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Burnout, creativity, and the tyranny of production schedules

21 February 2016

From author Elizabeth Bear via Charlie’s Diary:

Hey guys: Elizabeth Bear here, and I’m stopping by to talk about how even jobs we love can make us sick if we do them for too long without a break and with the wrong kind of rewards systems.

I know, because after fourteen years of working flat-out at my writing career, I’m taking a break. And it’s not entirely by choice.

Between life stress and overwork, I hit a wall at the end of last year. I’ve been struggling with actually accomplishing my job for a while–hating to sit down at the computer, being avoidant, generally feeling not so much blocked as if every word was being taken off my hide with a potato peeler. I started feeling this way back in about 2007, a situation which I think is linked both to a bad reaction to an OTC medication that made me profoundly depressed for about four months, before I figured out what the problem was, and also my internalization of some criticism at a peer workshop I attended.

. . . .

Somewhere in the process, though, writing went from being something fun–the job I’d always wanted–to a real misery, a thing I avoided and dreaded. I became hypercritical of my own work, and nothing I did was ever good enough. I’d gotten into the habit, in other words, of kicking myself over basically every element of my work and holding it to impossible standards. I figured if I just kept writing I would get through the stuck, and everything would be fine again.

Nine years later, I realized that Things Were Not Going So Well, and were in fact getting worse. I’ve been producing good work–my critical record speaks for itself–but I was incapable of identifying it as good work.I was disappointed in all of it, and no matter how hard I worked or how much I produced it never quite felt like enough. I started having clinical anxiety symptoms, and when a bunch of real-life stress including family illnesses showed up, I didn’t have the spoons to cope with work and family and various other issues.

. . . .

The other thing I’m doing, which I think is probably even more important than a little rest and taking the pressure off, is that I’m rewarding myself for work. This is the thing about mammals, right? If you punish us for a thing, we will avoid doing that thing in the future, and react to being forced to do it with anxiety and distress. But if you reward us for doing it, then we anticipate the opportunity to perform the task and get rewarded.

Link to the rest at Charlie’s Diary

Here’s a link to Elizabeth Bear’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

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6 Comments to “Burnout, creativity, and the tyranny of production schedules”

  1. Not to belittle her issue, but I wonder if she’s read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. It’s a must-read for anyone creative struggling to get their work done.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Elizabeth. I love writing, but it can be a struggle sometimes to accomplish work day in and day out. A little R&R is necessary sometimes. I can also sympathize with the danger of internalizing peer criticism. I get inured to rejections from editors, because that’s just part of the game – but when peers don’t offer support, it can hurt.

  3. She might be struggling for words but I loved that potato peeler metaphor.

  4. By coincidence, I’ve been looking through Writer’s Digest and there was a profile of Patrick Rothfuss, a fantasy writer who I think started about the same time as Bear (mid-2006, perhaps?)

    During that time, according to Wikipedia, she’d written about 20 novels, three co-written, plus numerous short stories and novellas.

    He wrote two books and a few stories.

    A massive disparity in output (he mentions in his story that he does about a hundred drafts of a book).

    Just goes to show how different writers can work.

    • Patrick Rothfuss is a notorious reviser. He wants every book of his to “shine like a blue diamond”. The current book he’s revising was on its third draft 6 years ago. His readership is in the millions and he doesn’t need to release every year or more frequently.
      Although it’s interesting to note that if he was less successful, his publisher would have said the book was done and it would have been released years ago.

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