In the first years of my full-time writing practice, I spent a lot of time burned out.
Um, a lot of time.
I'd whip myself into a frenzy of urgency with my work, I'd go flat out for a while (terrified of slowing down, of losing momentum). And then I'd hit a wall and burn out.
Shake it off eventually. And then repeat.
It wasn't really a fun system for getting work done. Exciting, maybe. Dramatic, definitely.
But not so much fun.
Plus there were a lot of casualties: I wasn't the easiest person to be around. (Moody!!!)
And I burned through and discarded some truly great story ideas. (They're still hobbling around in my subconscious, poor things. Some day, my dear ideas! Hang in there!)
But the biggest casualty, really, was all that time that I could have had a lovely writing life!
Years when it could have been this fulfilling, intriguing adventure, instead of something I thought I was failing.
Honestly, there were just too many days when I hated my dream job. Which is why the whole concept of sustainability is my absolute best friend.
Seriously. Sustainability = yum.
It means that the way we work today is hugely important. Because it makes sure that we can also work again tomorrow.
Know what I mean?
So I've been taking aim at strengthening my sustainability. At working with a flexible endurance. And an ongoing kindness to myself.
And—maybe this is the most important thing—I'm learning to put the right value on those sustainability practices.
They are so crucial to our ability to work! We need to value that kindness to ourselves, that flexibility, that endurance, every bit as much as we value the other tools in our writing lives.
Because this is the stuff that keeps us going. Without it, we are wide open for a bad case of writer's block.
These are three of the most basic sustainability practices that I've adopted, and they've made such a difference!
Every now and then, it's vital that we come back to these basics, check in with them, and make sure that everything's running smoothly.
1: We are continually & constantly refilled.
It is SO essential to know what it is that fills up our creativity. Right?
Because as we work, we're tapping that source. Mining our internal sense of story, our images, our ideas.
It's easy to forget: we aren't endless. That well of ideas isn't bottomless.
So we've got to get into a habit of refilling ourselves. Bringing in new images, new experiences, new ideas. (Julia Cameron calls this "refilling the well," which I just love!)
We need to keep seeking out mystery. Delving into our curiosities.
The other way to refill is just settling into any regular, repetitive, sensory experience: like driving, doing dishes, stitching seams.
Letting our artistic attention wander a bit. Strange but true: this also refills our story-making abilities.
It sounds so simple, right? And yet it can be so easily dismissed or forgotten.
We can get into a habit of not filling ourselves back up. We can model workaholism, and just drain ourselves dry.
Or, we can try to tend this, but not do enough. Not put back as much as we've taken out.
So here's what I've been doing:
Every day, every single day, when I wrap up my writing, I write down on a piece of paper exactly how I'm going to refill the well that evening.
It can be anything, if it's done intentionally—cooking, or messing around with origami paper. Doing a few sketches, or pulling out my coloring book and markers. Playing a few rounds of solitaire, or going for a walk.
I usually give myself a few options, in case one doesn't work out. And then I make sure to do at least one of those, if not all of them!
And that one little step, that bit of intentionality, has made a huge difference on my ability to follow through and actually do that refilling.
I can feel the difference, too: I feel more ready to face my work than I used to, more equal to it. Because I still have plenty to draw from.
So what fuels you? What nourishes your creativity? Little things, big things, delightful wonders, or regular actions.
Try this: grab five minutes, right now, and just jot them down. Make yourself a "refilling the well" list.
And then, every day, when you wrap up your writing, or your other work: make sure you spend at least twenty minutes with one of those things.
And then see what happens. See if you feel yourself working more smoothly.
2: We use that sweet, two-letter word to protect our writing energy.
This sounds ridiculously obvious, but hang with me: what we're doing when we're away from our writing desk has a huge impact on how much energy we have for writing.
And since writing takes energy—sometimes a lot—we have to be aware of where our energy is going.
You already knew this, right?
When the rest of my life gets busy and the demands on my time increase, my writing starts to shrivel. It happens pretty dang fast, too.
I used to wonder what the heck was going on. Why was it so hard for me to manage extra commitments?
But lately, I've been thinking of energy the same way I think about money. You kinda have to have a budget, an idea of where things are going, and how much you have available to spend.
Truth: We can't spend what we don't have.
Yes, I know. There are loans and there are credit cards, but that's debt. And it's when I go into big-time debt with my writing energy that bankruptcy, or burnout, happens.
Not worth it.
Let's not go into energy debt.
Every now and then, we have to check in. We have to get real with ourselves about where, exactly, our energy is going.
Track your pennies for a while.
And here's the tricky yet worth-its-weight-in-gold question: What is taking more energy than it's giving back?
What are the activities that seem to mostly drain you?
When I'm in the midst of an active drafting project (which is most of the time), I have to step back from other commitments, even good ones. Because they simply left me too tired for writing the next day.
It felt weird, but oh so wonderful, to step back from those things. To use a well-placed "no" to protect the energy I needed to work.
I finally admitted to myself: I just need most of my evenings quiet in order to do what I need to at my work.
You might have a different ratio, but it's best to know: what's the limit for your schedule? How much free time do you really, truly, honestly need, to make your energy budget work?
And what kinds of things are more exhausting than others?
What would you need to do, to have an incredibly healthy energy budget?
3: We know exactly how small our feet are. ;)
So here's the truth: I love getting a big vision for what's ahead in my writing. Mmm. Just the thought of it gives me butterflies in my stomach.
I love to stare at the end result I'm aiming for. Imagining that feeling of crossing the finish line. Holding the finished novel.
Vision is good. It's so important.
Being clear on our goal: that's the thing that lights up everything we do, right? It's important to stay connected to that.
When I am too focused on where I'm hoping to go, it kinda backfires. In a really dramatic, ugly way.
Because I suddenly get mega-impatient with the thing that's right in front of me, whatever that is. The step that I'm on looks dull and small and unimportant.
I start to hate where I'm at. Where I'm standing on this writing path.
I panic. How long is this gonna take?
I can see the finish, I can taste the ending, and yet ... how far do I still have to go? Too dang far!!
And THIS is that crazy-making feeling that can send me into a panic spiral. Or I drown in overwhelm.
Or I get into this super-dangerous rushed mode, where I try to everything all at once, tomorrow, no, today!!
Instead of just focusing on the very next thing.
It's easy to forget the beauty of doing the very next thing. Of taking the exact right step.
(Hint: it's the one directly in front of us.)
What do I mean by filling the form? I mean taking the next small step instead of skipping ahead to a large one for which you may not yet be prepared. ...
This kind of look-at-the-big-picture thinking ignores the fact that a creative life is grounded on many, many small steps and very, very few large leaps. ...
Take one small daily action instead of indulging in the big questions. When we allow ourselves to wallow in the big questions, we fail to find the small answers.
It's those small answers that lead to small steps. Good steps. Down the path that we're meant to go.
This. Is. Hard.
Isn't it? I mean, I love the Internet and all, but it's also a massive window into how everyone else is doing, how they're working, how fast they're going. How successful it seems everyone else is—except us.
Know the feeling?
It's so easy for me to start thinking, "I've gotta catch up!" And then try to get in touch with my vision to, you know, motivate myself, to remember where I want to be, and then—
Let's not do that, my friends.
Yes, focusing small can sound too simple. Too unsexy.
But it's important to direct our gaze right down to our own amazing feet, to this place where we are standing, and to the next step.
That next step is our very best friend.
Because it's the one thing we can do right now that will take us in the right direction.
That's glamorous enough for me.
These three things—refilling our creative wells, monitoring our energy output, and focusing on the very next thing—can sound so basic, right?
But sustainability is a pretty humble thing, when you think about it. How's my intake? Where's my energy going? And how's my pace?
Drama comes when things crash and burn, when they skyrocket and then slam. I'm pretty okay with not having anymore of that kind of drama in my writing life.
Steadiness and sustainability sound a lot more lovely.
And I think that the more we build strength around these three things, the more dependable our writing energy will be, and the more solid our writing becomes.
And that's the path that's going to take us to some mighty fine places, my friends!
So, where are you at, today?
Can you take a few minutes and do three things:
1. Jot down a quick list of small actions that "refill the well" for you. Simple, pleasant things.
2. Think about your current load of commitments. What's one thing that you could say no to? Get your energy back!
3. With your current work-in-progress, what's the very next small step you can do? I'm talking like a five-minute step. Very simple, very small.
4. Deep breath. And then: what happens if you then do that small simple step? And then do whatever you need to in order to step back from that commitment? And then take a little time to refill the well?
Let's invite sustainability in. Point it to the best seat in the house and hand it a drink. Because this is something that we want to keep around for a long, long time.