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Besting Burnout

This past Friday I finished chapter 20 of 28 in my cozy mystery, which means I'm only one chapter shy of being three-quarters done!

I'm making progress slowly but surely. Monday through Friday, I wake up between 5 and 6 am to bundle up in my warmest pajamas, have my tea and peanut butter toast, and write for a few hours. Then it's time to get dressed and plow through the snow to work. I get home between 6 and 7 pm and have just enough energy left to eat dinner and shower before I collapse.

By the end of the week I'm a zombie. On Saturday mornings, I tell myself I "should" open up Word and get cracking. But I can't bring myself to do much of anything other than throw the laundry into the machines and nap. And drink a lot of cranberry ginger ale and Candy Cane Lane tea. And nap some more.

I've come to think of this as a good thing.

At both my workplace and in the virtual world of writers, I'm surrounded by workaholics. The librarian in the office next to mine is currently pursuing her PhD, teaching credit classes on Saturdays, and working at the public library on Sundays. It seems every successful writer, when asked for advice on how to succeed, will inevitably say, "You have to think of writing as a job. Whether you feel like it or not, you just have to glue your behind to that chair and crank out the words. Every single day. No days off." That vulgar Americanism, "weekend," is not in the vocabulary of any of my colleagues.

I used to be like that too. In high school, I would lock myself up with my textbooks and study all weekend. When I wasn't studying, I was practicing my flute or running up mountains. I felt the need to accomplish things every second of every hour of every day.

Then I moved to Indiana and met Sweetie. He put a game controller in my hand and said, "Try it. It's fun."

I said, "Fun? What is this 'fun' of which you speak?"

I've since learned that pushing yourself to accomplish things all day, every day is a bad idea for several reasons. For one, stressing yourself out all the time is bad for your health. For another, rushing through life with a hyper-competitive, must-write-a-million-books-before-I-die mentality severely limits your worldview. If you do nothing but glue your behind to a chair and crank out words every day, you'll quickly run out of thoughts worth writing. And eventually, you're going to burn out.

Below is the definition of "burnout" from an article in Psychology Today.

Burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to:

  • physical and emotional exhaustion
  • cynicism and detachment
  • feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

I've watched burnout settle like dark clouds of cynicism over several promising series. The first book or two would be vibrant and fascinating. Then as the authors pushed out more books, the protagonists become less likeable. The voices become less engaging. Reviewers started complaining, "I loved this author's other books and I was so excited when this one came out, but I couldn't get into it. The heroine just cries all the time and she's mean to people for no reason."

To a cozy mystery writer, cynicism is the kiss of death. Cozy fans don't want to read books by Debbie Downers. They can tell when an author's heart isn't into her work, when she doesn't love or even know her characters anymore, and when she starts rambling about whatever just to get the stupid thing done.

Just like it's a singer's professional responsibility to take care of her voice, and an athlete's responsibility to take care of her muscles, it's a cozy mystery writer's responsibility to take care of her psyche. In order to write books that make people happy, we have to maintain happy outlooks on life.

I'm not a psychologist or an Elizabeth Gilbert, but here are the little tricks I use to cope with the pressures of working full-time as a systems librarian, juggling contract web development projects, and trying to make a name for myself in fiction writing.

1. Schedule "not writing" time.

I often see people advise, "You have to schedule time to write and stick to it." I haven't yet seen anyone say, "And it's equally important to schedule time to not write."

On the Saturdays I wake up and don't feel like writing, I make other concrete plans. I tell Sweetie, "Today I'm going to go shopping, and then we're going to have teriyaki burgers, and then I'm going to bake a cheesecake and watch Korean dramas." And I promise myself not to feel guilty about any of it.

Early last week, Sweetie asked for a block of time on Saturday to put up the Christmas tree. So I committed myself to a Not Writing Day dedicated to holiday preparations.

Christmas Tree 2016

We bought this tree in my sophomore year of college from a dying Kmart. Miraculously, this teetering hunk of plastic has survived nine years of Christmases, a cross-country move, and multiple attacks by a badly behaved cat.

I baked pumpkin scones for our afternoon snack, and then I spent the rest of the day on Not Writing Commitment #2, making treats for a holiday party at work next Wednesday. The college mascot is the bobcat, so I used a paw-print-shaped mold to make red and green candies with a dark chocolate filling. I call them "Bobcat Bites."

Bobcat Bites

2. Take full advantage of your "not writing" time.

When people yo-yo diet, they go through cycles of overly restrictive periods followed by fits of binging. When binging, they don't savor treats they genuinely enjoy. They instead stuff themselves with a ton of cheap junk food they hardly taste and don't even like, as a way of punishing themselves. Celebrating at a restaurant with family, they'll refuse even a small forkful of the decadent chocolate lava cake. Then at home, they'll inhale a whole box of stale animal crackers.

Similarly, when I was a Type A overachiever, I'd allow myself only a kind of "junk happiness." Whenever I "slacked off" or "procrastinated," I'd do things that weren't even fun. I'd zone out to aggravating TV shows, or I'd waste hours reading boring magazine articles about how I've been painting my nails the wrong way all this time.

Now if a show doesn't interest me, I stop watching it. If a book or magazine doesn't make me happy, I stop reading it. I try to choose activities I really enjoy and wring every drop of happiness out of my downtime.

3. Know your limits, and stop pushing when you meet them.

It's true that in order to finish a book, there are days you have to sit down and write when you're just not into it. But there are also days when pushing yourself to write will do more harm than good.

Here's what Sweetie and I always ask each other when we're undecided about doing something: "If you don't do this, will you regret it?"

If I don't feel like writing in the morning, I ask myself whether I'll regret skipping that day. Usually the answer is yes. I know if I don't write, I'll feel empty and disappointed in myself when it comes time to go to work. But on some days, the answer is no, I won't regret skipping at all. I'll be more relaxed and content if I do something else. Those are the days I know I shouldn't force myself.

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