On Author Burnout

This morning’s lively Twitter conversation (sparked by the Most Excellent Jaye Wellsblog post on author burnout) spurs me to expand on my thoughts a bit more.

 

And judging from all the reactions I’ve seen on Twitter, Jaye’s post really touched a very timely and raw nerve amongst us writers. It was a thing I think we all needed to talk about, so thank you, Jaye!

 

I actually started a blog about this the other day when a mom said to me rather breathlessly at pickup, “I heard about what you do.”

 

I tilted my head, “Writing, you mean?” Because I couldn’t imagine it would be anything else. (Did she know my daughter is a superhero secretly masquerading as a preschooler by day?)

 

“Yes,” she said, “it must be a dream come true.”

 

I immediately jerked my thumb toward my dayjob office building. “Well…I still have a dayjob.”

 

“Yes, but…you write books.”

 

In two seconds, I realized that the conversation was making me snarly and that she didn’t deserve my snarlyness. I wanted to shout at her that yes, I thoroughly enjoyed having to work two jobs, be a wife and mother, and try to write books. Yes, I thoroughly enjoy only getting 4 hours of sleep most nights—5 if I’m lucky—because I’m working on a book. I thoroughly enjoy having my books rejected, my books torrented, or people asking me why I’m not on the NYT list yet. I love it when people won’t allow me to teach despite my MFA and teaching experience (and award-winning books!) because I write genre books, and genre books are not “art” and fantasy is for children. I love having to pass up writing events because of my family, and I love having to pass up family things for writing. I love watching seemingly everyone else be successful at the thing I most want in the world while I am desperately trying to sweep together the shattered pieces of my career on the sidelines.

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Thankfully, I bit my lip, picked up my child, and hugged her hard instead of spewing all that filth.

 

Because that’s what it was. Absolute, wretched filth. The stuff of poison that had been festering too long. The sludge that accumulates when you are burned out on trying, and haven’t done much self-examination lately.

 

I can remember as a young writer desperately wanting behind the curtain of publishing. Wanting to know what being a writer meant. What I thought success meant. What was back there, wanting to be in the Green Room with all those other people. That Green Room, as Sherman Alexie pointed out a few months ago when he visited us here at Virginia Tech, is pretty damn sweet. I’ve only seen flashes, small forays into Fairyland. But now that I’ve gotten a peek, sometimes (also like Fairyland) it ain’t so pretty. The rest of the world doesn’t know much about it (though they know more now. Thank you, Internet.), and probably doesn’t need to.

 

The other mom was reminding me, “Being able to write fiction is a dream come true.” Yes it is. Full stop.

 

The alchemy of creating eludes most people, just like the inner workings of publishing. To them, it surely all must seem like magic. And it is a kind of magic—what we do. I have never become methodical or deliberate enough to describe it any other way. (But that’s another blog post).

 

I don’t need to know why the characters whisper to me in the night. Why a certain phrase will spin out into its own story. Why a picture will start telling me the story of how that land came to be. Why landscapes create scaffolds for new magical landscapes in my head. Why words, images, feelings, songs—all interleave together into some delicate framework to create the thing that eventually solidifies on the page.

 

I long ago accepted I was put on this Earth to tell stories. I don’t really need to know why.

 

But I also, at some point, had to realize that I was slowly being poisoned by my own attachment to what I thought being a writer meant. What I thought success meant.

 

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After a long fallow period, I am crawling my way back to a finished draft of a novel. Prior to this, I went through several health problems back to back that made writing difficult, if not impossible. I tapped myself completely out at the end of 2012/beginning of 2013, and have been unable write anything longer than a short story or novella for the last few years. Oh, I would start working furiously on something, but then I would lose confidence and faith, and burn it to a pile of ash on the altar of my hopes.

 

It was this that made me realize two things: I had sacrificed everything for dreams and desires that, for whatever reason, were eluding me. I had forgotten what it meant to participate in the pure joy of creation.

I had delayed becoming a mother until I was biologically incapable, and very nearly did not choose motherhood because I feared that my writing would suffer. I also realized I had given up every other thing I loved—making art, knitting, cooking, gardening, martial arts. I put off learning new things, like beekeeping. When I returned to a full-time dayjob and once I recovered from major back surgery, I decided I would no longer defer all these other dreams.

 

Perhaps not surprisingly to the more mature authors in the (Green) room, I started feeling like I wanted to write again at the end of my maternity leave. It wasn’t easy with my daughter that first year—adopting a toddler is indeed like going from 0 to 60—but despite all the warnings that I would not be able to write with children, that I should not, I felt what I had not in a long time. I wanted to write. I wanted to make words and worlds again.

 

That’s where I am. It’s a tough, delicate balance. It’s incredibly easy to crash and burn. It’s incredibly hard to keep one’s eyes on one’s own paper sometimes. I still want what I have always wanted, but my attachment these days is to outcomes I can control. I control my output and the quality of that output. I control my presence in the spaces I inhabit. I control my ability to take joy by giving myself the opportunity to live a fulfilling life and to look at things as challenges rather than obstacles. I control my own gratitude for and response to this wild and wooly ride. That’s about all I know.

 

And maybe that’s all I need to know.

 

Up Next: Managing Dual Careers and Parenthood (You can do it!)

 

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  1. Edith

    I love this so hard.

  2. Sonia Gensler

    I’m just going to bookmark this post ’cause I think I’ll need to reread it on a regular basis. Thanks, T!

  3. tiffanytrent

    Thank you, sweetie!

  4. tiffanytrent

    Thanks. I appreciate it.

  5. Tracy Krimmer

    What a great post. So many truths and reminders here.

  6. Amy Butler Greenfield

    Tiffany, this is beautiful. Hard-won wisdom, I know, as I’ve had to ask myself similar questions about what is worth giving up–and what is not.

  7. tiffanytrent

    Thanks, Tracy.

  8. tiffanytrent

    Thanks, Amy. Definitely must sometimes ask ourselves the hard questions. I hope you’re well!

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