Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Writer’s Exhaustion, OR, Writer’s Block is Good for You

In 9th grade Social Studies we learned three major things about Japan. First, that Admiral Perry and his U.S. fleet had royally screwed them over. Second, that women were still struggling for respect. Last and most interesting to me, that businessmen in their twenties were dying from overwork. “Karoshi” was sudden stress-related death such as from stroke. The documents claimed it resulted from a mixture of demanding corporate culture and inherited ideas of samurai dedication. Like many teens I was unhealthily cynical and thought the whole thing was both fake and deserved.

I’ve been thinking about karoshi for the last few weeks. My arms are shaking. I have slept about twelve hours in the last four days, and no two of those hours have been in a row. My syndrome-related pain is so acute that I can’t exercise. I can feel the swelling in my lungs and esophagus, the tender heat-like pain when I exhale. I’ve long known that mental stress worsens this syndrome’s severity. But I think, “Have to work through it. I’ve only submitted twenty-one short stories this quarter.” I turned twenty-nine this month and am far from famous. There’s so much work to do.

I have sworn to stop. No more shorts after I reach thirty-five submissions. Four more in this file folder, submit them, and finish. It was “two more” this morning, but I argued myself up.

It’s a vain promise. Rationally, I ought to stop right now. When I open up the vampire story I’ve been wrestling with, I can’t read it. I’ve edited five drafts and seven revisions of those drafts. Now when I look at the page I cannot focus the words into sentences. My vision gets a little fuzzy, and my brain goes right along for the ride. Syntax falls apart and I notice the shaking in my arms gets stronger. Last night I tried to convince myself that shaking was a muscle memory urging me to reach out and type.

This is a fatigue that has not gone away with a little rest; coming back the next day, I find the same problems with my work and my health. Nobody in college told me what this is. I’m calling it writer’s exhaustion. It is a burnout that screws with you on technical writing, in critical thinking, and your whole frame of mind. It’s made me, as best I can tell, incredibly unpleasant to be around. I’m chipper for twenty seconds before this fatigue dries me up and I get snippy; I yelled at someone over how to clean a blender this afternoon. It’s always worse directly after I write. The blender episode was right after finishing a murder scene. I need to do fewer of those.

The worst is that with this intense mental fatigue, I still want to write. I’m rambling this first draft into a tape recorder so I can type it up when I’m more lucid. I’m doing it with no irony whatsoever, which is, I guess, an even greater irony.

In college I struggled with writer’s block. Mine was never a deficiency of ideas. I could come up with a hundred bad ideas before you came up with two good ones. My blockage was perfection. I insisted that every paragraph be pristine on the first draft. The epic novels I wanted to embark upon had to be thoroughly plotted without much notation, since notes were themselves imperfect. I only squeaked out one short story my entire first term, set in a world I spent at least two hundred hours putting together. When the professor asked how much I’d written for this world, looking to indulge in the enthusiasm of a young Fantasy nerd, I admitted, “about thirty.” His frown still haunts me.

The best writing advice I ever got in person was from another professor, Rebecca Godwin. I described my writer’s block to her. This cheery lady was remarkably stoic. She had no sympathy and immediately launched into anecdotes about her time at an ad agency. Perhaps she’d once been like me, but she couldn’t remember if she had. Her department had to produce new material every day and if it sucked then they had to roll with it or they’d be fired. She didn’t say it, but she expressed this thing I carry around: that perfectionism is a luxury.

I had to wade through my own emotional mire. I could advise anyone else through theirs (most of us think we can do that), and I did so for some Freshmen. Nothing you can write will be enjoyed by everyone – not the Bible, not the Constitution, not Shakespeare. I told them they couldn’t aim for it, and they looked at me like a genius. Yet I was deathly afraid of negative reaction. To this day any negative feedback makes me cringe inside, but back then it stayed my hand entirely and pre-emptively. Fear of negative response, fear of incorrect syntax, fear of typos and logical loopholes and saying something somebody else said first (darn you, Yann Martel, for beating me to “fig mints”).

I only overcame these issues after falling on them over and over again. I did public readings to unhappy audiences, and sometimes got them to laugh. I did some performances that would have humiliated me if I hadn’t embraced them (there’s nothing for the ego like stuffing a canteen into your shirt to mimic breasts to play an old crone). I took shallow advice like, “You could be a novelist if you wrote 1,000 words a day,” and did my damnedest to ford the shallow waters, because over time routines erode what prevents them. I added to my novels every day, often with stuff that would only make me laugh, but at least I was getting somewhere. Soon I posted routinely to a blog, and later, posted daily. With hesitation gone, the fountain of a thousand bad ideas got tapped. Bad ideas – ones a literary critic might say were bad, ones my roommate might, or a teacher, or an imaginary cynical teen on a message board somewhere. I waded in that fountain, trying to filter out the ones I genuinely liked despite all the imaginary naysayers I had.

For a while I got a brand new problem: writer’s plenty. I had so many ideas I was afraid to write any of them, because in penning the first I’d forget the second. This silliness cost me months of work and perfectly workable ideas.

One night, when the ideas were so plentiful that I couldn’t focus on the TV, I finally did something about it. I opened a Word file and jotted a couple lines down. Then I opened another, and put down a title. A third, and typed out three lines of dialogue. A fourth, and a fifth, until I had thirty-two documents, exhausting my muse. With every story accounted for by some reminder or placeholder, it became a question of which seemed most attractive. There was no fear an idea would be lost on the hard drive.

Since then I’ve jotted down notes on the black spaces in a program at a play, and on recycling bin paper in waiting rooms, and even the terrible cliché of the backs of envelopes. I have gotten at least ten stories off the white space on envelopes. Have the ideas anywhere, get the kernels out and save them for when the work can be done. Then, of course, make sure you do the work. An easy formula. I whizzed along so much that I ditched word minimums, because I couldn’t keep track of how much work I did throughout the day.

It’s been three or four years of this. That first night ended with shakes of laughter. Tonight it is a medical tremor. I had this condition back then, and back in college, and back in Middle School when I decided I wanted to tell stories. But tonight and for the last week I have been acutely aware that if I do not stop writing, it will stop me.

Writer’s exhaustion. I’ve produced so much that I can’t stop thinking about the work, and at the same time am so burned out that I’m messing it up. I forgot to delete one of the thirty-four occurrences of my name from my Writers of the Future entry, which will cause it to be disqualified. I had been looking over that document for half an hour before I submitted it and did not notice what was right in front of my eyes. It was only last night as I lay in bed that I realized it.

Beyond the typos and brainos, I am getting sicker. There is no day when I do not feel guilt for not writing, even on days when I have high output. I’ll try to unwind and half an hour into a videogame I’ll think how lazy this makes me. How lazy for not writing more, and when I write more, for not writing better, and when I write better, for not having enough published and not being far enough into my career and, at some point, some god whispers about what they do to you first when they want to destroy you.

I can’t help but think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk. She felt we put too much stress on our artists as a society, and so wound up with Woolf, Hemingway, Cobain and many others killing themselves. I’m not saying that writing (or writing alone) drove any of these people to suicide, but there is a distinct need for certain artistic people to take perspective and care.

My case is severe, in that my health turns stress into malady. I’m a psychosomatic realist and physiological drama queen. Of course, my case is also very not severe compared to Ms. Woolf going back up the beach for more rocks. But I feel it’s important to express that there is an opposite to writer’s block that is potentially more dangerous and that may lie in wait for a lot of people who are trying blindly to escape it.

I also think about other occupations. The stock broker, the plumber and the cable TV installer have days off. They have their own demands and are all tougher on the body than I could take. But they do not wake up Saturday and fear they’re behind on that novel. Maybe they wake up afraid about car payments or fertility, but those are human regrets a writer also gets. They may anticipate when work resumes, but it has a clear starting and stopping point, so they cannot loathe themselves like this (or at least I hope they don’t). In this vacuum of responsibility, I’ve somehow gotten to the point where most of my waking hours belong to worrying about some kind of story.

At the same time, this is not an addiction. I cringe when writers compare their craft to addiction. A heroin addict shuffles out onto the street to satisfy dependency, perhaps with a glimmer of future pleasure, but he does not feel the obligation I do. I feel obliged to the work, the market I’m going to submit to, and to the audience I’d like to have. It is every bit as conscious as it is unconscious. Somewhere out there is a real writing addict who starves to death rather than leaving her keyboard. The rest of us make decisions.

I love stories, I love telling them, and I love reading the good ones. But I’m making the decision to stop for a while. I hope to only stop for a couple weeks. I doubt I’ll last that long – if you’re reading this, then I not only recorded it, but typed it up. Probably did a few drafts. I’ll lie in bed tonight thinking over the way the shapes of the paragraphs compliment each other.

I hope good sense will get me to take a deep break and that this break will fix things. Not a day off, because you don’t take a day off walking when you break your leg. When it heals, I’ll approach again and monitor myself so that I don’t go too far. I’m pretty sure I know what novel I’ll begin working on next, too. But for now, I’ve had a migraine for at least 36 hours and the sound of a door slamming causes my inner eardrum to spasm like someone is jabbing it with a pipe cleaner. I believe in karoshi.

Please take care of yourselves.

(As pertains to the Bathroom Monologues, they’re going to continue daily. Did you really think you could trust John? He’s written a few weeks of material in advance for this literary vacation. We hope you enjoy it. Please feel free to leave comments or start discussion below - he'd love your feedback.)


  1. I know where you're coming from, and I agree that sometimes, we just have to stop for a while. Try to rest, and try to remember the joy of life so that you can find once again the joy of your craft. Hugs.

  2. I guess our society looks at artists as a sort of machine that is there to produce constantly because they don't see what the artists does as "a real job."
    Please take care.

  3. This post was timely. The last few days I've been feeling exactly that... no matter how much I write... I'm not doing enough. It keeps me awake at night. I can't sleep. I can't relax. Maybe the best thing is to take a break.

    Take care of yourself! Hope your break is a good one. Try to enjoy it, and you'll come back better than ever.

  4. John - I'm on a sort of break myself for entirely different reasons. But I can totally and completely relate to what you're saying. You simply must take care of yourself - it's as simple as that. And if you find that you can't, then you must find help to do so. You're right that it's not really an addiction, but obsession? compulsion? Yes, perhaps ... but regardless, you need to find balance. I admire that you've pre-loaded posts to keep your readers happy, but remember that your readers love you and we'll still be here whether you take an hour break or a month or longer. Feel better, my friend :-)

  5. Dude. You are my hero.

    Hang in there.

  6. There is not music without the rests. You have a gift. The world needs it. Heal. And come back.

  7. John Wiswell, my friend John, what you just wrote there is staggering - so personal. Such an insight into your busy, busy writerly mind.
    Slow 'er down, buddy. No one is judging you. We all respect you. We want to write as well as you do. But it's not a competition. You're doing the absolute right thing... take a break. See a doctor. Get some rest. Look after that damned migraine. I don't know how you even function with one.
    And hey, aren't you like only 12 or something? I'm teasing, because you must be, like, 13, at least. You have loads of time to be the world's next famous author. So take it down a notch. We'll still love ya (and still won't be half the writers you are.)

  8. J,
    I can cmpletely rlate to what yuo are giong thruogh. I thnk unrest and the pian have so mch to do with hw yuo are feeling. Lets see hw yuo feel after the migriane goes away, you get a weeks wrth of rest, and that poor mnd of yuors rejuventaes.

    I get tht guilt too, and yuo know what? I hve to remember that this is my life and I use art to dael with it, nt the other way aruond. It is a joy, nt a burden and th scend it becmes tht is a big sign to pull awy and focus yuor craetive mind in a dffrent direction. Keep those craetive muscles pumped in dffrent araes lke art, or movies even.

    Yuo'll get thruogh this, and yuo'll be fresh and raedy to rumble. Hugs.

    ps. Ha. Hoep yuo can raed this. ;p If not, well, danm.

  9. Such a personal and revealing post. I'm so sorry you are feeling so much stress and pressure. When it makes you unhappy, for your own sake Stop! Or at least take a break. You owe it to yourself. Writing should be an outlet for stress, not a source of it.

    You'll be in my thoughts. Wishing you the very best. *hugs*

  10. Very important post. I identify with it entirely. In my case,the lack of sleep and the crazed need to track success by the amount of acceptances has driven me crazy. For the past month I've been struggling with a similar problem. Too many ideas cluttering up my brain. I finally decided to write for the heck of it. The result is 95,000 words of a story that may never see publication. It's a fun story. I'm enjoying the ride. While I can't say it's solve my sleepless nights, I can say I feel like I'm on vacation whenever I visit this story. I hope you feel better.I think you might find something you love and spend time with it.

    Laurel W

  11. Bruthaman...

    Do I ever feel you... My new gig at work is kicking my butt and it's a struggle since much of that work has to be done at home which leaves very little time for the blogosphere. I wind up staying up too late and well, you know the drill...

    Take 'er easy... Chill out and recharge those awesome batteries of yours.

  12. Understand completely. Really do. So, I join the others in saying that, yes, you have to force yourself to take this break.

    Your health - physical and mental - is paramount. So, no guilty thoughts about what you're not doing. Taking care of yourself is your job for the moment.

  13. John,

    You state so well what many of us wrestle with daily. It will all be there for you today, tomorrow of next year. that is the beauty of the blank page, it does wait for "the writer-man"

    When writing ceases to delight and becomes a chore then, well lets just say you're not likely to please anyone least of all yourself.

    Having just completed a lengthy hiatus myself I can extol its virtues, tho the gems are not falling from my pen just quite yet I'm sure they will in due course. I start in earnest, tomorrow. Manana man is becoming my new mantra.

    As to your physical ailments I wish you pain-free days and nights and well-being post haste.

  14. John - as regards the name on your story entry, just write to contests@authorservicesinc.com and ask to have it deleted so you can resubmit with your 34th occurrence now deleted.
    John Goodwin

  15. I have to say John, you are not alone. I bear a crippling fear of public scrutiny as well. I wish you the very best in anything you choose to do.

    Take care.

  16. I resorted to carrying a 3 X 5 spiral notebook around to jot ideas down; I have a few that are full up. I Have a hard time switching gears between flash, short stories, and the novels I've sporadically worked on. I don't really care what people think of my writing (which of course is a lie). I've gotten shit for sitting and writing when stuff needs to be done around the house and switch from early mornings to late at night when the wife changes her pattern of sleep. I have books piled on the floor, read and unread. It is a hard and unrewarding thing to write. But it's a kick putting something together that can spark emotion, fire the synapsis, and make a person think beyond the words on the page to the continuing story.

    Breaks are good for the soul. It's a time to go walk-about. There is nothing more centering—physically as well as mentally—as a good walk.

    Catch you on the rebound...

  17. John, I hope putting this out there was a helpful experience. Writing isn't a zero-cost endeavor, but may it exact a lower cost for you in the future.

  18. That sounds really awful. You need sleep and some place to escape. Perhaps, you could try running or swimming, activities that would allow you to unplug.

    Btw, this video might also help. It's by Scott Stratten - Keep Going Until We Stop

  19. John, you're one of the most prolific people I know. Writer's block and you in the same sentence just seems wrong. I write and edit professionally. I only make money if I keep working, so no writer's or editor's block here. Most of my stories, even my #fridayflash begin with me thinking, I need 500 words and I just start writing. I know if it's not great I can always fix it later. Just plod on through and see what you get.

    Take some time off if you need to John. I know whatever ideas you come up with will spectacular.


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