At the end of last year, I graduated from my MFA program with a degree in Creative Writing and a very small collection of short stories. I felt a great sense of pride at holding my manuscript and knowing that I created something out of nothing. I also felt anxiety. What would I do next? I had no clue. All I knew was it had to be bigger and better. From January to June, I had two false starts on a novel, a break-up, and a mental break from reality. Writing was pushed to the bottom of the to-do list and it was starting to seep through the cracks.
I am not the person who says: “Push through the burnout, write anyway.” This essay is not about telling you how or when to push through the burnout. This is telling you when to walk away. Even though it feels wrong and bad. I don’t like quitting. But project burnout is common, especially amongst writers. When tackling a big project, it’s easy to start on that big burst of enthusiastic energy that comes with the conception of an idea. Your heart beats faster, your confidence soars, and, if you’re like me, you feel invincible.
That energy fizzles out quickly. But sometimes it’s more than just a loss of energy. Sometimes, it’s the timely death of an idea.
On the third start of the novel project, I was happily plugging away at the first few chapters and research when I saw on the web that someone had just released a book with a similar theme and story. I not only panicked, but I was pretty angry, too. I felt like something was stolen from me. After a phone call to a writer friend who talked me off the ledge — and gave me a cold hard dose of reality that I am not always going to be a unique butterfly — I went back to writing it. After all, this story was still my story.
I wrote, but the love was gone. This didn’t feel like energy burnout, it felt like a void. A black hole with little or no emotion. I worked on essays and short stories in the time between writing the first few chapters. (I write very slowly.) But my energy faded whenever I went back to the novel. At that point, I did what I usually do when I am confused, anxious, mad etc.: I froze. I refused to move until I figured out where I was with all of my projects, in my head or in my heart. Or, as it turned out, no longer in either.
The novel was dead. It wasn’t about struggling with the words, or trying to clue in on my character’s voice. It was just dead. There were no voices, no motivation, nothing. I made the extremely difficult decision to move on. I figured that I had very little time, in writing and in life, to keep dwelling on things that were not making me happy. And despite how much work writing is, on some level it has to make you happy. That’s why we return to it again and again. It fuels that drive to create and to see something through to the end.
I am still new to the game. I am finding my way. The same questions persist: Am I doing this right? Did I give enough to this project? Is there something seriously wrong with me? We all want to project the illusion that we’re chronically productive. But we’re not. I’m not. I have to concentrate on what speaks to me and when I find that, I go all in.
When I was in a writer’s workshop this past July, I met with my workshop leader. We went through all of my stories and discussed what needed work. I told him that I wanted to work on a novel but I didn’t want to abandon my stories. I asked if any of them were viable to extend into a longer piece of work. We decided that a set of four linked stories in the collection would be a good place to start.
I felt that spark then, as if a new project was being brought forth. Right away, I was tapped on the shoulder by that bitch, doubt: Will you finish this project? Will you love it enough?
Doubt is different from death. The former needs to be pushed past. I have to trust myself. I have to say yes. I have to tell that bitch to fuck off. So I’m laying out a road map for the story and teaming up with a buddy to be accountable to daily. I am giving myself a start date in November; it’s my birthday month and there is nothing like the annual reminder of my mortality as a motivator.
I can’t tell you how to distinguish between doubt and death. I don’t encourage anybody to give up willy nilly on any endeavor, but I encourage passion. On that note, I will leave you with this piece of nerdy wisdom:
All writers are like Time Lords. We each have two hearts. There is our writer’s heart and our normal heart. One sustains the other. Love what you do, even when it’s difficult. Just make sure that you really do love it.