Feel the Burn (Out)
Tips on managing creative burnout
Welcome to April’s bonus newsletter topic.
I have recently fallen into a pattern of a twice-monthly newsletter with this bonus topic being something more related to writing or creativity and the other monthly email being my roundup of humor links and what I’ve been up to.
So— friendly reminder that if you are less interested in these writing-related emails and more interested in the monthly roundup/what I’ve been up to (Hi, Mom!) you can update your preferences by following these directions. Funny monthly roundups are under the “Humor Me” section and the other sections you can opt in or out of include “Humor Writer Interviews” and “Writing Resources, Tips, and Advice.”
This month’s bonus topic is creative burnout, which I admit is not an inherently funny topic, but something that I think many humor writers (myself included) and other creatives struggle with at times. In a recent newsletter, I asked for tips on managing it and appreciated these ideas from other creatives:
Caitlin Kunkel, who writes the Input/Output newsletter said:
“When I'm burnt out creatively, I try to remember that creating things is only half the equation—taking in inspiration and synthesizing it in your head is the other 50% of making something new. I've recently gotten very into fragrances (my therapist has said I need a hobby that I haven't monetized, so here we are) and famous perfumer Francis Kurkdjian gave this fantastic quote in an interview: ‘Most of the people think inspiration is passive. You can’t just wait to get inspired. It’s the opposite. You must work for and seek an idea. You must pursue it, chase it until you find you hold something relevant, and a story good enough to become a scent.’
Watch movies, TV, read genre books, see a play, listen to music. Inspiration is not passive, it must be pursued—that's become one of my mantras to allow myself to input when I'm feeling like I have nothing else to output.”
Ysabel Yates, who writes the Humor Science newsletter said:
“Get busy not writing. It can be hard to combat the guilt of not writing, even if I know it’s not going to be a productive session because I’m tired or low on inspiration. Rather than force myself to write if I’m not feeling it, I’ll do a career-related task I’ve been putting off.
Some “quick win” tasks might be:
Adding your recent bylines to your website
Researching a class to take
Researching competitions to enter and putting the deadlines on your calendar
Some more involved tasks might be:
Rewriting your bio
Emailing a writer you admire and telling them you like their work
Organizing a monthly feedback group and inviting people to join
I often forget about these tasks and instead, focus my energy on writing (or worrying about not writing). But lately, I’ve been trying to dedicate more time to them, and consciously label them as work, because they are part of the work of being a writer. And if, in a month, you didn't publish any new humor pieces but you organized a writing group and met three new feedback buddies? That's huge!”
Michael Estrin, who writes the Situation Normal newsletter had these tips:
“1. I take a break from the project. Note this is only doable when I'm not on deadline, meaning I don't owe work to someone who has promised to pay me. But I thought I'd mention it here because a lot of writers on Substack feel like they can't take a break because they have paying subscribers. That's mindset is a recipe for disaster. I tell my readers when I'm taking a break, they understand that I'm human and need a break, and believe it or not, absence does make the heart grow fonder, at least when it comes to newsletters.
2. I try to get lunch, or coffee, or something with a creative friend. Over the years, I've learned that some of my creative friends leave me feeling drained, but others actually pump me up. It's an energy thing. For some reason, chatting with those friends makes me feel like I could take on the world. So, I try to reach out to them when I'm feeling burnt out. Note: that kind of help is a two-way street, so I also make myself available to those friends when they're feeling burnt out.
3. I read nonfiction. Don't get me wrong, I love reading fiction and I write it too. But there's something about digging into good nonfiction that recharges me creatively. Maybe it's the fact that I'm engaging in a story without feeling the need to pick apart what works and what doesn't while also comparing my own work to whatever I'm reading. Sounds strange, but give me a true crime story or a dense history book and I'm a new human.
4. I take a social media break. Maybe this is specific to me, but I doubt it. Social media has its moments, but can also drain the life out of me. If I'm feeling burnt out, I take time off from social media and see how I feel. Usually, I feel better.
5. Outside time. I learned this about myself during the pandemic. I live in Los Angeles, so it's easy to take good weather for granted. But during the first year of the pandemic, I stayed inside way too much and it really got me down, mentally and creatively. Getting outside helped a lot, and it wasn't like I went deep into the woods, or something. Just a walk in a nearby park helped me sort stuff out.”
And Laurel Cummings, who writes Free Puppies Comedy also noted the importance of others:
“Interacting with other people is the best treatment for creative burnout I have found so far. Writing is so isolating /solitary by nature that it’s easy to get lost in the vortex of negative self-talk.”
I have also found that interacting with other writers has helped me get out of creative burnout holes (and honestly a good vent session can also work wonders sometimes).
A couple of other things that have helped me:
Limiting my writing hours. For a long time, I did a lot of writing in the evenings and weekends and while it did help me get a lot done, it also led to some burnout, so now I try to really limit the writing I do outside of normal work hours. This means I don’t get writing done every day as I also need to complete tasks for my teaching day job during those hours. Yes, certain projects take longer to work on when you limit hours, but I’m okay with just taking advantage of the smaller pockets of time that I have right now.
Remember accomplishments. I think I can get caught up on the things that I am not achieving so I’m trying to more actively remember my writing career highlights. I’ve heard some people keep a list or scraps of paper or Post-its with their big wins on them to periodically look at. I have not managed to get that organized about it yet but may in the future.
Take a class. When I’m feeling unmotivated, sometimes taking a class helps me inject some new life into my writing. Sometimes taking a class in something I don’t normally write or something unrelated to writing also helps me feel refreshed to work on something.
Have any more burnout tips? Share them in the comments!
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Excellent advice here from you and others. I "quit writing" often. I never actually quit, but even "quitting" for 5 minutes (or a few days or weeks) and imagining that writing is not in my life takes the pressure off, helps me to appreciate all the other aspects of my existence...then reminds me that I love doing this despite the challenges. I always circle back. "Quitting" is like taking a break, but, you know, with more drama.
The “outside time” angle is pretty essential. When the punchlines stop making sense, I know it’s been too long since I’ve fallen off a skateboard. I think of it as launching my body through writer’s block.