Dealing with Creative Burnout (I)

I once read an amazing quote while plumbing the depths of Tumblr. It stuck in my mind, and I tracked it down again today when I decided on the topic for this post.

‘There is literally nothing in nature that blooms all year long, so do not expect yourself to do so.’ – liryae, Tumblr

(I’m unsure where the quote originated from, so I’ve chosen to cite the user who posted the version I saw on Tumblr).

I find this a very useful idea, and when I feel overwhelmed by pressure and deadlines this quote tends to float back to the surface of my mind.

If you imagine a fruit tree, each year that tree goes through four distinct stages depending on the season. In spring, the tree begins to flower, and in summer, bears fruit. By autumn the fruit ripens and begins to drop to the ground, and then the tree lies dormant during winter. There is a time of productivity, and a time to rest and reflect.

In terms of writing, spring could symbolise the research stage, including the jotting down of ideas, the gathering of information, the creation of an outline, and the organisation of a work schedule to get the piece of work done by the deadline. Summer symbolises the drafting of the work, and autumn the editing stage. Winter therefore becomes a time to step away from the work and focus on other things, take a break from the piece of writing, so that you can return refreshed and ready in your next ‘spring’ to look at your work with new eyes.

There tends to be the assumption, and this could be applied to both postgraduate degrees as well as freelance and novel writing, that writers are expected to be able to produce perfect fruit year round, a thing impossible in nature. Freelance writers in particular are thought to be continuously ‘on’ and producing content, as they tend to work outside of the usual 9-5 full-time schedule of most jobs. Similarly, postgrad students and novelists are expected to continuously produce fruit in the form of drafts and papers, each of which must be better than the last to achieve a ‘perfect’ and complete harvest . (I’ll be addressing this idea of perfection and the damage it can cause in upcoming posts, drawing on my firsthand experience). This kind of pressure to continually produce work can lead to procrastination, self-doubt, anxiety, writer’s block/ paralysis, or even depression, resulting in creative burnout.

We tend to forget the importance of giving ourselves time to rest, reflect, and regroup before returning to the work at hand.

Of course, it can be difficult to grant ourselves that chance at a ‘winter’, particularly with the rolling deadlines of a freelance writer, or the looming and immovable deadline of a thesis or novel.

However, perhaps it can be as simple as re-organising the way that you work. I used to be able to work late at night, getting my best work done between the hours of 11pm – 3am. But because of my recent attempts to reset my body clock back to normal hours instead of ‘thesis’ hours, I can no longer work as late or as long without suffering for it. This affected my productivity, until I worked out the hours of the day when I was most productive. I found that I tend to work best in the morning, lose interest around lunchtime, and come back strong for a few hours in the afternoon. Working out when you are most productive, (which may take time and involve relapses into old working habits), allows you to cycle through each of your seasons without getting trapped in one for days or weeks on end.

This method could also be applied to a week or a month of work, rather than a day. Having five days on, two days off, for example, or a week for each ‘season’ each month. It can be a difficult transition to make, particularly for someone like me who took the whole undergraduate mindset of ‘doing it the night before’ and applied it to an 80 000 word doctoral thesis (spoiler: it doesn’t work). But given the choice between bingeing on a 12 000 word chapter draft the night before it’s due for my supervisor, and working out a schedule to break down that 12 000 words into a manageable size based on when I know I’m most productive, and when I’m most likely to procrastinate and dive headlong down the YouTube rabbit hole to avoid the work, I know which one is more natural.





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