How to Dodge Burnout in Your Writing Life Before It Even Comes Close

The trick about being your own writing boss is that... so many things can go wrong! Here's one way to keep the peace, negotiate through difficulties, and stay on course, before you ever have a chance to burn out. Sound good? Bring some paper, and let's get started. |

One of the most freeing, and most daunting, pieces of my writing life is simply this: I am my own boss.

It means that my degree of contentment, fulfillment, and happiness in my job is basically up to me

Which is completely wonderful and a bit frightening, at the same time. 

It also means that when something goes wrong in my writing life or writing process, it's up to me to figure out what happened. 

"EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE," is how I used to respond.

Which is a very accurate feeling. But a really unhelpful diagnosis.

But if we're all being our own bosses (which we totally are), and if we're going to do amazing things in 2016 (which HECK YES we are!!), then we need to learn how to discover what goes wrong in our writing lives. 

And figure out how to fix it. And get it going again.

And just to clarify: I'm not talking about what's gone wrong in our novels, though of course that's also our job to unravel.

I'm talking about what happens when the whole darn writing life rolls over and sticks its feet in the air. Or, when its engine won't start and the radio won't either.

Or whatever other metaphor feels right to you.

If our goals are going to happen, then we need to know what to do to make sure our writing life is working well, all systems go, everything healthy. 

One of the ways that I run my own self diagnostic is by thinking of myself as a team.

Yes, I know that can be a little weird, but stick with me here. If you're working for yourself, if you're working alone, you're still managing a team's worth of jobs, right? 

It's just you, but you're performing all the different tasks, fulfilling half a dozen roles. You're the one doing all the things.


The way I think about it, the Writing Team of Me breaks into these roles:

  • Chief Executive Officer: She's the general manager of everything. She plans for the long-haul. She has her eyes on a career that will span decades and reach great heights. She's extremely ambitious, but also has a strong administrative focus. She manages all the other members of the team as well, and brings them in line with her vision for the career.
  • Chief Creative Officer: She's the "idea girl." She manages the entire imagination matrix and generates the big gooey ideas that turn into novels, as well as the smaller ideas that illuminate scenes and blog posts and other little projects. She manages the overall creative vision, as well as the flavor of everything the team produces. She animates and signs off on every bit of work we do around here.
  • The Staff Writers: They take everything from the CEO and the CCO and turn it into words, words, words. These are the draft monkeys, the paragraph producers. They're super hard workers, but they like to have a good time whenever possible. 
  • The Editor: She works closely with the staff writers. Sometimes she gets overexcited and tries to interfere too soon, so they stick her in the hallway with a thesaurus and a knitting project. But when managed well, she's an essential part of the team. She cleans up all sentences, adjusts flow of content, and does all proofreading tasks. (She hates how often the staff writers stick "words" like kinda and gotta into this blog. She can be somewhat mollified by gin. Don't tell her we know that.)
  • Public Relations Manager: She's our social media guru! She's overflowing with ideas for ways to get our words out there, meet the team's ideal audience, find out what that audience wants, and then give it to them! She's highly caffeinated and absolutely adores the Internet. If her doctor would allow it, she'd never sleep.
  • The Intern/Administrative Assistant: She's the catch-all girl, filling in all the gaps, doing what no one else seems to remember to do. She makes the coffee, cleans the junk out of the office area, purges file folders, makes sure all the tools and equipment run smoothly. She dashes out to grab office supplies, does preliminary research on projects, and performs assorted janitorial duties (bless her heart!). 

... Annnd that's my team. (We're interviewing a Publisher and an Accountant, because, you know, 2016 is when Everything Happens. But that's still down the road a teeny bit.)

Your team might look and feel a little different—you might have more roles, or less. More vivacious personalities or quieter ones.

The point is: We're embodying a variety of roles as writers, every day, every week. And I think it can be incredibly valuable to take some time and figure out: What does that particular role need? What is it missing? 

This is a great way to sift through the overwhelming feeling of "something's wrong," or "something could be running better." Or even, to avoid burnout and deep neglect before they even happen.

(Which is part of being a really stellar boss, by the way.)

What would happen if you had an interview with each member of your team? 

Yeah, I know. It's a little bit weird. But we're writers: we can get away with weird. Treat it like a freewriting exercise, and just see what happens. (It could be really cool.)

If you're up for it: Grab a blank notebook, or pull up a clean document on your computer.

Figure out who your team is, and what the general idea is behind each role. (If you don't know where to start, you can borrow my team's descriptions. I promise that they won't mind.)

When you have a clear-ish idea about which is which, ask each team member these questions, and then listen as they tell you. Take notes, jot down exact things that they say, and try to follow each thought further. 

Ready? Here goes: 

1) What is going really well in your job right now? What are you really happy with?

2) What is not going well? Where are you most frustrated?

3) Where do you feel like the rest of the team is asking too much of you? Do you feel undervalued?

4) What would you need so that you could do your job really, really well? (I.e., tools, more learning, celebration, extra support, assistance, time off, more time with a certain project, free time for brainstorming...)

5) What would make the environment you work in (the tools you use, the space you occupy, the sounds you hear) the best place for you to work?

6) Is there anything else you want to tell me? 

Okay. Maybe that felt a little hokey. Or maybe you realized something about how you work. 

For me, running through this exercise always amazes me, because it helps me realize how much I'm doing. It helps me respect each member of my team that much more. 

It makes me more patient, less demanding. I become more flexible with assigning deadlines, and more quick to add in support. 

What about you? What did you discover?

If we forget how many different roles we're doing, and how many different angles we're working from, we can feel at odds with ourselves.

And our whole team will wind up being understaffed and malnourished.

The goal of this experiment is to find a happy balance where each member of your team is satisfied. Where all their needs are met, and where each is operating out of their best possible environment.

That's an exciting thought, right? 

So don't be afraid to experiment a bit. And to recalibrate how you work until you get to that place.

Adjust a few things, see how everyone on your team feels, and then make new adjustments. 

Because if we can figure out how to do that, we're on our way to having a writing practice that runs incredibly well, that meets its goals, and does it all without killing us. 

Which sounds GREAT to me. 

And the rest of 2016? Pffft. No worries.

We'll climb those big mountains. Tackle those enormous goals.

We'll have our whole team striding forward together—and we'll be unstoppable.

If you want to dive deeper into creative self-management, you've gotta check out: Making Ideas Happen, by Scott Belsky, and Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon. They're keepers.