From Helping Writers Become Authors:
In the ever-evolving landscape of the writing profession, where deadlines loom large and market trends shift like shadows, it’s not uncommon for writers to find themselves engulfed in the relentless flames of burnout. The business of writing, with its demands for marketability and strategic branding, can sometimes obscure the very essence of what drew us to the craft in the first place: the pure joy and passion for storytelling. If you’re feeling singed by the pressures of the business of writing, fear not. Amidst the ashes lie embers of creativity waiting to be rekindled.
At the end of 2023, as I sat down to consider what “lessons” I wanted to share in my annual New Year’s post, I found I had gleaned so many things from this busy, productive, and rewarding year that I couldn’t thematically contain them all in one post. The “official” New Year’s post I shared last month talked about what my experiences had shown me about living (and writing) Flat Arcs. What I didn’t get to talk about in that post were the many specific lessons I learned last year in rewiring my relationship to the business of writing.
Over the past few years, I’ve talked about the period of significant burnout I experienced beginning in 2016, which included nearly four years of writer’s block. I learned so much in working through these experiences and am happy to report recovery from both the burnout and the writer’s block. Something I haven’t talked much about yet is how this burnout shone a light on dysfunctional aspects of my relationship with the business side of writing.
A few months ago, I wrote about how my relationship to marketing has evolved, and last week I discussed some of the mindsets necessary for writers to succeed at marketing and business. Today, I want to go deeper and share six insights I received in 2023 that are helping me rewire my relationship with the business of writing into an experience that is not only sustainable but deeply rewarding, creative, and generative.
Why It’s So Easy for Writers to Get Burned Out on the Business of Writing
First, a little background. I began my career, rather unwittingly, sixteen years ago. I didn’t really intend writing or teaching about writing to be a career. I was a sheltered homeschooled stay-at-home daughter, and writing books and starting little online businesses was just the sort of thing we did back then. I loved writing stories, and I started a blog to help me sell those stories. That blog and the subsequent writing-craft books I published became a huge adventure all their own, and before I knew it, I was earning enough to call myself a full-time writer.
I never had a real business plan beyond seizing the opportunities and proving to myself that being a self-published author at the inception of the indie boom was legit. I also had no clue what I was getting myself into. I wasn’t aware of what “joyful marketing” coach Simone Grace Seol talks about on her podcast as “The Three Stages of Growth“:
1. Creation (when you’re writing the book, building the business, etc.)
2. Acclimation (when you’re adjusting to the new identity of success)
3. Acceleration (when you’re taking everything you’ve learned and going 2.0)
I was good at creation and acceleration, but I had zero awareness or skill when it came to acclimation. To repeat Seol’s excellent insight:
So many of us think that hitting the goal is going to be the best thing ever, but then we realize that once we do hit the ambitious goal it starts to feel really, really scary and anxious, and we just kind of have a meltdown a lot of the times…. The pain of acclimation … is that now that you’ve created the thing that you wanted to create, now that you achieved the goal, now you have to get used to … being somebody who has that as part of her reality.
By the time 2016—that massive epoch in my life—arrived on the wings of a huge personal crisis, my relationship with my business was already significantly dysfunctional and unsustainable. The work I was doing to earn money was becoming increasingly disconnected from my creativity. I was making choices based on what I thought I “should” do or what would be most lucrative, versus what really excited me or aligned with my own values. As a result, I was suffering major anxiety attacks almost every time I opened my email. I lived in fear of criticism, and I was constantly chasing after some elusive idea of success that would slay my raging imposter syndrome.
Then when personal crisis hit, I very nearly gave up on the business of writing altogether. For several years, I cut back drastically on almost everything I was doing. I spent the next eight years (and counting!) getting real with myself about the patterns and beliefs that had caused me to create such dysfunction in my relationship with my business (among other areas of my life).
6 Insights to Rewire How You Relate to the Business of Writing
Now my experience may be extreme, and many writers will never reach this level of burnout. My situation was also ultimately founded upon and catalyzed by belief systems, relationships, and events that had nothing to do with my writing or my business. However, over the past years as I have discussed various aspects of my experiences and how they have taught me to heal and grow, I have received so many emails from so many of you who are able to relate on one level or another.
From my vantage point, I see how my struggles are ones so many writers also get tangled up in and, ultimately, for the same reason: because we don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into and because we aren’t taught how to create functional operating systems for the business side of writing. I spoke about some of the culprit misconceptions in last week’s post about why marketing is hard for writers. Today, I want to share some of the lessons I have been learning these past years that have changed my life.
I believe these things need to be normalized and talked about more in writing communities. They shouldn’t frighten anyone away from achieving as much success with their writing as is humanly possible. Rather, they should act as cautionary road markers to help us make decisions that arise from our own deepest alignment and health, rather than in response to some external guideline of what we’re “supposed to be doing” or what being a career writer is “supposed to look like.”
So today, let’s explore these six invaluable insights to rediscover the joy and passion that initially set our writerly souls ablaze!
1. Balance Speaking Up and Setting Boundaries Online
Okay… so imagine a long pause between this sentence and the one before it, because I’ve been sitting here for several minutes, trying to find the words to express something that still feels surprisingly vulnerable. And I suppose that’s the whole point of this first insight. Living as a writer means being willing to speak and to write from a deeply vulnerable and authentic place and then to face the potential criticism and judgement of the world.
It is crucial for writers to be able to create protective boundaries. This, however, is easier said than done. You can stop reading reviews on Amazon, but if you intend to continue with a blog or a social media presence, you can’t close your eyes to what followers are saying. Every day there is the opportunity to run across something someone is saying about you that feels triggering.
Ultimately, the boundaries must be created within ourselves. The only things that trigger us are those that already live within us. At its simplest, if someone says “you’re a bad writer” and it stings, it’s because you believe it at some level. More insidious, however, is the adjacent belief that this someone out there in Internet-land—who is probably someone you don’t know, will never hear from again, and whose own expertise is unproven—deserves to tell you how to live your life.
I was struck by how deep this belief had been ingrained in me when I was working through ways to create boundaries that would keep out unwanted criticism. The thought that arose was, But if I’m wrong, I should be criticized! Whoa. That stopped me short. For me, the unconscious belief was that I deserved any and all criticism that any random person with a random agenda wanted to sling at me. The countering belief I had to find was that I deserved to protect myself and I deserved to choose for myself whose advice I listened to based on my own value system.
2. Stay Connected to Your Own Authority
Boundaries are an external protection system. They are walls erected to keep danger out of our homes. But boundaries are not unbreachable. If an external boundary is our only defense, we’re ultimately doomed. It is important to reach down deep inside and find the strength of our own individual authority.
It’s like that old saying:
If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.
But this, too, can be externalized. When we project authority onto something else, it is often in the belief that if we just follow that person, system, or thing, we’ll be just fine. We often do this unconsciously, not realizing we are identifying with this thing less because we align it with it and more because we derive a sense of approval and protection from it (even and sometimes especially if opposing groups offer resistance).
What I have learned for myself is that the only way to access true strength is to reach deep inside and find one’s own. There is no substitute. This is not easy. Accessing that strength and that ability to hold authority over one’s self often requires digging through all sorts of layers of unsafety in one’s programming. It also requires a radical claiming of personal responsibility and accountability—because now there is nothing else on which to shade blame.
For me, learning to recognize what is happening energetically when I abandon my authority to someone or something else has been a gamechanger in rewiring my ability to hold my own center when triggered and, just as importantly, to find the strength and self-worth to set boundaries unapologetically. Abandoning my own authority often makes me feel physically sick, including intense pressure in my head and neck. When this happens, I have learned to relax my throat and neck, to bring attention back to my solar plexus, and to focus on the crown of my head. I imagine a straight pole of light aligning my body from above the top of my head to below the bottom of my feet. With practice, holding this inner posture of authority becomes easier and easier. The tendency to feel sick in the presence of someone else’s negative opinion grows less, and the capacity for showing up with more authenticity, truth, and conviction echoes a quote that has been one of my favorites from childhood:
I speak the truth not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little more as I grow older.–Catherine Drinker Bowen
Link to the rest at Helping Writers Become Authors
PG is certain he’s not the only one who has watched hard-working indie authors burn themselves out by going faster and faster in writing and promoting their work. Each new book brings a bump in revenue, but, in the nature of things, fans can read books much faster than an author can write them.
Since most indie authors are doing everything for their book business, writing and promoting are competing for the author’s time. Deciding which is the best use of the author’s time may solve the author’s dilemma today, but the decision likely needs to be faced again tomorrow. Or next week.
Some authors can wake their muse easily, but, for others, the muse must be regenerated or rediscovered or reconstructed. Getting today’s muse firmly connected with yesterday’s muse can also take some work.
For any who think these challenges are a reason to choose the path of traditional publishing, PG notes that traditional publishing has its own creative and emotional burdens for the author. The author typically doesn’t know what’s going on with her book, whether the people doing whatever they are doing in connection with the book are as committed to the book as the author is or just going through the motions using outmoded practices, watching the clock to decide when they can go home without causing other people in the office to doubt their work ethic and commitment and wondering if they can find a better job somewhere else.