by Meg Dowell
Creativity is, in many ways, like magic. We start crafting something out of nothing and, suddenly, the whole world looks and feels different. We can do anything. We can BE anything.
This line of thinking has its downsides. It implies that, because we are creative, because we have moments when we feel invincible and unstoppable, we don’t need to slow down. We don’t need to rest. And this just isn’t the case. I’ve learned that the hard way. Perhaps you have, too, and that’s why you’re here.
The problem with flow states, with seemingly limitless creative energy, is that we are not limitless at all. And we forget, in the midst of feeling like we could write our way to a lifelong stretch of happiness right here, right now, that we can’t keep going nonstop forever. There is this fear, somewhere deep within us, that if we stop, we won’t ever be able to get back to where we are. As if we are at the highest peak we have ever been, and ever will be.
That refusal to stop before our brains and bodies force us to stop is what ultimately burns us out. And the more consistently we push ourselves through this cycle of working until we can’t, struggling to get back on our feet and working again makes it harder and harder to get back into a rhythm each time we fall out of it.
You’ve noticed by now that this post is not titled “how to avoid burning out as a writer.” That’s because the solution is simple, or at least I’ve found it to be: learn to set limits. Don’t just give yourself a minimum word count goal: give yourself a maximum, too. Don’t work seven days a week. Don’t take on more writing projects just because you think it will be better for your career in the long run.
I’ve made, and still make, all these mistakes. The thing is, no one else can fix this problem for you. Articles about motivation and inspiration and productivity are “in” right now, and honestly, I don’t think there’s an article that’s really going to help you learn how much you can handle. That’s all trial and error. You have to test that out for yourself. I used to be able to write thousands of words every day and I felt fine. But I forget that when I did that, I didn’t have other responsibilities. I can’t do that anymore. Accepting that is part of me defining my own limitations. I cannot afford to feel constantly burned out anymore. I can’t. And neither can you.
If I’ve learned anything from my experiences with this, it’s that whatever you are working on – it will still be there later. It isn’t going to disappear. You may not physically or mentally be able to work on it right now, but that does not mean you will not be able to return to it when you can. There are times we can and should push through our exhaustion, and there are times we can’t, and shouldn’t. How do you tell the difference? By paying attention. By following up “I don’t want to write this” with “is it because I’m just worn out?” By letting yourself stop and take a break, for goodness sake. Writers are not superhumans. They don’t have to be. They shouldn’t be.
Take care of yourself, all right? I’ll take better care of myself too. It’s OKAY to take a step back. Don’t be afraid of it. Learn to embrace it.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.