Burnout, pt 2 -- or, finding your way back.
Below is a modified and updated transcript of a keynote I gave back in ’15 at the Surrey International Writers Conference, and given my last post on burnout, I thought I’d post it here because it seemed to help people when I spoke of it then. I’m going to press send before I chicken out. Fair warning: this is a longform piece so you might want to have a seat.
I do hope it helps.
When Kathy told me she wanted me to keynote it felt really good. A milestone and a bucket list item—a keynote at the Surrey International Writers Conference, the greatest writer’s conference I know. So of course I said yes.
And then I hung up the phone.
And then I thought … that was a serious mistake.
Because, you see, I hadn’t yet arrived. I hadn’t made it. Ten books in print, double the years as a writer, and I was still thinking, just give me a little more time. I’m sure I’ll make it soon.
I also had a secret that I neglected to share with Kathy.
One year earlier? I had quit writing altogether.
This had occurred near the tail end of what was, to date, the worst period in my writing career (a worst period in which, ironically enough, amazing things had happened, my book, SWERVE, and those around it being the bright spot there) and when I spoke with Kathy my fingers were still very tender on the keyboard. I was only tentatively making my way back.
Now, to back up, I didn’t know I’d quit at first. I didn’t tell anyone I’d quit. I didn’t even know I’d quit. I’d show up at the page daily, just as I always had, and I would sit there. And I would stare. And I would not write.
For weeks my husband asked how the day’s work had gone and I’d tell him fine, slow, but beginnings always are. Then those weeks turned into months, the months turned into half a year, and finally I realized that I wasn’t only lying to him, I was lying to myself. For the first time since I was 26 years old, I was not a writer. I thought about writing everyday. I read voraciously and widely, which made me one hell of a reader … but I was no writer.
The warning signs had been there for some time. Most tellingly, I found myself regularly saying to my husband–often before I even knew I was thinking it–I hate this.
“How’s the work going?”
I’d look up. “I hate this.”
There is a Japanese author and researcher named Masaru Emoto who wrote a book called THE HIDDEN MESSAGES FROM WATER in which he purports that human consciousness can have an effect on the molecular structure of water. He’d perform experiments where he’d write a word on a label, then tape that label to a glass of water and, when frozen, the resultant crystals would either be very beautiful—such as when the word ‘love’ was placed on the glass–or they’d be utterly destroyed, as when the word ‘hate’ was imposed on the glass.
Now it sounds very woo-woo and out there, but as someone who believes very much in the power of words–who has indeed created her life for over a decade using only words–I was a believer. More importantly, I remembered that the human body is comprised of up to 60% water. The mind and the heart alone? 73%.
I hate this. I hate this. I hate this.
I hated this thing I’d once loved.
I hated this thing I was creating with my mind and with my heart.
I hated it with 73% of my being.
And of course I felt destroyed inside.
So how had this happened? After all, when I started writing, it drove me to distraction, to obsession. Getting to the page every day was everything to me. I dreamed of my name of the bestseller list. I thought success required only putting one foot in front of the other. And I said that I would give anything for that goal.
The truth was, I couldn’t say how it’d happened, and you can’t fix what you can’t name. (Again, the power of words.)
So instead I began to ask myself: Is it still worth it?
Because that’s the question you have to ask every day when you shut the door on all the people and places and events in your life (not to mention the status updates and likes) so that you can perform the deeper work of writing. No matter what level you’re working at, it’s a question that never changes. Is it worth it?
So, one day, when I was “writing” I began cleaning out my garage. And I stumbled across dozens of notebooks and binders and a whole box of floppy disks, and they were all brimming with words. Unpublished words. Dusty words, literally, as they’d been in boxes for over a decade. Among them, some of my original working journals:
07: I am truly amazed at how much I get done these days. Everything seems to build on what has come before. I’ve also realized that the grossly successful tend to get more done in the morning before most people ever get up. I’m not the only one getting up at 4 am. I finished another whole book, accomplishing new things in the process. I wasn’t freaking as much about rewrites, I just dug in and got them done faster and better, and it makes me want to see how fast/well I can do on this next. Today I’m going to highlight the textual events that really speak to me, that make me want to explore and write, and use those as my starting points/plot threads. I’ll mindmap/flow chart them, make new connections, and spend the day wallowing in all the possibilities …
What happened? What was it about my journey that forced me to forget that I once loved this work? Who was this girl who had so much confidence that she thought she could compare herself to the “grossly successful” and who wanted to wallow in words all day long? Because it was not me, not anymore.
At first I thought I was simply jaded. After a decade as a writer I knew exactly how the sausage was made. Publishing, rejection, competition, marketing—myriad issues that no writer has control over. Maybe it was a combination of all of those things.
Or maybe I’d begun identifying overly much with the images on my website’s homepage–speaking of myself in the third person, using words that were catchy soundbites but meant very little. “She writes ‘Women who thrill!” “She writes strong women who kick butt and …”
Blah, blah, blah.
Worse, maybe I only identified with those things if others said they were true. Only feeling ‘liked’ if I got enough Likes. Only feeling worthy of support if my sales team decided to support me.
The girl on those dusty pages wasn’t like that. She Liked herself. She supported herself, and she did it with nothing but the ephemeral foundation of her imagination. And what was very clear in holding those pages—all belonging to an unpublished writer who was so much more of a writer than I currently was–was that at some point in my storytelling career I’d lost my own narrative.
So I decided to do what my subconscious was already not-so-subtly doing as it shut down my brain every time I sat down to the page, and simply stop and ask: What am I doing? What am I saying? What is my narrative? And WHY?
And I decided that if I could no longer come up with a good WHY I would quit for good.
Now people love to talk about why they write. It’s great coffee shop conversation, it’s warm and fuzzy and invokes a dreamlike state: I write because I must, because it’s how I process the world, because it’s how I best communicate and connect. (Connection is my reason, by the way.) Yet there was nothing warm and fuzzy about what I was doing here. This was internal excavation, and the only tool I had was a very sharp critical eye and unblinking gaze. It was nothing I ever intended to share over a cup of coffee (never mind at Surrey; never mind here).
Yet back I went to rediscover myself through my own early words, even though I wasn’t certain that my reasons for getting into this gig would hold up all these years later. I shut out the voices of other writers and readers and agents and editors and publishers … and anyone really who didn’t physically sit in my living room on a nightly basis and I binged on my own words. (Lucky for me I am a writer and I keep fantastic notes.)
No, I still didn’t feel like the same person who wrote those words–I wasn’t the same person–but I recognized her in them, and in some cases I remember how it felt writing those words and in those moments it … Felt. Like. Home. So I kept digging. Finally, I came across this:
hi , I just wanted to thank you. Your writing has giving me the courage to finally take a stand. I actually ran away from home in Saudi Arabia and I am now in England. Then I’m coming to America , and I hope I get me dentistry degree. Your writing truly affects people in a great way, to make something from nothing out of their lives. Please keep inspiring other young people. :) [name redacted for privacy’s sake]
And I felt my mind and my heart–73% of myself, to be exact–light up inside of me.
Now you might be thinking, but Vic, these words came from outside of yourself—just like the readers who give one stars and the agents and the editors …and that’s true. But this was different. This was a voice that I wanted. Those other voices had to do with their reasons for identifying or not with my work. This, even though it came from someone on the other side of the world–someone I’d likely never meet–this was MY reason. This was Connection.
This young girl was out there making impossibly brave choices and doing amazing things and shaping her own life–literally authoring her own narrative–and she was awesome.
Which makes me awesome, too.
(See how I totally appropriated that? She is awesome, and therefore I am too.)
I am awesome, and so are you.
This girl whom I’d inspired was now, years later across space and time, inspiring me in return.
That is connection.
That is the power of the written word.
That is worth it.
So I decided the only thing that could get me out of this mess was what got me into it—words. But I needed to start using the right ones. “Hate” wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Instead, I decided that what had connected me to that girl in Saudi Arabia needed to become my new mantra: “I am awesome, and you are too.”
I am awesome, and you are, too.
(I’m repeating that now, in real time, just in case you need to hear it now.)
So I wrote another book, just for me, just for her, and I’ll start revisions on it soon. I’m also starting my next thriller. I’m not worried about the time away. I figure if you have something of value to say and share, and you know how to say it, your Tribe will be there when it’s ready. Connection.
I still dream big, and I’m again showing up daily with this new belief in mind … but it’s not perfect. My working journal is still a record of my daily failures, but it’s also an account of bravery because every recorded word is a shout in the face of those failures. Yes, I’m a NYT bestseller with ten books behind me, but that isn’t what makes me awesome … it’s that I’m here. Today. And so are you.
I am awesome, and so are you.
So while this is written for writers specifically, I would encourage you to ask yourself, often and sincerely–no matter what you’re dedicating your time and life to–what are you really doing? Why are you really here? What is so worth it to you that you’re giving your time and energy, and often money, to pursue?
What is so worth it to do anything in this life at all?
And if that’s still unclear right now, if you’ve never fully expressed it, and it’s still a touchy-feely rainy coffee shop day feeling, that’s okay. Soak up the awesomeness of those who support you. Believe them, for God’s sake, when they tell you you’re awesome (and drop anyone who doesn’t hard and fast). And finally, if you’re a writer, please trust that when you sit down to the page every day to do the work of your mind and your heart that whatever it is that makes writing so worth it to you, may connect with 73% of someone who needs to hear it most.