. Her mission is to help fiction writers let go of the self-doubt spiral and find clarity and confidence in their stories so they can finish their books.
Stacy firmly believes that the only creative license required to write a novel is one’s lived experience and that you can learn all the tools to craft a book that makes you proud! When not writing, reading, or working with writers, you can find Stacy hanging with her daughter or on the trail with her big goofy labrador, Gus Gus.