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Burnout, creativity, and the tyranny of production schedules

Hey guys: Elizabeth Bear here, and I'm stopping by to talk about how even jobs we love can make us sick if we do them for too long without a break and with the wrong kind of rewards systems.

I know, because after fourteen years of working flat-out at my writing career, I'm taking a break. And it's not entirely by choice.

Between life stress and overwork, I hit a wall at the end of last year. I've been struggling with actually accomplishing my job for a while--hating to sit down at the computer, being avoidant, generally feeling not so much blocked as if every word was being taken off my hide with a potato peeler. I started feeling this way back in about 2007, a situation which I think is linked both to a bad reaction to an OTC medication that made me profoundly depressed for about four months, before I figured out what the problem was, and also my internalization of some criticism at a peer workshop I attended. (The workshop was great, and I got a Hugo-winning story and a major uptick in skill out of it. But it also turned me into the proverbial centipede who gets asked how she manages to run, and, well, I started tripping over my own feet left right and center.)

Because I had contracts and writing is how I make my living, I told myself that I had to write anyway, and I did, though I was late on a novel (CHILL, now published in the UK as SANCTION).

Somewhere in the process, though, writing went from being something fun--the job I'd always wanted--to a real misery, a thing I avoided and dreaded. I became hypercritical of my own work, and nothing I did was ever good enough. I'd gotten into the habit, in other words, of kicking myself over basically every element of my work and holding it to impossible standards. I figured if I just kept writing I would get through the stuck, and everything would be fine again.

Nine years later, I realized that Things Were Not Going So Well, and were in fact getting worse. I've been producing good work--my critical record speaks for itself--but I was incapable of identifying it as good work.I was disappointed in all of it, and no matter how hard I worked or how much I produced it never quite felt like enough. I started having clinical anxiety symptoms, and when a bunch of real-life stress including family illnesses showed up, I didn't have the spoons to cope with work and family and various other issues.

Anyway, the good news is, I got help. And I'm taking a year off from my production schedule and rejigging my deadlines into something more manageable. And I'm learning to say no. No, no, no, no.

Which is scary, frankly, because what if I say no and nobody ever asks me again? But honestly, when your reaction to being invited to a project is a spike of panic, that's when you need to back off yourself. Burnout is a real thing, and it's really prevalent in creative professions and ones with intense schedules.

Especially ones with a messed up rewards system, which publishing definitely has: you do a thing, and then there's intermittent reinforcement, which may follow on the actual completion of the thing by more than a year in some cases.


The other thing I'm doing, which I think is probably even more important than a little rest and taking the pressure off, is that I'm rewarding myself for work. This is the thing about mammals, right? If you punish us for a thing, we will avoid doing that thing in the future, and react to being forced to do it with anxiety and distress. But if you reward us for doing it, then we anticipate the opportunity to perform the task and get rewarded.

(If you really want to screw up an animal, sometimes reward it and sometimes punish it for the same behavior. Or keep increasing what it has to do to get a reward. You get real basket cases that way!)

So really, if you want to make yourself like your job, the best way to do it is to take some of the pressure off, and when the work gets done, to give yourself a cookie.

Cookies are really underrated as a means of motivation.

I don't know why it took me so long to figure this out, honestly. But it seems to be working so far!



I have been there and felt that, and I just wanted to say you're doing the right thing. My burnout happened on a more compressed timescale, so I only took a month off, but during that month my mantra was FUCK WRITING. The only things that brought me any joy were singing and riding my bike, so I did both of those a lot (sometimes simultaneously, to the amusement of the neighbours). All the hugs in the world.


Just dropping in to say that I resemble this situation, too. It's a perennial problem for working authors. In my case I was able to wangle a sabbatical in 2007 -- that's why I published a short story collection in 2008 -- but the pressure's been building up again, and if you wonder why I write so few short stories these days it's because part of my coping strategy is to say NO to excess work.

I'd try the cookie approach, but type II diabetes is a bitch. Ah well. So in my case the nearest thing I'm getting to a reward is, after 8 sequels in a row, to get to write something new and fresh for the first time in nearly a decade.

Oh, and if you've ever wondered why authors get so worked up over seemingly trivial literary prizes? I think it's something to do with the reward/feedback loop -- and also self-validation, because nothing beats down on imposter syndrome like winning a Hugo award.


Sanction! Did you get Pinion and Cleave in the UK, too? [/eBear fanboy]


I'm still at the "pathetically grateful to get paid for this stage". I am also a house husband and primary child wrangler, so I only write 20 hours a week. Perhaps this will help in the long term.

However, I did get into an odd situation in that I had too many unfinished irons in the fire - partials out with agent, projects needing an edit prior to indy publishing etc, series that might or might not continue pending contracts - that my creativity went belly up for a few months. I learned the hard way to be more linear....


I can assure you that all of that applies in many other forms of work, too; having been there, I have the greatest sympathy for anyone who is still there. And the one piece of advice I have to impart is that the standard advice is quite simply crap - the approach recommended here is far more likely to work. And a good psychiatrist / advisor will help, but a bad one will make things worse - been there, too.

The really difficult question is knowing when to cut one's losses, not try to bull through, and take a proper, extended break or move into a new area. But, with depression etc., when you critically need to look at your situation dispassionately, you are least able to do so :-(


Burnout is a real problem for just about everything, good and bad. I am glad you are in a spot where you can recognize the problem and have some space to take the cure.

Imagine doing a crummy, repetitive job for 5 years. What good explanation do you have for why you can't do Month 61? People will say, "It was always bad, suck it up." If you burn out, you just cannot face ever doing again, no matter how well you coped before.

You can burn out on parenting and that's a night mare, perhaps especially if you know you will eventually be OK again. You just need to get through the singularity between good time A and good time B, but you cannot leave the curve for a moment.


Imagine doing a crummy, repetitive job for 5 years. What good explanation do you have for why you can't do Month 61? People will say, "It was always bad, suck it up." If you burn out, you just cannot face ever doing again, no matter how well you coped before.

That pretty much explains how/why I quit being a pharmacist. (Hint: boring and crummy job with added life and death responsibility so you don't dare to goof off/be inattentive). In the end I ran smack-bang into a nervous breakdown -- but as I'd already lined up a new track (it happened six weeks before I was due to quit for good and start a new degree course) I just took an extended unpaid vacation and got better really fast once the Bad Job went away.

But the worst part about work-related burnout is the sense of being trapped. And if it's the only job you're now qualified to do, and it's also the only thing you want to do, that doubles down on the "trapped" angle.


Note: I nearly had a work-related nervous breakdown last spring.

I can't talk about it yet -- the situation leading up to it involved someone who died suddenly last month, and I don't want to say anything that might be construed as negative about them so soon because people (me included) are still mourning -- but I'll probably post a blog entry about it in a few weeks/months.


I'm there at the moment too. Nothing like intensely studying and writing about climate change to provoke full-on anxiety. So I'm taking a bit of a break as well.

The thing that's starting to work for me is mindfulness meditation, although I've had to experiment quite a bit to find the system that worked for me. The point of this is not to avoid the symptoms, but to connect with the feelings and to learn both that they're survivable and that they're feelings in things like shoulder muscles that get frozen in position for most of a working day (or overworked, as with eyes and hands), so of course they hurt. They need time to relax too.

I'd say the lesson I'm learning is that it's critical for authors to spend time in the here and now, since usually we're off inside our heads. It's both a chore and a reward.

Finally, I'd second Charlie's comment about giving yourself cookies. Diabetes is a fucking chore to manage, and if you reward yourself with carbs, it ties a punishment knot into your reward cycle. Anyway, a few cookies are fine. Fruit is good. A bit of chocolate is good. Nuts are good. An apple with peanut butter is surprisingly good (even as a meal). A walk on a sunny afternoon is good. Throwing a frisbee is good (and I've got a lighted one, so we can play at night on the neighborhood school's ball field after everyone has left). Spending time with friends is good. In other words, vary the reward.


I wish I had walked away from my last rotten job rather than burning out. On the other hand, burning out is the only way some (most?) people will take you seriously or sympathetically. It's as if you could only send someone to the emergency room if they start bleeding out on your carpet.


Further variants on burnout: If you work in a team that depends on you (as leader, specialist, whatever), so that if you give up or fail, it takes the rest of the team down as well. When the work stops being fun, the extra responsibility doesn't make it any easier.

I guess this is closely related to the parenting burn-out case in post 6.


Take time out and change your routines, exercise a little more, drink a little less, eat a balanced diet. It takes time but it will help in the long run.


To be honest, life where I work right now (Charlie will know from my IP) is getting pretty crap. I work for a Mega-Academic site, and a couple of years back we underwent one of the periodic upheavals when one not-so-great leader is replaced by another, different one. (We'll get the cloning process sorted one of these days; maybe use something other than his nose, perhaps).

Our new Great Leader came with impeccable qualifications; could walk on his back legs perfectly happily, was house-trained and hadn't broken any companies' IT departments for ages, if we ignore that running-away-from-that-bank episode. Said Great Leader was installed, and immediately came up with a Cunning Plan: Let's sack everyone and outsource all the IT!

This got vetoed, and a second Cunning Plan implemented: Let's pay people to run away, and just to ensure we get a massed charge for the exit, let's threaten all the staff with redundancy. What can possibly go wrong with that one?

Currently this place is in the sort of state one sees in the survivors of a massive air raid; we've cleared up the bodies, and are now waiting to see what breaks and what doesn't. Cue burn-out in a few weeks or months time when the ridiculously top-heavy management structure starts trying to bully us techies into submission.


I should say that the cookies in this case are potentially metaphorical: in the sense of dog biscuits. Some kind of reward system that the mammal brain learns to associate with the process of doing the work.

I don't know where we, as a society, got the idea that punishing people, including ourselves, is a productive way of getting them to work hard and well. The science does not support it.

I hear you all on the shitty job burnout. I've done my time in the customer service mines, and--even more terribly--the incredibly-dysfunctional-small-business-run-like-an-emotionally-abusive-family lines.

Wheeee! I'm not sure I could actually manage that again, although the benefit of getting burned out in certain kinds of shitty jobs is that you can slack more conveniently than when you actually have to turn in a novel manuscript at the end of six months...


Noblehunter @#3: YES I DID


I had to switch jobs about a year ago. I remember just wanting to crawl under a hedge and get away from life. It wasn't even a terrible job, the people weren't horrible and the work wasn't awful. It just sucked all the joy out of life.


I'll have to arrange for the people I know in the UK to send me copies.



Get off the Trad publishing treadmill and go Indy. Stop having idiot agents and editors with their own agendas controlling your life. When you go Indy your books do not go out of print, and they keep earning money your whole life. You are in control, not other people stressing you out.

If you write 2k a day, that's 8 manuscript pages, that is six 100k books a year. 30 books in five years. This is a modest page rate that builds a body of work that does not go out of print.

Do paper books using CreateSpace. When you do everything yourself loading a paper book in the system may cost 20 to 30 bucks; $10 for the ISBN with your own House Name, and $10 to get the required approval copy. If you make a mistake, fix it, then spend another $10 for the required approval copy. You are the publisher. You are in control.

Once the paper book is active, load the e-book into Kindle, making sure the two are listed on the product page. It's all simple step-by-step, not expensive, not rocket science.

If you have not found it, look for "Author Earnings dot com" to see how things have opened up in the past few years.

Set yourself free.

To the Moderators: Go ahead and delete this if it offends anyone. I am not crippled by other people's limitations, and my books are doing very well, thank you, so I am not interested in people having cows. There is plenty of info on the web, go forth and make up your own minds. HA!


"I don't know where we, as a society, ..."

Explained in Ian Robertson "The Winner Effect". It's about relative status, and all that implies - i.e. some people get turned on by treading on other people's faces.


WARNING: you are being hlepful, as opposed to helpful.

Random prescriptive nostrums, made without any specific insight into the subject's condition, while well-intentioned, are REALLY ANNOYING and don't help.

Trust me, we're all adults here and we're all familiar with the generic "eat better, exercise" stuff our doctors preach at us every time we see them. I suspect you have no idea how young or old Bear is, how much she exercises, what she eats, and whether she drinks at all: I'd like you to imagine how relevant your advice would be to, say, a marathon-running vegetarian teetotaller?

You're welcome to offer advice, but before you do so you should ask yourself whether you know enough for it to be relevant, and if not, either take steps to inform yourself or keep quiet.


To the Moderators: Go ahead and delete this if it offends anyone.

It doesn't offend me, I just think it's hideously misinformed. Hint: the editors' and agent's agenda is to make lots of money, of which the author gets a [big] percentage cut. It's also to organize the workflow so that the author focusses on what they do best, i.e. writing, while someone else takes care of the stuff like bookkeeping, typesetting, cover design, and marketing that authors aren't necessarily good at.

I can't speak for Bear but I stick with the trad publishing route because the process of self-publishing is all about being a publisher rather than about writing. I'm sorry, but if I wanted to be a publisher I'd be working as one full-time: I'm an author, and it's a different job. It's great that the tools are there for those people who want to do all the heavy lifting of publishing for themselves, but I'm middle-aged, lazy, and cynical, and I believe in paying eager young folks to mow the lawn for me rather than doing it myself. It's called "division of labour".


Been there, got the T-shirt.

The best advice I got was from my sister: eat better, exercise properly, and remember it's just a job and you can get another one if you need to.

I was amazed at how much my poor physical shape was affecting my mental moods. And realizing that I could walk away if I wanted to made it far easier to stop sweating the small-but-annoying details and focus on the parts of my job that I like.


[ Charlie - delete this if too personal ] Ah, that explains a lot about Eastercon '15 .. It also didn't help me that I was in intermittent pain at the time. Get even better soon & good luck with it.


Cue burn-out in a few weeks or months time when the ridiculously top-heavy management structure starts trying to bully us techies into submission. Seen that too ... My then employer & I parted brass rags under similar circumstances, whilst international "management" were cunningly planning the total failure that those of us who were awake, could see coming. So a world-wide (yes really world-wise) household name went spectacularly bust a few years later [ Fortunately their pension-pot was in a different bucket ... ]

Oh & Ms Bear also said: Or keep increasing what it has to do to get a reward. You get real basket cases that way! - yeah, they were trying that too - there's far too much of that one around at present. I'm telling "the boss" that she needs to change employer real soon now, as the current lot appear to be heading that way, too.


Yes, we should train people the way we train dogs and cats: reward them for doing the right thing, correct them when they're doing the wrong thing, and punish them only when they're being deliberate assholes and deliberately doing the wrong thing.

Indeed, that would be my suggestion to most academic advisors: treat your students the way you'd treat a dog. That would actually be a substantial improvement in many cases.

That also goes for writing workshops: the point isn't to tell people what they did wrong, it's to tell people how to do it better. If all you can do is tell someone that something is wrong, at the very least, apologize for not being skilled enough to help them fix the error you think you see.


It's called "division of labour". cough

Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right! It is the business of the wealthy man To give employment to the artisan.


CATS, please! Therefore includes kittie (human)-treats, back-rubs, strokes, & tummy-tickles.


Also it reads like "You too can earn $1000 a day by working online!!!!!!" or "Mother from Barnsley has this simple trick for fixing X that they don't want you to know about!!!!"

2k words a day is hardly a moderate output. Charlie only gets close or over it, IIRC, in his fits of hypergraphia. Sure, some people can manage it all the time, but telling other people that they can win if they are just like them is hardly conducive to making friends, nor to wider considerations of freedom and variety in writing or individual capabilities and circumstances.


I already publish both traditionally and independently, for what it's worth.

I make far, far more money for much less work from the traditional publishing side of things. About 95% of my income comes from the trad side of things.

Also, I don't really enjoy being a publisher: it's a whole lot of fiddly pain-in-the-ass work to do it right, and my experience is that my editor adds a fair amount of value to the finished product by being smart about narrative and having a fresh perspective on my work. Her input makes my stories better--and churning out six books a year is exactly what I'm trying to not do. First of all, I wind up competing with myself and cutting into my own sales. Past experience has taught me that stepping on my own feet doesn't actually benefit me in terms of income.

And then there's managing sub rights sales, foreign rights, and so forth. I honestly don't have the infrastructure to license my books for translation in Japan. My agent does, and that's free money.

Also, the problem is not producing 8 pages a day. I did that for years. The problem is producing consistent, innovative, well-written and plotted work that is not just more of the same.

I could indeed churn out hackwork at a tremendous rate, but I don't actually find that rewarding.

Words are cheap. Ideas are cheap. Good and surprising ideas, strong narrative structures, and honed prose--those take time and consideration.


I've been an independent software developer for over thirty years, working on projects that sometimes take several years from planning to shipping before there is external reward. I sympathize and empathize, and yes, this applies across many forms of work.


I figure I should note that I'm not prescribing exercise for Ms. Bear, just describing what it did for me. Middle age snuck up without my realizing, and increasing decrepitude had (in my case) brought increased risk of depression.

Working 60-hour weeks, it's tempting to skip the exercise — but I can no longer do so without fairly immediate effects. I'm just glad my sister was perceptive enough to twig what was happening to me…

If only I liked exercising for its own sake :-(


We could have the self-publishing discussion until the proverbial cows came home, I suspect; different people work in different ways. Myself, I couldn't imagine being dependent on a publisher, and feel a lot happier keeping complete creative control. Nevertheless, this is not the post for such a discussion, IMHO. Except that the reason I'm a science-fiction writer now is complete and total burnout at my last office job after one cutback too many. Sending that resignation email was the scariest and happiest moment of my life, I assure you!

Pacing is the key, that, and keeping control of what you do, as well as trying to make time for other things. I just finished a fifty-day slog at my last book (and by God, finishing the last chapter was a very sweet feeling indeed), and it can get tiresome at times. Part of my answer is to remind myself how I used to feel when I trawled into the office every night, and how great it is to just be able to get up from the desk and go for a walk whenever you want. (You've been at a job too long when you fall asleep on the way to work...though it was the night shift, to be fair.)

I know a lot of people advise to work 'regular hours', but I think that's a mistake. Too confining, and too much like working in the salt mines. Yes, there are times when you just have to sit down at the keyboard and pound at the keys until something coherent comes out (and believe me, the self-published have deadlines as scary as the published) but the freedom to just take that day off, or get up late, is extremely liberating. The other thing – and something I've been bad at – is to write something new, break new ground. I've been writing SF and Fantasy for three years, and I'm warming up to Historical largely for that reason, the road less travelled.


I definitely agree that regular exercise and an improved diet make a huge difference in resilience and health outcomes. They certainly have for me!


Endorphins... if anyone could bottle them and sell it on street corners they would make a fortune! My dose of empathy with the depressed was being on opiates for a couple of weeks and then stopping. Never previously felt quite like that, but it helped that I knew what it was and that it was temporary.


I dunno about 2k a day being hard...of course I'm revising stuff already in first draft, and so I'm not having much trouble. I discovered that I could do NaNoWriMo reasonably well when I was still working the day job and spouse was doing chemo (probably the whole Escape thing had a lot to do with that). I am now retired from the day job, and I am finding 2k a day fairly easily (spouse doing chemo again, unfortunately, hope it sticks this time). Of course, I had a friend who finally won her time free and I tried to tell her that 13k a day was probably unrealistic (she became ill with Something fairly quickly, and has since become more realistic). I do take weekends off, and I reward myself for doing 2k by play Warcraft for an hour. I may well run into trouble when I'm generating first draft, although I usually have a pretty good idea where I'm going, which helps. But I'm not under pressure from any contracts either, which changes the game considerably.

I was really burned out from my accounts payable job, though (and am sadistically pleased that after the bosses believed they could spread my workload out among the remaining clerks, that they are now advertising for a new one...).


This may be off-topic, but since there are apparently several writers in the thread, I'd like to ask: do any of you use outlining or other methods of structuring your writing in advance? And how does it work for you?


To put 2K in perspective, a professional writer for a newspaper or magazine would quite easily be able to churn out 2000 words, but as Bear has already stated, to make it compelling and interesting takes a lot more effort. That's why the New Yorker and the New York Times pays so well.

I'd argue that to make 300 words "good" probably takes about the same amount of time as writing 2000 words if not longer.

Anyway, I hope your year off helps to clarify what you want to do next with plenty of enjoyment. Life's too short otherwise.

And to some other points here, as my wife explained to my daughter last night, saying something that hurts someone, and then apologizing afterwards is like crumpling up a piece of paper. You can flatten it out but the creases are still there.


Generally, I use a fairly light outline; I like to have something to work with when I start out on a book. Usually it amounts to a 'cast list' and a long list of bullet points, one or two for each chapter. Then before I write each chapter, I break it down into four to six different components, each one maybe five hundred words of eventual text on average.
The outline I come up with at the start often isn't what I finish with - I usually revise it several times over the course of a book, and often it can change quite radically, either because things seem to be evolving in a different way than I had originally intended, or because I simply have a better idea of how to go about something than I did when I began.
I have tried writing without an outline, and it tends to be a total disaster; I've also tried writing with a much more detailed outline, and those books never actually end up happening - a part of my brain is convinced that story is 'done' and I just can't get it down on paper. It's all about finding a happy medium, I think.


I can do 8k to 10k a day without much trouble. I know some people who do 10k to 12k a day in half the time it takes me. I do basically 1k an hour, sometimes more or less depending on the hour. I choose to do half my daily maximum so that I have time to read, watch DVDs, basically have a life. Having a life is what makes it possible to write.

I look at the first part of Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a good example of speed differences.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier "On Your Left"

Later in the movie, Sam Wilson says, "I do what he does, only slower."

As long as people keep saying, "On your left," and passing me, I don't feel bad about my pace, and I stopped feeling bad when I pass others.

To Charlie's and Elizabeth's comments. I'll be 60 come April, and I don't spend any time doing the things that they are concerned with. Their comments are based on their fears, not on what many people are doing. Kris puts it best in what's going on in her latest post.

Business Musings: Book-Shaming

BTW, I publish under multiple pen names, and imprints. If I wanted people to know what I was doing, I would have a website. So mums the word, a wink is as good as a nod. HA!


I can do 8k to 10k a day without much trouble.

So what?

Some people can work like that -- Seanan McGuire averages about 7000 words per day, 365 days a year -- but those of us who can't, can't. We just don't think that way. The mechanical keystrokes angle of writing 10K words a day is trivial: give me dictation, I'll type that many words in 3 hours or less. It's the creative side that's hard.

NB: Have I heard of any of your pen-names? And are you earning a solid living at it -- over US $50,000 a year?


Different people work differently. I think writing is one of those areas where there is no 'right way', only what is 'right for you'. I average five or six thousand words a day when I'm working, but I certainly don't work every day; I'd find that soul-destroying. Not to mention I'd never manage any research or revision! I've worked out over time how I work best - in bursts of about fifteen to twenty days, with breaks in between. I have written ten thousand words in a day on a couple of occasions - once deliberately, because of the nature of the chapters I was writing, and a couple of times simply because everything was really flowing well, and I didn't see any reason to stop.
For disclosure; this has been my full-time job since I quit my last 'real' job three years ago. I really wouldn't recommend doing it the way I did it (jumping without having actually finished a full-length novel was...risky), but I've passed $50k/year for the last two years.


I'd be happy to provide non-metaphorical cookies if there was a way to do so. You should establish a cookie dead drop so we can contribute to your well-being without being creepy. (Per Charlie, if I ever make it to Boskone is there a non-sugary snack that is preferred to improve your well-being?)

In all seriousness, I hope the step away helps you re-find joy in writing. Actually, both Charlie and you are two of my all time favorite authors, and getting to meet you a few months back when you were on the book tour for Karen Memery was amazing.

Best luck on your endeavors, you have reader's when you have interest in again in sharing your stories.


I was kind of wondering this myself. Quantity doesn't equal quality. In my field, someone knocking out dozens of designs every day that are full of errors and don't work well in the machine are far less valuable than someone doing one or two that will work the first time...


Charlie said: NB: Have I heard of any of your pen-names? And are you earning a solid living at it -- over US $50,000 a year?

I'm happy to say, "No, not yet", to both your questions, but I'll let you know when I do consistently reach $50k for five straight years.


Mearsk: I agree that quantity does not equal quality, largely because I don't necessarily think that you can relate the two. It's all about the process, about how each writer works. And that everyone is different, working in a different way. I suppose I could roll out the usual list of 'great works written quickly', but you hear that every NaNoWriMo. (Which, ironically, I have never managed. For some reason, my Novembers always seem to go off-plan...)


So... like ... erm ... you mean haiku poets are total wimps?


The hypercritical stuff is a drag ... especially if it turns out that you're more sensitive to criticism than praise. (Not everyone knows which they'll respond more strongly to ... but once you find out, it gets easier because you'll know to avoid those particular traps.)

BTW, I enjoyed your book ...

Wishing you the best ... take time to dunk your cookie into some milk, have a nap, watch the sky, ...


I once worked for Xbox Customer Support. (See how that adventure ended here.) There were times when I was at Xbox that I sincerely missed being homeless. About a month after hitting the call floor, I got off work and before I even got on the train I called up my sister and began venting profanity at the top of my lungs. Wonderful saint that she is, my sister took the hint to make sympathetic cooing noises until the pressure needle moved back out of the red zone.

The story has a happy ending, though! Eventually after I left Stream I got an awesome job as an IT nerd for USACE and learned all sorts of exciting things and got paid more than I ever had and then I lived happily ever after!

Until I read this thread, got curious, googled up the signs of burnout, and found that I fit all of them. Hrm. Unfortunate.

One wonders if there is any segment in the modern economy left that isn't extremely prone to burnout these days.


...did you just try to tell Elizabeth Bear how many words are on a manuscript page, and how many are in a manuscript?

Because that would be...sure something.


There's a reason our kind turn up.

While I might be responsible for WWIII and the genocide of numinous beings, I wasn't joking about your book saving my life.

So, hot breath on your neck and the wild bone ride.

The hidden motive was fun, flesh and fiendish inspiration and showing that appreciation comes in many forms. And we really don't like VD and so on.

So: nose wiggle You've lovers in low places, apparently.


If we're sharing here, I once spent five years fighting against a manifest destiny array of factors (it's called in the biz "testing to destruction").

$3.2 mil pay off, but hey. All given to others.

Sadly the stages after that got a whole lot darker, but there we go.

“Everything was a metaphor; all things were something other than themselves. The pain, for example, was an ocean, and he was adrift on it. His body was a city and his mind a citadel. All communications between the two seemed to have been cut, but within the keep that was his mind he still had power. The part of his consciousness that was telling him the pain did not hurt, and that all things were like other things, was found it hard to think of a comparison. A magic mirror, maybe.”

[cj8j615-Incep - multiple heavy earth machinery in Siberia / tundra, deep pit excavation - genocide? mass burn pits? Unsure - time stamp +/- 4 years; Putin son / s' brother in law assassinated. Image is Left pits, mid square traction earth scars, right heavy machinery. Location unsure, NW spatial terms. "Tell No-one". Interesting little thing about that...]

Oh, and meta-lesson: You broke the Rules of your own Game.

You can make a few $100 mil and things are fine (UK national debt that caused IMF crisis in 1970's - 3 billion) but when you just go all out and ignore the numbers...

Radiohead - Just (You Do It To Yourself) Youtube: music : 4:06


On a more realist note:

We might not be beautiful, but you are, Host and OP and other writers.

And you do a thing that the world really needs so, hey.

Αστερεσ μέν ἀμφι κάλαν σελάνναν ἆιψ ἀπυκρύπτοισι φάεννον εἶδοσ, ὄπποτα πλήθοισα μάλιστα λάμπησ ἀργυρια γᾶν.


Sorry if I'm mangling the quote, but...'there are nine and ninety ways/Of composing tribal lays/and every single blasted one is right'.

And I can indeed foresee a time when I might need to take a year off, as well.

I mean, I do have 30 books planned out to write (fortunately one of my lengths appears to be the six book series). So I'd better get on with it, since I'm 61 (though Nana lived to be 97 and worked on crossword puzzles the night before she died, so perhaps I do have time...).


Elizabeth, best of luck with dealing with this. Charlie, too.

I've not burned out from the writing, but I stopped being published traditionally some time ago and self publishing has not proved sufficiently viable for me to continue with it. I can make more money elsewhere, for less effort.

I am continuing to write short fiction and currently a novella, but otherwise will be writing privately, as a hobby rather than as a pro. My mother went through the same pattern, continuing to write although Robert Hale stopped publishing her after 12 or so novels, and is still writing daily at 88.


That is one of the the most misquoted things on the Web, and that's saying something! From In The Neolithic Age.

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, And every single one of them is right!


Technical writing, too - the editing time dominates the writing, if you actually want to make it comprehensible to the readers. I should be flabberghasted if fiction weren't the same as technical writing - i.e. the more unusual and complex the topic, the more (total) work is needed to get it into shape. It can get dispiriting :-(


I love the construction "hlepful," Charlie.

Around my house, we say, "helpy," or use the construction, "Helping like kittens."

Which has the added benefit of defusing the situation by making everybody giggle.


Oh yes. I have done technical writing, and journalistic writing, and one of the things that happened to me in both fields was that as my initial copy got cleaner, my drafting speed radically slowed.

I was doing more of the editing work on the front end, but it meant stopping to make each sentence good before moving on to the next one.

Net gain in speed overall because that time and more came off the back/editing end, but it does mean that churning out 7,000 words in a day is a once-a-year experience for me now, and happens only under perfect conditions.


Liz, I'm sure I'm not the only person here who would always be happy to read anything you wrote. Hell, if you wrote the back of a cereal packet I'd read it, in the near-certainty that it would be good. So I hope this 'private' writing ends up somewhere people can read it: it would be a downright sin for it to languish unread.


Thanks - that's very kind.


Do you (writers, in general) experience 'flow' or being 'in the zone', or is writing-for-a-living almost entirely a 'do part A', 'go to part B', etc. until the job/book is complete? If 'flow' ... how do you get yourself into that state?

I get that writing involves process, but fiction also involves stuff, in this instance, ideas ... so which leads and which follows in this dance?


"Flow" is a really unfortunate delusion brought on by being in a state where the hard cognitive work doesn't hurt, and concluding that the lack of pain indicates that you must be doing it right.

Unfortunately, the hard cognitive work hurting is a sign that quality control is being applied during the creation step. (This certainly applies to code as well as writing.)

Writing is the same as any other kind of cognitive work; there's skills, there's practice, there's experience, there's articulation of objectives, and there's management of contention. ("I want the reader to like this character/the existing plot structure absolutely requires them to immolate kittens in this scene", contention.) Whether the word rate is going well is in my experience (aka you're a gibbering idiot if you generalize from this) a function of the current degree of contention in the text.

(As data points, solely self-published, and 25 kwords is a good month.)


Are you the Liz Williams who wrote "Banner of Souls"?


I'm glad you're taking care of yourself and figuring out what you need. I can totally relate. After some unpleasant publishing experiences I began losing confidence in myself as a writer, which then generalized out to all the other parts of my life. Soon I was more depressed, gaining weight, exhausted and hopeless. As the slide continued, money became an issue and all the symptoms got worse. I'm still trying to grab on to something helpful. Writing? No thanks. Doesn't sound like fun at all. And that's a shame because I used to like it. Here's hoping we all feel better soon. :)


FWIW, I wish you safe passage through this, and hope the other side is to your satisfaction. And Karen Memory was a lot of fun to read.


I did write Banner of Souls, yes.


Maybe you care too much. Other people's expectations and responsibilities can be heavy.


The hellish streets of Hartford, CT? It is really more like purgatory, which as we know now, does not exist, proving the added value of the analogy.


Burnout is a thing, when I've gone through that, the only thing that really helped in the long run was doing something pretty different for an extended time.

Of course that is easier said then done, since we all gotta eat

My sympathies, good luck


From the standpoint of a reader, can I just say a) your work is wonderful, and b) you have already justified yourselves (you too, Charlie) as Writer. If you never write another word, that stands. Hope that you can relax and that circumstances allow for healing!


Cool, I found it a bit different but rather enjoyed it.


I've had the crappy-job burnout, but I would imagine there's a big guilt factor to burning out from doing the thing you love, the thing you quit the crappy office job to do. You'd imagine people saying, "How can you be tired of cake, when all I have is potato?"

Which must result in insisting through gritted teeth, "No, I Love Doing This" for a year or two before admitting burn-out.


Unfortunately, the hard cognitive work hurting is a sign that quality control is being applied during the creation step. (This certainly applies to code as well as writing.)

In my experience, it applies to coding, maths, drawing, and writing, which are my main creative activities. One has to wonder why. We have evolved to survive by thinking. So what is the evolutionary point of making quality control, which ought to produce better thoughts, hurt?

I've wondered the same about practice. You only have to look round your local Oxfam to see the number of discarded guitar tutorials, Greek and Spanish grammars, tennis-coaching books. Practice hurts. But why? Improved skill = improved control over one's environment. What possible benefit can there be from not wanting to improve?

Anyway, being positive about this, are there any techniques for reducing how much the hard cognitive work hurts? The only ones I can think of off-hand are running (I find that useful ideas tend to appear) and caffeine (which improves focus but has side effects).


I've had the crappy-job burnout, but I would imagine there's a big guilt factor to burning out from doing the thing you love, the thing you quit the crappy office job to do. You'd imagine people saying, "How can you be tired of cake, when all I have is potato?"

There are some interesting cases in The New Yorker's "Blocked: Why do writers stop writing?" by "A Critic At Large" (June 14, 2004). The author doesn't really conclude anything definitive about causes or cures (apart from such straightforward causes as running out of things to write about), but it's an informative read.


For me, mindfulness practice works to help with intellectual burn-out.

Part of the problem is that (with exceptions) no one teaches you how to deal with the side effects of whatever it is you're doing. Part of the mindfulness practice is simply becoming aware of what you're doing to your body, and figuring out ways to deal with that, be it running or whatever.

Another part of mindfulness that's even more important is figuring out why you're doing whatever-it-is to yourself, simply by becoming aware of it. Note that I'm not saying that you have to do anything about it, but sometimes the reasons why we push ourselves to burn-out are so absurd that, once we become aware of them (as in so many jobs) we promptly develop a strong desire to get as far away from them as possible.

Note also that yes, practice hurts, but in many cases, the art being practiced was never intended to be life-long. Look, for example, at what American football does to its high caliber and successful practitioners. It's got a whole body of practice techniques, but most of them are intended to improve performance, not to extend your football career into old age.

Similarly, a lot of people who do NANOWRIMO get the (mistaken) idea that professional writers normally write at 50,000 words per month, without carpal tunnel problems, back problems, neck problems, eye problems, or whatever. And why shouldn't they get this impression? For the average NANOWRIMO participant, this is a once-a-year challenge, if not a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. They don't face the same endurance challenges that a professional does. I suspect that, if we poll working writers, especially ones who have been doing it for decades (anyone want to contact Ms. Le Guin?), we'll find that they work more than a bit differently.


I went through this too, Elizabeth. I ameliorated a lot of it by writing in different genres, especially genres that aren't respected by the other genres (like romance). It took a long time to learn how to have fun again.

Honestly, the best thing I've done for myself is move my novels out of traditional publishing. I control everything, from the covers to the publication date. I still do a lot of work for traditional companies, but most of it is anthology editing or short stories. I'm much happier controlling my books--and they are getting more attention from fans, more promotion outside the sf/f field, better reviews, and are selling more copies than they did in the field.

Just something to consider when you decide to return.

The most important thing, though, imho, is to have fun. Writing is something we do for pleasure, and would do for free (did do for free, in the beginning). I found returning to that attitude made all the difference for me.

I wish you the best, and am glad you're taking care of yourself. (Love the post.)


Jocelyn wrote: We have evolved to survive by thinking. So what is the evolutionary point of making quality control, which ought to produce better thoughts, hurt?

Disclaimer: I am not a biologist, so this is "Just-So Story" level of analysis.

It hurts as a signal that you're doing more thinking than necessary?

Most forms of exercise and sport are not painful until you start trying to run really fast, or lift really heavy things, or throw things really far. Olympic athletes have to overcome their pain barriers to win. I suspect that while hunter-gatherers are in better shape than the average westerner, they're not super athletes, just good enough.

Similarly for thinking. Peter Watts likes to use the story about our ancestors doing pattern-matching to decide whether a tiger is sneaking up on them. High quality thinking is definitely not required. A fast heuristic, even if it gives false positives for tigers, is the way to survive. The quality thinker's last words are "Wait! If you just think about this you'll realise it is highly unlikely that a tiger could be in that bush!"

It probably doesn't help that professional writers today have to be really good. In Olden Times a storyteller had a limited audience, the local tribe or village. They didn't have to work hard on their stories and delivery, because who else could the audience listen to?


I'm glad somebody else uses Helpy. In our house he's one of a cast of recurring characters-without-stories - sort of local archetypes - who provide conversational synechdoche for what my 12-year-old calls "IRL tropes". We visualise Helpy a little like this:

You're basically going to be in deep shit if he tries to help you.

WRT taking a break, as a long-time reader I'd far rather you do anything necessary to make it possible for there to be lots more books down the line than keep feeding the beast and end up losing the ability.

I'm a visual artist rather than a writer and I'm really struggling to find my feet and start work again a whole year after a terrible month that involved very traumatic family event and the loss of my long-time studio. I have no idea how to find that creative space again and I have a show booked in April.

Hearing about what other folk have done/are doing to regain their mojo (assuming the basics of diet/sleep/exercise/routine are well in hand so go without saying) is immensely helpful at this point.


Finally, I'd second Charlie's comment about giving yourself cookies. Diabetes is a fucking chore to manage, and if you reward yourself with carbs, it ties a punishment knot into your reward cycle. Anyway, a few cookies are fine. Fruit is good. A bit of chocolate is good. Nuts are good. An apple with peanut butter is surprisingly good (even as a meal).

A tart firm apple with peanut butter is great.

One issue that I'm sure Charlie and others have noticed is that as we age past 30 or so our required calorie count goes down each year. So you have to learn to cut back each year. And when you primary work is at a keyboard (different career but I'm there) it can be hard to realize how much time has passed and how much snaking you've done.


We have evolved to survive by thinking. So what is the evolutionary point of making quality control, which ought to produce better thoughts, hurt?

I rather doubt that's factual. I think we evolved to gang up on problems. Thinking's sort of a low-status speciality off in a corner of the social contribution space. (Much talked-up by poets, but not really much valued.)

My expectation is that changing your brain is inherently effortful -- you're altering tissue organization -- and of course that hurts, just like exercised muscle hurts. It helps to get an appropriate diet (high quality natural fats...) and sufficient rest and all the other things you'd worry about it you were training muscle.

I suspect that issues of burnout arise not so much from limits of organizational plasticity as from issues of contradiction. My experience of work-related burnout involved finding out I can do three people's jobs for about eighteen months, and the contradiction between "this is important enough to expend this much effort (lifespan, foregone social opportunity, ...)" and "the organization doesn't value what I'm doing enough to add resources" eventually became impossible to ignore.

Writerly burnout, well, "This is what I want to be writing" isn't obviously always true in several traditional contexts. But it has to be true if what you're writing is going to progress effectively.

(I self-publish in part due to a conviction that no traditional publishing mechanism would ever pay me for what I'm interested in writing.)


Off topic a bit, but I visualise Helpy as the Windows pop-up you get when a Wi-fi connection doesn't work and Windows offers "Diagnose connection problem?". I have never ever ever got any useful advice from that thing.


Hmmm... Wonder if going up meta-levels can make advice more generally useful.

"Try to think what you would think someone like you in the same situation you're in now should do, try to do that."

Weirdly I've found asking people what advice they'd give someone very similar to themselves to be the most generally reliable approach and tends to make people take a step back and stop panicking/stressing about things so much.


I've found it rarely helps much but on the other hand before it goes through those it comes up with "trying to resolve" or something similar and sometimes that fixes it entirely without any need for me to do anything.


Speaking of broken reward systems: the really positive thing about selfpublishing is the fact that you can publish whenever you like. No more waiting for the treats.


There are nine and sixty ways of misquoting tribal lays, And every single one of them is right!


To Charlie & Elizabeth, I wish you the best for getting to a happier space.


So really, if you want to make yourself like your job, the best way to do it is to take some of the pressure off, and when the work gets done, to give yourself a cookie.

Yup, know this one.

I am, quite frankly, a reluctant housewife. I loathe housework: it's horrible, it's boring, it's never-ending and it takes time away from my packed schedule of doing not much (did I mention I'm unemployed and mentally ill? Yeah? Oh good). So for a long time there, my partner and I were perpetually living in about second-degree squalor (persistent mess, unwashed dishes in the sink, unswept floors, rubbish in places other than the bin etc) because I just could not be arsed to do anything about the housework. This wasn't doing much for my mental state either, because I was spending a lot of time beating myself up because for gods sakes, it's just housework, it's not like it's hard or anything, right? And I can't even do that consistently? How useless must I be! (Rant courtesy Meg's Jerk!Brain, which hates her, and wants her to be miserable).

What turned things around? Well, I came to the gradual realisation the thing which I really resented about the housework was the time it took, and the lack of reward I got for it (the inherent "reward" for cleaning anything is seeing it get messy again), combined with the never-ending nature of the task (at this point I was still in the "Clean ALL The Things" mindset regarding housework - it was all marathon efforts which left me exhausted for about two or three days at a stretch afterwards). The whole thing offended my capitalist work ethic: this was work I was performing for which I was not getting paid, and it sucked. I've done crap jobs before, and the only thing which made them even vaguely acceptable to me was I got paid for the work I was doing. No wonder I wasn't actually performing the work!

So I started paying myself for the housework. Not much - I was on the dole at the time (and still am), and I certainly can't afford to be paying myself Australian minimum wage for the housework I'm doing. But I just started paying myself 10c per chore for the work I was doing, and aiming to get 20 chores per day done (so, $2 per day, or about $10 per week). The money goes into a higher-interest savings account, and it's earmarked for things I want - clothes, books, games, whatever. My fairy money for spending on treats.

The house looks a lot better these days.

The other thing I taught myself is that I don't have to do All The Things every single day - I'm allowed to stop when I reach 20 chores done, and the house will still refrain from falling down. I also learned so long as I clean up more mess each day than gets created that day, things will slowly improve - which means if I get behind, so long as I pick the task up again, it will quickly return to its usual level. An example: last week I had a Bad Week, in that the depression was really playing up and I had next to no energy. Among the various tasks I wound up leaving un-done was folding my clean laundry, and it soon piled up in the basket. Fortunately, I don't have to deal with the whole basket at once - I have a limit of 10 items folded per day. Even in the dead of winter, wearing multiple layers, I don't wear 10 items each and every day - and at present it's summer. So at 10 items a day, I cleared the whole basket in about 3 - 4 days work, even with extra laundry being added in on top over the first few days.

Other tips I've discovered over the years:

  • Guilt is a lousy motivator unless what you were wanting to motivate was resentful sulking.
  • I do better if I keep a list of the things I've already done rather than a list of the things I still have left to do.
  • If I want to keep a paper list of "things to do", the least guilt-inducing way to cross things off it (for me) is with various coloured highlighters.
  • Websites which gamify habit creation or chore completion are great, provided I can adapt them to fit in with my particular mindset. The two I use (in concert with each other) are Habitica (formerly HabitRPG) and Chorewars - Habitica holds the list of chores and when they're due, Chorewars acts as the "things what I done today" list and helps me keep track of how many tasks I've completed so far.
  • There is a reason our ancestors fought for the 40-hour working week (8 hours work, 8 hours sleep, 8 hours leisure/maintenance time). We should not forget this!

There is nothing not awesome about your post. I use Habitica too. It gets me to floss and do my physical therapy!


@84: Guilt is a lousy motivator unless what you were wanting to motivate was resentful sulking.

That's a keeper!


I just use fine pharmaceuticals to enhance my various experiences...


You rule. Seriously. Your post gave me a lot of perspective on chores (although I bribe myself to fold laundry by watching The Simpsons or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, or an old Game of Thrones episode, or some other show that is treat to watch). But paying myself for chores, I am writing that sucker down.

And I could pay myself for every 500 words I get down,as well. I adore the phrase 'fairy money', too. Brilliant.

This is part of literature, too. In THE LIGHT THAT FAILED, the hero is all miffed off because he was running errands for pin money for some reason, but his girlfriend quietly took out the amount he was ripped off for, and gave it to him. "See, you've been paid, and now you don't have to be angry about it any more."


Coming to this late, but I feel a lot of this pain. I'm going to obfuscate to protect the guilty and innocent.

I am effectively the key writer on a magazine that comes out every 6 weeks. I produce around 2500 words every 6 weeks, but these are an insanely condensed summation of knowledge and research. When I started out it was my dream job. It was and is an extension of who I am in some way. Yet coming into the 6th year, the relentless schedule has worn me down. Everybody acknowledges that my contribution is vital - and we stagger on paying a small group of us a sort of living wage...

But while everyone acknowledges the work is vital, that doesn't stop them asking me to do a bunch of other things in the business. And I know everyone has to pitch in, so I typically spend the first 2 weeks of every cycle pitching in. So then I have 4 weeks. And it just doesn't get any easier. I've been doing it for all this time and I can't "just knock one out and sneak a bit of rest." So, I'm ploughing along exhibiting all sorts of depressive behaviour... and I don't know where I go from here.


Metatone said: So, I'm ploughing along exhibiting all sorts of depressive behaviour... and I don't know where I go from here.

Crazy as it may sound if you can Indy publish even two 100k novels a year, it will help reduce your stress because you will be writing for you.

Less than three manuscript pages a day will let you Indy publish those two books a year. Use a pen name so that you can write anything you want without it impacting your "day job".

Kris's latest post is all about what's going on in this thread.

Business Musings: Buggy Whips, Pollsters, Collisions, and Us


Yup, I hear that. I wrote the monthly Linux column in Computer Shopper (the UK title, owned by Dennis Publishing) for about five and a half years -- 4000 words/month -- and also spent 4 years of that time grinding out 8,000-12,000 words of magazine copy on free software/open source/programming each month for CS and other British magazines.

It's the treadmill that wears you down, not the output rate. Most of us prefer to work in bursts then take a vacation, but monthly quotas don't permit any time off -- it's like being chased by zombies of the shambling-but-don't-stop variety.


Indeed. What we've come to is that the punishment isn't specifically for you, as much as your receipt of punishment is the reward for them. I've seen this even outside of the work environment where there was no employment/job/family etc relationship; it was simply a matter of proximity.

Thanks Elizabeth and Charlie for this. It's one of those posts that shifts the viewpoint such that one can see that the trees really are in a row. Much to ponder and take on board. I recently read a piece about stress and burnout in which I ticked nearly all the boxes, and I had thought I was doing well before that. I'm going to reassess my own reward system now.


It's obvious that writers try different actual kinds of stories--different genres, different person and tense, etc... So if that doesn't work, what about experimenting with changing your whole approach to the writing process, just to make it seem fresh? Dictate to a tape recorder while doing housework. Write longhand in a public place. Plan nothing. Plan in detail. Do different things that shake you out of the monotony. Of course it will seem unnatural and unproductive, you know what works.



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This page contains a single entry by Elizabeth Bear published on February 19, 2016 12:06 AM.

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