Battling Creative Exhaustion—How to Refill the Well

Filed in Boost Creativity, When Writing Is Hard by on September 8, 2015 • views: 5981

Creative Exhaustion 2I had the great pleasure of meeting award-winning author Hannah Tinti at the Aspen Summer Words Conference in July.

I heard her speak on the final panel of the week, and then got a chance to have her sign my copy of her book, The Good Thief.

While she was signing, she made conversation with me, and it came up that I was a writer, and had a book releasing soon. I told her my publisher had asked for a marketing plan, and that I was a little nervous about stepping into the world of selling the book, which seemed so foreign to the world of writing it.

Did she have to be involved in marketing as well, I asked?

Most writers, she said—save perhaps the Pulitzer Prize winners—are required to market.

Then she told me something that has stayed with me ever since.

For everything I put out to market the book, she said, I should put something back in.

In other words, replenish the well, and do it frequently.

One of the things she does? Treats herself to a latte after a book signing.

We’ve all heard this advice before. We can’t continue to be productive and creative if we exhaust ourselves, or if we fail to restore our energy and our spirit. But somehow hearing it from someone I admire made me think about it a little more.

I mean, how often do we actually follow this advice?

And what price do we pay when we don’t?

Exhausted Writers Are Everywhere

George Orwell is credited as saying, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

Some writers may disagree with the word “horrible,” but most would probably admit to some exhaustion around the process of writing and editing a book to the point where it’s ready for publication. Add to that the many other tasks writers are expected to take on these days—maintaining a website, blog, social media, and getting out there to spread the word about their books—and it’s easy to see how we can quickly run out of steam.

This is dangerous, as it affects our work. “Writer fatigue,” as it’s often called, can cause writer’s block, weak writing, repetitive writing, and poor plots. Author Lynn Viehl of Paperback Writer agrees that the affliction is connected to today’s demands on authors:

“I think for writers it’s directly related to the current career demands like diving into social media, promoting our books as well as writing them, and the endless endurance marathons we run in order to please our publishers, compete with our peers and come up with consistent, quality work in order to stay in the game.”

The bad news? According to Viehl, the pressure never ends. So if you’re expecting it to change in the future, it’s time to re-evaluate that thinking.

“I’m going to be honest,” says Eva Lewis of The Multitasking Mummy. “I’m tired, I’m exhausted and I’m uninspired. I have writers block and can’t seem to get a decent word out or anything that jumps into my mind that I really want to write about like I usually do.”

If you need more evidence that writers everywhere are battling fatigue, just scan Google. You’ll see a myriad of articles giving advice on how to write when you’re fatigued, how to complete an article or essay when you don’t feel like it, and how writing when you’re tired is actually a good idea, creatively.

Here’s a good one: “7 Tips for Finding Blog Content: for the Exhausted or Brain Dead Writer.”

Freelance writer Sophia Dembling states what many of us often feel:

“My brain is tired. My work as a freelance writer requires a lot of thinking….For me, a tired brain actually kind of hurts, but it’s not like headache hurt. It almost feels congested; it’s a sort of dull ache.”

Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen calls it “writer’s anemia.”

“When you write, you are opening a spigot from your brain, pouring out memories and thoughts and dreams onto the page. Leave that spigot on too long, without refilling the source of your creativity, and what you get is a drained and exhausted writer.”

All right. So it’s common, maybe even in vogue, to be an exhausted writer. But is that just our fate, or is there something we can do about it?

How Many Writers Actually Give Back?

Hannah’s statement about “giving back” to ourselves struck me as particularly thought provoking in that moment as I realized I was talking to someone who actually does that, at least some of the time.

How many of us can say that’s true?

How many times have you consciously planned to do something to restore yourself after “putting out” for your writing?

My guess is that most of us do our writing, editing, marketing, signings, speaking engagements, social media-ing, and everything else on our to-do list, and then turn around to do the other things we’re required to do, for our jobs, our families, and our communities, with never a thought to how all of that is steadily emptying our well of energy and creativity.

We may not even notice the symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Writer’s block
  • Working on the same chapter or paragraph over and over again without making progress
  • Feeling writing is more of a chore than something we enjoy
  • Constant criticism of ourselves and our lack of productivity
  • Continuous negativity concerning our work, sales, reviews, etc.
  • Irritability
  • More colds, viral infections, aches and pains, and other health issues
  • Lack of creativity or originality in our work

We seem to imagine that the well is infinite, and will always be there for us to draw from, but for those who have experienced exhaustion, burn-out, nervous breakdowns, health problems, and the like, we know that’s not true.

If we want to stay healthy, creative, and productive—and what writer or artist doesn’t?—we must refill the well.

Great. So how do we do that?

Commit to What Restores You

I loved Hannah’s real-world application of self-restoration.

In essence, she was recommending that we make it a part of our everyday lives.

This is also the best advice when it comes to eating healthy, or exercising regularly, or reducing stress. Those that succeed in staying vibrant for decades do it by incorporating certain activities into their everyday routines.

They exercise every day. They make healthy food choices at every meal. They have regular meditation, yoga, or other stress-relieving practices.

I propose that writers add one more thing to their daily routine: a giving-back practice.

This one is a little different, though, in that you need to plan it to scale. For your regular daily writing practice, your give-back can be small, such as Hannah’s latte.

For a book launch, it should be a bit bigger—maybe a weekend getaway to a retreat.

I suggest you go beyond thinking about it, though, as something that would be “nice,” and actually commit to action.

Don’t Become Roadkill on the Writing Path

I’m in the middle of a book launch, and the editor for my next novel has asked for the edits to be completed within about six weeks, which is going to be a huge challenge for me.

So I’m going to be working on this myself.

To stay healthy, creative, and productive over the next about a month-and-a-half, I’m going to have to balance marketing, editing, my day job, symphony practice and performances (many coming up), and the other things in my life without completely losing it.

I know many other writers who are in the same boat.

No matter your situation, I invite you to join me, and make a list today of those things that restore you.

Which activities give you energy? Which help you relax? Which give you that blessed “brain dump” we need after working intensely?

Write them down, and commit to doing at least one a day; the bigger ones after the more challenging activities in your artistic career.

Don’t be a statistic. As Viehl says:

“The stress of trying to be-all and do-all as a professional writer inevitably and negatively affects the writer as well as the quality of their work, which tips over the seven dominoes of writer self-destruction via creative fatigue: exhaustion, paranoia, burn-out, depression, isolation, renunciation, and finally, tossing in the towel.”

Yes, some writers end up quitting because it all just becomes too much.

Don’t become one of those writers. Schedule restorative activities to follow all of those activities where you’re extending yourself in service to your writing.

12 Ways to Restore a Writer

Some ideas to help you get started:

  1. Rest. Just take a nap. (Read more about how naps can restore creativity.)
  2. Get away. Even just a day trip can be incredibly restorative. Go to a nearby small town and stay overnight. A weekend retreat is even better.
  3. See something new. Novelty really inspires creativity. Take a new route to work. Explore a new part of town on foot. Hike a new trail. Listen to some new music.
  4. Take a 24-communication break. Avoid phones, computers, tablets, and all gadgets for 24 hours. Just hide them away.
  5. Honor silence. Commit to a day of not talking. You’ll be amazed at how helpful this is!
  6. Recommit to your priorities. We all get caught up in doing everything. We must clean house, cook meals, update social media, spend extra hours at work, run errands for others, etc. Spending just 30 minutes re-evaluating your priorities—putting those that support your dreams first—can help you re-focus your efforts and create some space for regeneration.
  7. Cultivate your leisure time. This is vital. Schedule time for play. If you don’t put it into your schedule, it won’t happen, and play is one of the best ways to lighten up and feel better. Spend some time with friends, throw a ball around, go to the park, have a picnic, set up a game with the kids, etc. Let your inner child come out.
  8. Instead of working harder, work smarter. You’ve heard this one, but are you putting it into practice? How many of your daily activities are really creating results? Being “busy” doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re accomplishing what you want to accomplish. Choose those activities that give you the most bang for your buck. Will a signing at your local bookstore really help you sell books? Or would you be better off writing a guest post for a high-traffic blog?
  9. Get together with people you admire. You may have friends that are doing it right. If so, spend time with them. If not, consider going to a workshop or conference where you will interact with other writers who are succeeding at their work. You can get some great ideas and return with more energy for your own work.
  10. Don’t neglect your hobbies. What hobbies have you been neglecting lately? Is it time to take them up again? Even if you think you can’t possibly fit them into your busy schedule, I suggest you just try it. You may find that after restoring yourself this way, you can do your other work more efficiently.
  11. Set boundaries. Helping others is a wonderful thing, but you want to be sure that you’re not overextending yourself. Is it really necessary for you to do all the helping you’re doing right now? If you’re in the middle of creative fatigue or exhaustion, consider cutting back a bit, or ask others to pitch in. Don’t forget the power of the word, “No.”
  12. Shake it up. Where do you work? Could it use an update? How about some new furniture, paint, or tools? Even just turning your desk around or cleaning it off can give you that fresh feeling that can be restorative, at least for a few days.

Do you have other ideas for how to “give back” to yourself? Please share them with our readers.

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Comments (15)

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  1. James Rada says:

    Thanks, I think I’m feeling creative exhaustion now. I will have to try some of these ideas.

  2. Zoe says:

    Thanks for that really interesting article, I needed it.
    Although my business is thriving, I feel like I’m slowly slipping and losing control (and interest) in my everyday life. I just cleaned my desk and that already helped a little bit. I usually meditate once a day and try to exercise at least 3 times a week, but at the moment I don’t feel like that’s helping much, which then means I practice these things less regularly and that makes me even more frustrated and unsatisfied. It’s a vicious cycle.

    • Admin says:

      I know that feeling, Zoe. Sounds like maybe you need a new challenge? Or maybe just some rest? Sometimes a little time away can give you the perspective you need to figure out what’s going on. Wishing you rejuvenation soon so you can charge back into doing what you love.

  3. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Colleen. It’s all too easy to slip into the Eeyore POV (it’s a thankless job) in this business. We all need these reminders to take care of ourselves!

  4. Kim Church says:

    Thanks for this, Colleen — it came out exactly when I needed it. I’ve reread it twice already.

    • Colleen says:

      Oh wow. Thanks for telling me, Kim. I’m glad if it’s helpful. I’m needing to reread it myself this weekend! (ha)

  5. Chere Hagopian says:

    Great advice! And it applies to everyone, even non-writers. I find that prayer, journaling and reading replenish my energy and creativity. Those new coloring books for grown-ups are fun too! (I’m not much of an artist, but I can color with the best of them. ) Just talking to my husband or another friend helps as well. When I’m short on time, a latte definitely works for me.

  6. Lev Raphael says:

    I’ve often blogged and said that writers need a life that has nothing to do with writing. They have to have friends who don’t write so that they’re not constantly talking about either the craft or the business and they realize that the world does not revolve around publishing. Likewise they must have things in their live they love doing and are dedicated to that aren’t writing. I love to travel. I love to cook. I am taking voice lessons and I never want to write about how much they mean to me because turning this new joy into words might spoil it.

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Lev. Music gives me that joy away from writing too, though I find it also contributes to my creative work in other ways. A great way for me to refill the creative well. Good luck with the voice lessons!

  7. Karen Gowen says:

    I think I learned the value of restoring and replenishing myself with raising a large family. If I didn’t take the time to give back to myself, I’d have gone nuts. Many years ago a friend called me on the phone and my daughter answered, saying, “She’s taking a nap.” Later my friend said, “How do you get to take a nap, I never do!” That’s when I realized I was onto something!

  8. Thanks so much for quoting me in this article! The good news is that I have overcome my writers block. I’d definitely have to agree with taking a break as well as getting out and trying something new, that’s a sure fire way of sparking my inspiration again! I also find reading helps too.

  9. This is SO very true, Colleen! All writers–especially in today’s “social” world–ram into this wall. The “Don’t Become Roadkill on the Writing Path” made me laugh and almost cry at the same time. Love when something resonates like that 🙂
    There are just those times when we’re pushed to the limit, dry as a bone, and creativity flees to Brazil for the summer.
    I’ve been in such a time. My novel launches next week, and you know what that means . . . On top of all the crazy promotion, and more writing, and, and, and . . .
    So I’ve committed to that giving-back time for me this week. PBS is re-running the entire Ken Burns’ Civil War series, and I’ve carved out every evening this week to watch it. The best television that’s ever been, it so oddly restores my soul (through all the horror).
    So seeing this post today made me pat myself on the back!
    As always, I love your posts. Thank You!

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Susan! Love the comment “creativity flees to Brazil.” NOW I know where it went! (ha) So glad you’re scheduling some give-back time. I think the more we encourage each other to do so the more it will get done, I hope! :O)