Of Careers and Burnout
There’s a discussion on Twitter about careers and burnout, easily found with a search. Courtney Milan has many good points about the fact that when you overwork yourself, you are basically taking a loan that one day you’ll be forced to repay—mentally, physically, emotionally…possibly grammatically or ecumenically, as Jack Sparrow once said in Pirates of the Caribbean.
I recall a conference I attended pre-pandemic where women much younger than me were declaiming proudly as to how they happily stayed up all night writing after a full day of work, breastfed two babies at once, and were also training for a marathon. I exaggerate slightly, but only just. They were proud of how hard they could push themselves, making a pot of coffee after dinner that would keep them up so they could write. I know at least one of those writers ended up in the hospital as a result.
At the time, listening to my fellow writers, all I could do was clamp my lips shut and keep still. I remembered that enthusiasm well, that feeling of boundless energy. And I also remembered how discouraged I felt when people told me I couldn’t have children and write, or I needed to worry more about having “a real job” (because of course writing isn’t a real job). Discouragement is not something anyone needs. But I sometimes wish I could take those young women to a coffee time that was not meant to keep them up all night and tell them the great costs they might face if they continued down this path.
I knew I wanted to write when I nine years old. By the time I was in high school, it was virtually all I did except for attending martial arts school. I hardly associated with anyone in my high school, did none of the usual things people do then. I stayed in my corner and wrote. And I kept doing that for the most part even through college, with occasional brief forays into making friends, which often ended in disaster because I had no idea what I was doing.
In graduate school, it was worse and better in some ways because I was surrounded by nerds like me, but I still spent most of my time writing either academic work or the fantasy fiction I couldn’t seem to stop writing. And by the time I got my first "real job" in Hong Kong, my schedule was set—I would work all day at my office job and then write from 7pm until midnight every night.
I was getting essays published here and there, but my fiction was going nowhere fast. Still, I wrote and wrote and wrote. And the people who wanted to be with me put up with it and, in Hong Kong especially, even managed to pull me away from my desk a few times.
Fast forward to my first book contract. I’d been rejected for the book of my heart by a top editor who had held on to the manuscript for a year and a half (I had no agent) and then managed to get a 10-book work-for-hire contract on proposal all in the space of a few months. I knew work-for-hire was a big gamble, but there was lots of money behind this project and it would get me that oft-lauded “exposure” everyone talked about (and did it ever!) and I would finally be able to see my book on a shelf. I took the plunge.
By that time, I was in the US again and teaching 4 sections of Composition in the English Department at my alma mater. I had to produce a book a month. All I did was teach, grade, and write. I can remember frantically trying to finish the first book of the series and calling my new editor nearly in tears from a big writing conference, at which I spent most of my time furiously writing in my hotel room. I lost friends because I literally did not have time to talk to them, to hang out, or to assuage any hurt feelings they might have out of being neglected. I didn’t watch TV; I barely went out except to get groceries.
When the books started coming out, I went to every promo opportunity my publisher offered. I began to associate travel with work in the sense that every trip needed to have the dual purpose of promotion or work; there was no such thing as fun.
With all this going on, I barely considered how I should take care of my health. In Hong Kong, I’d started suffering back problems. Back in the States, stress was certainly not helping.
And then, my work-for-hire series was cancelled right in the middle. My new agents had refused to take out my new book on sub (yes, I’d managed to draft part of a new book) even though I won an award for “most publishable draft” of that year from SCBWI. I fired my agents and started an entirely new book.
It wasn’t until the following summer that I finished that book (The Unnaturalists) and then was able to get a new agent. In that time, my husband finished his graduate work and was asked to take on a project that required we move to the Outer Banks. I went gratefully, sure my writing career was finally taking off.
For another nine months, The Unnaturalists went through many rounds of submission and revision with several near-misses. I wasn’t writing fast enough or thinking on my feet. I just kept going over and over the same ground. We suffered in the recession terribly. I eventually had to find a dayjob and worked as a living history interpreter on an 1850s farm. I wrote in the evenings and on weekends. The only thing I did aside from that was volunteer as a sea turtle nest watcher, spending sleepless nights next to sea turtle nests to make sure the hatchlings didn’t get devoured before they made it to the ocean.
My first New York book contract finally came that summer. It felt somewhat anticlimactic. I’d had such high hopes for the book and while I was deeply grateful that it would be published, I also realized that the One Book that would set me up for life was never going to happen. (I should have known that already, but I just didn't want to let go of the fantasy).
A hurricane hit and it was then that my loan for all those years of sitting and stress came due. After a week of bending and stooping to clean up debris, I herniated the last disk in my spine. Thus began an odyssey of what felt like my entire body breaking down and much awfulness. Ultimately, I fled home to full-time employment while I waited to be seen by someone who could fix my back injury. In what felt like rapid succession, I went through major spinal surgery, then gallbladder removal the following year, a hysterectomy, and came right to the edge of needing foot surgery. I did copyedits for my first book on my back with a raging infection in my surgical site. I have no idea how I did it, except I had no choice.
I can remember sitting in the parking lot at my job talking to my agent on the phone and nearly weeping when she told me I’d eventually have to quit my job if I really wanted to write. I’d have to find a way to produce more. But we were in the process of adopting our first child; there was no way I could leave my dayjob. My second book sold on the wings of love for my first with my big publisher, and it was terrifying because I’d really had very little time to figure out what the next book was about. When it came time for a final draft in revisions, I went through a horrible spate of rewriting the book in rapid-fire succession three times over the span of a month—one weekend I stayed up 48 hours straight and re-wrote the last 40K words *again* all at one go.
Here's where the burnout comes in. Finally.
After that, I couldn’t write. I’d never believed in writer’s block but I had it…in spades. I couldn’t make words go. This went on for years, through new motherhood, job stress, and another adoption. It was like all the fantasy books where the mage burns herself out on her magic to the point where she never conjures again. I would try, but fear that I wasn’t hitting the market, that my work was irrelevant—all would come crashing down on me and I would delete everything I wrote. I decided that life couldn’t be all about writing; after all, writing had failed me. (I never considered that some of it—a lot of it?—was my own lack of business sense. Take business classes if you want to write commercially, people!)
In the time that I became a new mother and my writing seemed to have fled, I became increasingly mentally unstable. I was often suicidal (though I told no one this), considering very carefully how and when I would do it. Sometimes all the pain pills I’d hoarded from my surgeries seemed to glow and beckon from the medicine cabinet like uranium glass under a blacklight, gently urging me toward that final sleep.
One evening, I lay facedown on my bed and realized I was just done. Tired of fighting the depression and all the horrible things I couldn’t tell anyone. I also realized I didn’t have to keep fighting alone if I didn’t want to. I got help. I clawed my way back. I was lucky.
My body has never fully recovered from all the invasion and stress. I have never taken the time I needed to heal from any of these things, always forcing myself to work through it. The loan came due and I paid the price. With interest. And very nearly with my life.
One of the things I’ve learned only in the past few years is that it is absolutely ok, necessary even, to rest. I realize that rest can seem like a luxury. To some it will be, unfortunately. For those forced to work many shifts in a row and still chase their dream of writing, I feel your situation deeply. But I also beg you not to pursue your dreams at the expense of your health. If that means writing a little less per day so you can stretch, relax, nap, take a day off to do *absolutely nothing,* that is ok. Fifteen minutes of writing a day adds up. A day of writing every month adds up.
Don’t confuse speed with quality or productivity. Measure your productivity in terms of your health, your happiness, your joy in the process. These are things you can control and calibrate for, and truly, these are the things that matter most.
There is no reward for working so hard that you wreck your health and spirit. Harder work does not equal more recognition. Destroying yourself will not buy you the luck that you’re seeking. Ignoring life will not make you a better writer. I’ve learned all these things at great cost.
Hopefully, you won’t have to.