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What Happens When You Burn Out on Writing?

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Elizabeth Bear is one of those authors who seems like an incredible writing machine. She’s put out a huge number of books in the past 10 years, winning tons of acclaim along the way. But in a brave post on Charles Stross’ blog, she talks about the cost of being that prolific.

She writes:

Between life stress and overwork, I hit a wall at the end of last year... 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.


Getting to write science fiction and fantasy for a living sounds like a dream come true, but even a dream job is still a job, and it’s possible to burn out. And the combination of too many deadlines and expectations on one side, and excessively harsh self-criticism on the other can be grinding. I’ve definitely experienced the thing where as soon as you HAVE to finish a piece of fiction by a particular date, instead of just wanting to get it done because you’re excited about it, the writing suddenly becomes more of a grind. And hearing people criticize your writing, without taking it on board in an unhelpful or self-destructive way, is a huge, massive challenge.

Bear offers a couple of solutions: Learning to say no so you don’t get as overwhelmed, and also giving yourself rewards (cookies!). To those, I’d add that it’s curiously satisfying to “cheat on” your writing project — if you’re grindingly determined to get that epic fantasy novel done, it’s a weirdly guilty pleasure to let yourself get sucked into writing that screwball 1920s romantic comedy short story instead. So naughty! And yet, ultimately, way better for your writing, including the epic fantasy novel you were trying to finish.


But it’s tough in any case—and it’s good to be reminded that your favorite author is not a machine that spits out books on demand, but a human being. (CoughGRRMcough.) [AntiPope]

Top image: Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear.

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, which is available now. Here’s what people have been saying about it. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.