Tuned In, Turned On, Burnt Out

by Editors


Tuned In, Turned On, Burnt Out:
It’s Time to Take a Break From Creativity

By Erin Dionne

It’s time for a confession: I’m a writer who isn’t writing. The untouched projects have accumulated like dust bunnies under the bed: a novel languishing on my laptop (which I can’t even turn on without feeling pangs of guilt), a magazine article idea that I should have pitched three weeks ago, a blog that’s stagnated, and, of course, essays for this publication that are late. I’ve barely even answered email.

Sure, it’s the thick of the academic semester, and papers and projects from my students are rolling in, eating up my free time with grading and commenting responsibilities, but that’s not really an excuse. I work a schedule that is embarrassingly light and have ample time on my days off to both grade and write creatively. So why do I find myself frittering away the hours watching Law and Order marathons on basic cable, or spending an inordinate amount of time running errands and walking the dog?

For weeks, I’ve been struggling with this question, trudging around feeling guilty and fraudulent. Then the self-doubt set in: “you only have one good book in you,” “no one cares what you write about,” and the ever-popular “who says you can be a writer?” Panic mode—which includes consuming metric tons of leftover Halloween candy and using diversionary tactics whenever anyone asks about my work (“my book…oh, yeah—hey, isn’t that Elvis?”) isn’t far behind. My husband hid the bag of Kit-Kat bars in preparation.

Then, yesterday, I received an email from a friend. A regular, run-of-the-mill update-style message, it detailed what she’d been up to lately (baking, prep for a competition she’s in, day trips to explore nearby towns and attractions, and work), but for me it served as a light bulb moment bright enough to illuminate the eastern seaboard. I wondered at the variety of activities she’s involved in, envied her time spent in the kitchen with a mixing bowl and cookie batter. And it hit me.

I’m burnt out.

For the past six months, I’ve done nothing but write, think about writing, edit other people’s writing, or teach writing. An aggressive summer schedule of writing for hours every day gave way to an intense fall of working on revisions and balancing new curriculum elements in my classes, plus managing assorted outside projects and events. Everything I’ve been doing has one thing in common: it’s all about writing. I had no idea how alike all of these things are. Seems silly not to notice, doesn’t it? But if you’re enjoying what you do, it’s easy to miss the obvious.

My friend’s chatty email reminded me of a basic tenet of creativity: it needs to be fed from outside sources. Our experiences and broader lives help us to channel the inspiration and energy we need to create innovative, personal, and exciting work. I’ve been recycling my mental reserves instead of replenishing them. My well, so to speak, has run dry.

Now what?

Elsa Neal, in her article “Recovering from Creative Burnout” suggests taking a break from creating, going on a mini-vacation, or making small lifestyle changes, like getting up earlier, to recharge the batteries. Other experts advise allowing yourself time away from the work without guilt, or exploring different creative avenues to get your brain out of its rut.

Taking time away from work, even if it’s work you love, is necessary. Without a break, the creative process turns on itself like Frankenstein’s monster, destroying the artist who gives it life. I need to give myself permission to not write or read every second. It’s okay for me to walk away from my book for a little while—it’s going to be there when I return. The essays, articles, and blog will, too. And friends will forgive a lapse in email correspondence, won’t they?

The bottom line: my Law and Order marathons and Kit-Kat binges aren’t going to cut it. Replenishing the well of creativity requires some serious fun. A trip to a museum, perhaps? Time spent enjoying the fall foliage of New England? Whipping up a batch of cupcakes to share with family and friends? All that, and then some, needs to be on my calendar for the next few weeks.

Honey, the candy is safe. I’ll turn off the TV. Let’s go out.


Erin Dionne, co-editor of Bread and Circus, is the author of the forthcoming novel Beauty Binge from Dial Books for Young Readers. Available in spring 2009.