This post is a bit more off-the-cuff than my usual essay-style posts about writing. It’s not prescriptive. I don’t have any conclusions or answers. I just have a few things I felt like talking about.
Writer’s Block vs. Burnout
Writer’s block is wanting to write, but finding yourself unable to get the words out. It is perpetually romanticized (by some writers, and some non-writers). If you do a google search, you’ll find millions of suggestions for how to “break through” writer’s block. I’ve made my own contributions.
Burnout, on the other hand, is losing even the desire to write. It’s writing depression; it’s losing the joy or even interest in the stories that compelled us to write in the first place.
The Grinding Gears of the Content Machine
Gone are the days when writers would toil away quietly, hidden from the public eye, perhaps producing a novel every couple of years. (Or wait, was there ever really such a time?)
To be a successful writer today, you are expected to do everything. If you’re a traditionally published midlist author, publishers are doing less and less for you. You’re expected to do more of the marketing and promotion. If you’re self-publishing, then you not only have to do everything yourself, but you’re probably paying out of your own pocket for services like editing and layout. Either way, you need to have a social media presence on a list of sites that changes every few years. You need to be entertaining. You need a Substack newsletter. You need to dance on TikTok with your book, or some shit.
The publishing industry is a massive beast, and it’s slow to change, but it’s clearly moving in the same direction as other modern media. The focus isn’t on making something amazing occasionally, it’s on making a constant stream of “content.” It’s quantity over quality, the obsession with capturing views and the fear that if you give anyone a reason to glance away, even for a moment, they’ll forget about you and never come back.
Earlier this week, I reblogged Lincoln Michel’s post, subtitled “Why are we more comfortable talking about output than art?” That was right about the time when I realized I was falling into exactly that trap.
Stress is like background radiation. COVID has been stressful, but things are improving, right? It was really bad, and now it’s…better? It’s pretty hard to tell. I used to work in an office, and I’m still working from home. My kids are back in school, but they’re wearing the mandatory masks. Everything is just not quite right. Just a little bit tainted.
I have no intent to talk about politics on this blog, but political strife has come to permeate more and more of modern American life. Where you live is a political choice now. The car you drive is a political choice. Where you work is a political choice. And, of course, how you’re dealing with COVID is a deeply, deeply political choice. It taints everything it touches: a slow poison in the air.
These are the kinds of background radiation that most of us are dealing with every day. I feel bad even complaining about it, because others have it so much worse than I do. But that stress wears away our defenses. It weakens us in body and mind. Winter and the upcoming holidays pile a little more on top.
That building stress level didn’t really come front-and-center in my consciousness until this Friday, when the software development world collectively freaked the hell out over this thing now known as Log4shell, and my entire team got to drop everything we were working on to frantically search for possible exploits and figure out whatever mitigation was needed. Probably the worst computer security issue found in the last year or two.
Oddly enough, that huge stress spike in my day job helped me to realize the stress I had been putting myself under when it came to my writing. Somehow, it snuck up without me realizing. Nothing like realizing you’re sad and have been for a while.
Observing the Signs and Portents
In my February 2021 “State of the Blog” post, I mentioned a two-posts-per-week schedule. I talked about building up a buffer of pre-written posts. Even a whole month’s worth! And maybe, just maybe, adding a third post per week. After all, I was being careful to avoid burn-out.
In my August 2021 “State of the Blog” post, I had apparently given up on the two-month buffer. But I talked about adding a third post to the weekly schedule. Maybe. Sometimes.
I was certainly up to three posts per week when I began actually publishing chapters of Razor Mountain at the start of November. That threw the existing schedule out the window. I decided I would post a chapter of Razor Mountain each week, while still doing a weekly development journal and a weekly post about writing. That left me scheduled to write 4-5 posts per week. And my stats show that I have indeed posted 4-5 times every week from the start of November until last week.
It can also be observed that pretty much every chapter development journal contains some mention of “falling behind.” Despite having one chapter written when I started, I was behind my self-imposed schedule by Chapter 3, and pretty much unable to keep up from that point forward. That makes sense when I had been steadily increasing my expected output. Unfortunately, the power of wishful thinking makes it sometimes seem reasonable to start behind schedule and not only catch up, but get ahead.
In short, it’s easy to get caught up in a self-determined schedule despite that schedule being objectively unreasonable. In my case, I really wanted to be able to finish publishing the book in a year, and I did not want to consider evidence that the schedule was not practical for me.
The Creative Pathology
I am a naturally lazy person. I am the sort of person who absolutely delights in staying up until 1:00 or 2:00 AM, and then will happily sleep past noon. I love to spend a Sunday playing video games all damn day. Without an external stimulus, I am capable of truly astonishing feats of procrastination.
Yet, in complete opposition to this laziness, I am a person deeply concerned with my legacy (as pretentious as that word sounds). I’m terrified of dying without leaving behind any artifacts that somehow prove my worth. Is a life worthwhile if it doesn’t leave behind ample evidence?
Intellectually, I know that’s ridiculous. Emotionally, it’s a feeling I can’t shake. I’m Ozymandias, from the famous Shelley poem.
No matter what we leave behind, memory is always temporary. Some lives are remembered longer than others, but nothing lasts forever. We’ll all be broken statues in the desert eventually.
Still, this dichotomy is probably what drives me to create more than anything else. I know that I can easily fall back to that default state of lethargy. I’ve certainly done it before. There’s a sort of frantic worry somewhere down deep that if I ever stop, I won’t be able to start back up again. The feeling that I need that inertia. Moderation has never worked well for me. It’s just a stepping stone back into apathy.
I don’t think that kind of internal push and pull is healthy, but I suspect it’s the sort of engine that drives a lot of creative people. We’re all Ozymandias, trying to not be forgotten.
In a deeply ironic twist, while I was worrying about my output, WordPress came around like an excited puppy and informed me that I hit a new record for page views in a single day. Someone sharing a link or a new reader going through the back catalog still gives me more of a bump in readership than a typical post.
So, is it really worth stressing about?
No. That’s probably obvious from the outside looking in. It’s just a blog. It’s just a novel. If there’s anything I take away from all this, it’s that it’s very easy for things to feel more important in a given moment than they are in the long-term.
I’ve taken a week off the novel, and I might take more. I’ll take a little bit of holiday vacation to de-stress. And I’ll pick back up where I left off and keep writing, maybe not worrying quite so much about schedules and the endless churn of “content.”