Chasing the Muse

Time Out for Burnout

It’s funny how you can mean to take a week or so completely off, and instead you wind up running around like some kind of domestic berserker trying to deal with holiday-related cooking and cleaning, not to mention months of accumulated medical appointments and paperwork, restocking the pantry, all of those necessaries that make your life run more smoothly. Seriously, there is nothing like announcing “I am taking today off” to induce record-breaking productivity.

...Is that just me?  It can’t be just me.

The last month of the year, I wanted so hard to take a week or so off. But there were some looming pieces of work I had to finish by Jan. 2, not to mention those countless other things popping up like new heads on a hydra. I simply didn’t have it in me to burn through it all in a glorious two or four days. So instead I settled for half-measures; a little work, a little not-work, limping along to just meet my deadlines in time while not grinding the poorly lubricated gears of my brainmeats too hard.

Shockingly, this half-vacation punctuated with personal obligations did not actually cure my burnout. I know, I know, who could have guessed that still writing is not as good as not writing! So I was dreading work, procrastinating, the whole shebang. All I wanted to do was sleep in until 2pm and play video games until 2am, rinse and repeat.  

All of this half-holiday time was good for feeding new media and new experiences in to my brain, at least. I played through Gorogoa and tried Civ VI for iOS; I finished Null States and a series of LitRPG books; I watched The Good Place, The Last Jedi, and the last couple of seasons of Psych and its movie. I made ricotta cheese; I did some sketching; I started exercising and cooking for my family reliably. But I still wasn’t feeling quite myself.

Well, I finally did it. Thanks in part to the snow days in the Northeast, I squeaked out five whole days in which I did no writing, no edits, no meetings of any kind.  For most of them, I didn’t even leave my home, or my pajamas.

Funny thing, though. By day two, I kept thinking about my novel whenever my mind wandered. About the characters, the themes, the intersecting web of interactions.  By day three I was starting to get really excited about this book again. By day four, I was impatient for the kids to hurry up and get back to school so I could get to work putting some of this on paper.

This is how I work best; when an idea has worked its way into my brain and become a puzzle I’m trying to solve, constantly in the background. A low-level obsession. It’s like when you’ve played too much Tetris, except with narrative. I love it, but it’s been a really long time since I’ve felt like this. Definitely not since August, and maybe not since January.

And yet here we are. I’m back, and I’m writing, and I am so excited, because this is going to be so great, friends, seriously I love this thing I’m writing, gahhh Kermit flailing I love it so much. And I hope one day in the not-too-distant future you’ll love it, too.  And in the meanwhile: gosh, it is so great to feel like myself again.

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The Mirage of Free Time

I’ve had a pretty intense year, and I’ll be working up my year-in-review post to tell you about it pretty soon. (Probably next week, since I can’t imagine I’ll publish or ship anything new between now and the New Year.) The one thought that’s pulled me through the most trying spells is a vision, like an oasis on the horizon, of what I will do and how I will structure my day when I finally get a pause to catch my breath. 

Surely, the logic goes, at some point the avalanche of deadlines and publicity and appointments will slow down, and I’ll have a few weeks to rejuvenate myself, or a month, or even two. When that happens, I can spend a week reading. I can focus exclusively on my novel. I can fold all of the laundry. I can make healthy dinners and swim three hours a week (and yoga twice!)

I can do all that. I can get everything under control soon. After this week, I’ve got nothing else coming down the pike. I just need to finish these edits, and pull together that draft. It’s happening. It’s going to be glorious. I just need to get through the next week. The next month. It’s only six weeks away, and then—

It’s inevitable. What happens is that a new set of deadlines pops up, and that beautiful, illusory break never arrives. Or it does, but it’s only a few days and then I’m back to the churn as hard as ever. And in that brief time, I’m so tired, so burned out, that I don’t write a word of my novel, I don’t read any books, nothing. Often I find that week consumed by illness or appointments I’ve been putting off. 

This is a high-quality problem, in that it means I’ve built a robust enough pipeline for work that it doesn’t run completely dry even when I really kind of wish it would. But it points to the challenge I’ve wrestled with for as long as I’ve been a freelancer. How do you balance the long-term big-picture stuff against the short-term requirements of your existing commitments?

You’d think a decade would be long enough to solve that problem. 

It’s easy to say “Silly girl, you should be working on your big-picture items little by little, some every day, as you go along.” But that assumes that you have extra time and creative power that you’re squandering right now; and the truth is, sometimes putting energy into spinning a new plate, even slowly, means letting another one fall down. 

And so here I am, staring at a week where I’m somehow planning to get through three distinct sets of edits, two promo pieces, an AMA, a Bookburners draft, three two-hour appointments, and all of my holiday shopping, cleaning, and wrapping.

It’s going to be tough, but I think maybe I can get through it all. And then next week, my plate will be completely clear, and then I can focus on my novel. Or maybe read a book. Or... 

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You Don’t Have To

I’m exhausted and on a course of antibiotics. Sometimes you get a sign from your body, and this is one for me. It’s definitely time for me to engage in a little self-care: refilling the well that good work comes from, and maintaining this frail meat shell without which I can do nothing at all. I’m enjoying the thought of wrapping up some fairly small pieces of work and then spending some time reading books, playing video games, napping, swimming.

And yet. Today, it seems, is the first day of NaNoWriMo.  As always happens, this is the point in the year where I panic, because though I’ve written six novelettes, two alternate reality games, and at least a half-dozen other projects, somehow none of that counts. Not to the part of my brain that wants to, you know, write novels.

It’s not too late to fix that, hisses a voice in my ear. You can do NaNoWriMo. You can start today.  

This voice is toxic. This is the voice of the American Work Ethic, for which no amount of work is ever enough, and to whom any rest at all is inexcusable idleness. And it’s all lies.

Friends, this has been a difficult year for many of us. We’ve dealt with the regular stresses of life: loved ones passing, jobs lost and found, heartbreaks large and small. And this has been a landmark year for stressors we aren’t accustomed to: hurricanes and fires, terrifying politics, the quiet possibility of nuclear war.

Be kind to yourself, whatever that should mean to you. If it means that NaNoWriMo is not for you this year,  then I congratulate you on your self-knowledge, and I hope you can spend the dusk of the year on something else, something that nurtures you so you can bloom brighter when the time is right.

You’re enough already. Believe it, and act accordingly.

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NaNoWriMo 2016: Day 1


I'm a NaNo rebel because (as previously mentioned) this year I'm working on an already-started manuscript. As of today, the starting word count is: 8,849. Which means a winning wordcount is... 58,849! Yowwwwwwza.

I'm aiming for 2200 every workday and not 1667 every day, partly because I'm just not an every-single-day kind of writer, but also because I cherish my weekend time with my family. This is, I guess, a difference that comes of writing month after month as a job; there are sacrifices I can't justify making on a whim, because for me it's not a four-week fling. Sometimes I have to do that for external deadlines, so I don't want to bring my intensity level that high on something nobody is waiting on. (Except my agent? Hi, Zoe!)

But this is still going to be pretty intense. I have at least five of those precious 2200-word working days lost to holidays and other obligations, so I'll have to find creative ways around those anyhow; that works out to making up 846 words even on the days off, split over all my days off. Oof. 

But as always, I'm not going to destroy myself with guilt if I don't hit that arbitrary 58,849-word target by Nov. 30. I'm absolutely shooting for it, but my real target is to have this book written at the end of the year, not the end of the month. If this helps push me closer to the end, that's fantastic! 

Starting.... NOW. Let's go! Go go go! We can do the thing!


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Pros Hit Their Deadlines (Unless They Don't)

Last Friday at about 10:30pm, I hit a deadline to turn in a fairly lengthy piece of writing. And I felt mighty. The cards had been stacked against me. This was a week with a major religious holiday and so two days where my kids weren't in school. A week where I was sick with some viral nonsense that left me headachey, congested, exhausted, and sore. A week where I had a mammogram scheduled. A week where I lost my major client and started hustling my tailfeathers looking for new work. (Still hustling, BTW!) This was a week where one of my children sprained her second foot in two weeks.

And despite all of the avalanche of life happening to me, I hit the deadline. So I wanted to take to Twitter to crow that it was because I was a professional, and this is what distinguishes a pro: come what may, you turn your shit in on time. But that's... not exactly true. And in fact, that kind of thinking can be actively harmful.

Using "a pro turns everything in on time always" as a bright-line standard is reductive and fundamentally unhealthy because there are genuinely circumstances where it is one hundred percent not possible to make your deadlines, and it's not something you could've fixed by starting earlier or managing your time better. Honest! I've missed due dates my own self by varying degrees for reasons ranging from "hurricane" to "pneumonia" to a simple "this was a lot harder than we all thought it was going to be." 

There's a certain machismo to writing culture that I find deeply uncomfortable at times. It includes a sort of laissez-faire attitude toward substance abuse and mental health issues—like drinking too much and suffering from anxiety or depression make you more valid, somehow. Like Hemingway and Balzac are something to aspire to, that their success came because of their excessive habits and not despite them. Like caring about your well-being is a dealbreaker.

This macho writing culture also includes a lot of subtext about working to the very limits of your capacity, all the time, no matter what personal cost it exacts. I've been in this game for, what, eleven years now? And it turns out driving yourself flat-out is an unsustainable practice for more than a few months, or perhaps a few years. So you have to ask yourself: Do you want to be a writer just for right now, or do you want to be a writer forever?

Ten years ago, I could put in a full day of work and then do an additional night shift of three or four hours of work after my kids were in bed. I can't do that anymore. My brain needs fallow time to produce more and better work. (It probably did then, too.) And I've finally recognized that the work that I do when I have, say, the actual swine flu isn't going to be worth turning in. 

So what distinguishes a professional? It's not that you see through space and time and block out the week your beloved great-aunt passes away so you can attend her funeral in peace, no. And it's not typing away perched at the graveside, either. It's not never getting sick, never having a power or internet outage, never missing the plane or getting into a fender-bender. It's not never taking a week off of writing to gaze at a crisp autumn sky and grow closer to the people you care about.

It's what happens after and around that. It's talking to your clients, editors, or colleagues when you need to, and saying, "Hey, is it OK if I take a little longer with this?" Sometimes there's a reason to burn your candle at both ends. Usually there's not. Being a professional means knowing the difference.

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