Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, December 23, 2013

Creative Fatigue

I'm on record saying Writer's Block doesn't exist. There's really no writing problem that can't be solved by staring at a blinking cursor until you think of something.

But man do I get tired sometimes. This happened to me in the past month. I worked like crazy to get my guide to writing a novel finished and published and promoted just as I was starting a new job while still maintaining my commitment to make sure I'm getting enough time away from the computer and spending time with friends in person. It was a lot.

I got it done, I got it promoted, the job is going well, and then I had that thunk that sometimes happens when you work like crazy and wake up and realize you're creatively exhausted.

I had to let the blog slide for a while, I took a break from writing even though I'm itching to get going on a new project, and I had to trust that I would get my creative juices back when some time passed and that there would still be people visiting the blog when I returned to it.

But then I think back to 2008, which was by far the most productive year of my life. I was working twelve hours a day as a literary agent, I was blogging five days a week, and I wrote a novel on top of that, which ended up being the start of the Jacob Wonderbar series. I have never gotten so much done in a single year, and it laid the groundwork for a lot of the things I look back on with pride.

And yet I was also really unhappy. I was neglecting friendships, I wasn't feeling like myself, and I paid the price in many ways.

All of those tensions are so incredibly difficult to manage. Sometimes you have to push yourself to get things done. Sometimes you have to let things slide for the sake of your own happiness. Sometimes you have to stare at the blinking cursor until you think of something. Sometimes you have to know to step away.

I don't think I'll ever totally figure it out. All I know is I'm ready to get working again.

How do you figure out when to push forward and when to pull back?

Art: Eingeschlafen by Hubert von Herkomer


Brian G said...

This article basically sums up the exact same thing I have been feeling this past month with my writing. You are right, creativity burn out is real, and stepping away from the computer is the right thing. Hope you have a great holiday and that your cup is refilled with those creative juices.

Stephsco said...

I don't think you can box up the creative process to be the same for everyone. Some people write every day--I am not one of those people. Though when I am actively working on a draft, my goal is to write as many days a week as I can. When I'm editing, I may write/edit in spurts. It depends on your goals for yourself, and your life balance. Totally fine by me to turn inward for a time to complete or work on projects, but it's good to give that a break and actually talk to friends and family outside of facebook, twitter, email.

Creatives seem to come up against these hurdles often; we feel guilty for time spent away from: [name your guilt source: family, kids, church, social life]. Mothers seem to feel this acutely. I think we need to give ourselves permission to be creative, and also, to not.

Fadzlishah Johanabas said...

Heyya Mr Bransford,

Bought your book on Smashwords, and I have to say, YOU DA MAN! I've bought a lot of books on the craft of writing, but I love how you use Star Wars and Jacob Wonderbar as your references. Others tend to use great American classics, which we people outside of US aren't all that familiar with.

I don't care if they're literary classics. They're still Great American Classics, and I'm not an American. Heh.

Anyway, I was discussing with my friend how both of us love the book and its relevance, but we got twitchy when we read about the non-existent writer's block.

Because it does exist.

Hear me out. I'm an emotional writer. Not to say that I throw temper tantrums, but I use my stories to evoke emotional response from readers. One of my strengths is emotion in writing. However, I was involved in a road traffic accident that claimed 1 life slightly over 2 years ago. I have PTSD and I've shut down all emotions, partly because I work in a hospital and deal with life and death on a regular basis. It's a coping mechanism.

Unfortunately, I cannot access that emotional well anymore, and how do I affect readers when I am not feeling it myself?

I can write for my day job. No problem. But the few stories I've written since the accident are somehow lesser. For someone who's all about emotions, this is not a good thing. So in a sense, writer's block does exist. It happens when you cannot write using your full capacity.

crow productions said...

Your blog during those years was the foundation for me to understand what I was undertaking when I stared at the blinking cursor as I had finished a first draft. Thank you for all the helpful knowledge you shared. We rode the wave a change with you as the publishing industry was changing right before our eyes. After many query letters sent, and many lessons on "How To Write a Query Letter" I decided to ride the wave of self publishing. After many rewrites and a year of editing, my book is available on
My work now is getting people to read it.

Fred said...

I don't have a problem letting go when I'm tired and writing feels like a chore. Forgiving myself for it is another subject.

AD Starrling said...

I strongly believe all writers go through this phase if not once, then several times during their careers. We all yearn for that elusive balance where everything is perfect, where not only are we happy successful writers but also great life partners, parents, and friends, as well as being healthy and fit. But that's not life.

In the end, it comes down to priorities and what's important to us at that stage in our lives. If we want something bad, if we have a dream, we're going to have to make sacrifices to get there. But that doesn't me ignoring the warning signs. If you can see yourself heading for a burnout, then try to put the brakes on. Even if it's just a day or weekend break, ideally somewhere different (not home because that sure as hell doesn't work). Plan rewards along the way that will make the hard work worthwhile.

It's also about realising that before everything else (the writing job, the partner, the friends), we are human beings. So let's give ourselves a break. Look at the road we have travelled already and all that we have achieved. Learn from past mistakes. Then take a deep breath and look to the future.

Cat Moleski said...

I definitely feel the ebb of creative juice between projects or drafts. I try to gently come back and check in to see if I'm ready to write again and if not, recognize that it is likely a temporary lull and that I need to focus on other things: walks, people, reading, painting. I have yet to face that blinking cursor though when a deadline is looming and I wonder if I'll be able to be as gentle with myself then. I hope so. Thanks for all your blogging, it has had an impact on my writing life.

Norma Beishir said...

Been there--I went through a major creative burnout years ago. I thought--I still think--it came from trying to continue a career writing something I was never suited to in the first place.

Ted Cross said...

I go through long phases of burnout and just put writing aside until I feel the urge return. Then I write as many chapters as I can before the burnout hits again. Not sure it's the best method, but it's all I have until I can retire from my career.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

It is the standard conundrum of particularly writers (perhaps more than some other artists).

You need to be in the world to get material for your writing, at least somewhat and sometime, rather than just locked in a little room drawing entirely upon your own imagination.

At least I do.

And, you cannot write in a crowd, or in the middle of a conversation, or when you're supposed to be relating to others.

It's a juggling act, like most of life. Often, for me, interactions are far more out of my control than writing: I have little to no input on when they occur, or how, or where, or with whom.

On the other hand, that's also part of the rather randomness of life.

I take breaks from writing, and projects, when life dictates and demands that I do. Like now, essentially, during the holidays.

I go at it hard and with renewed determination when the obligations of life seem taken care of, and suddenly "free" time, as in not time from me someone or something else requires, presents itself. Or I declare: "I'm writing for the next two hours."

I find like with many emotions as well as thoughts, however, writing benefits from building up pressure. If you relieve the pressure constantly, it will not be as strong to drive the idea or project as if you (or I) let it build.

Or so goes my current theory.

I'm in the midst, really the beginning, of a project more than one person has suggested to "do it right," I'll need to concentrate on it for something like three years.

I look at this project--and much of writing--like a sporting competition. I'm at the beginning of training for it. I'm in the windsprint, situp, crunch and heavybag stage.

If you don't take time to build up your muscles, your stamina, your pacing, your reactions, you'll get gassed before the project is through. If, however, you've trained hard and are physically and mentally ready, it won't matter how many rounds you have to go with your characters. Or how many times you have to pick yourself up off the canvas.

See you on the other side, Mr. Former Agent Man. Happy 2014, and I am grateful and thankful for 2013's successes!

(And your blog).


Kristi Helvig said...

I can so relate to this, and I'm not sure I'd believe anyone who said they had the whole work/life balance thing perfected. I push ahead when I have to (aka when my editor tells me she wants my sequel yesterday), but then I pull back again for a bit. I do much better working with ebbs and flows rather than forcing it, though I know this contradicts the "butt in chair" wisdom. I think there's no right answer, and everyone has to find what works best for them. Happy holidays!

wendy said...

I think creative burn out ties in with our energy levels. Energy is everything and when low our mind doesn't function as well as it of course everything seems much harder.

You've achieved so much over the last few years, and you've certainly worked for it, Nathan. You deserve a break to just contemplate and dream.

Have a wonderful Christmas and an even more successful New Year. Btw, if you get a chance, check out Saving Mr Banks - recently released movie.

Anne R. Allen said...

I think your instinct to take a break is a good one, Nathan. I've read scientific articles that say not only does creative burnout or "writers block" exist, but that it can be dangerous. It's a warning that we need to switch brain gears. The part of the brain used for creativity is the same one activated by depression, so the two are linked. They say "burnout" can be the first sign of depression, so it's time to stimulate other parts of your brain. Dance, sing, go out with friends and tie one on, whatever. But stop with the staring at the cursor thing. That's probably why your most productive year was not a happy one. I have a hard time breaking away from writing myself, but I'm planning on working less and taking care of myself more in the coming year. Balance is good. Congrats on your book!!

Mira said...

Interesting topic.

So, my opinion - I think there are times when it's good to push yourself, but the trick is knowing when those times are.

For me, there are a couple of important things here. First, re writing, I believe that quality is much more important that quantity. And quality comes when you are in touch with yourself, when you can access your inner world, and let the muse speak. That takes rest and being with yourself.

Stress, fear, pressure, these all block our access to our inner wisdom. Time with ourselves, and also time when we get out of ourselves, fun, connection, nature, contemplation, quiet, peace, all these things help us stay balanced inside, and give us access.

The other important thing is that (I believe) balance and rhythm are not discovered through the part of our mind that 'thinks' about things. It's a more organic process. It's something we learn, and feel our way through, rather than deciding it - if that makes sense.

Over time, what happens is you get to know your own rhythm and trust it.

For me, and this is just for me, the time to push myself is when I'm scared. When I have something to say, but I'm avoiding saying it - that's when it's time to push.

Although, regular routines of writing, if they are not too onerous, and held lightly, can be really valuable, too.

As for the blog, I find I'm very open when folks take breaks, but it helps if they tell me they are going away for awhile. Then I don't feel left hanging. But that may just be me, it may not matter to others.

RC O'Leary said...

Nathan, I've always found comfort in St. Barton's ode, which can apply to many situations:

"I am hurt by I am not slain, I'll lie me down to bleed a while and then I'll rise and fight again."

You can modify it to "I am weary, but I am not done, I'll lie me down and rest a while, and then I'll rise and "write" again."


Anonymous said...

"How do you figure out when to push forward and when to pull back?"

You should really be looking for something in between those feelings. A pace you're comfortable with. If you feel the need to push forward or pull back something is off and needs to be fixed.

Bruce Bonafede said...

"How do you figure out when to push forward and when to pull back?"

Many good comments here. For me it's simple. My nature is to push forward, always, constantly, until I can't anymore. And when I can't, I stop for awhile. And I don't worry about it. I've had to take a break from writing lots of times in my life, but I've never have a problem starting again. I trust Old Man River to just keep rolling along.

Nicole L Rivera said...

If I know that whatever I write I'll have to toss the next day, then I pop in a movie or open a book or go for a walk and call it a day. :)

Lori Schafer said...

I totally sympathize, Nathan. I'm like you; I don't suffer much from writer's block because I can always find something I feel like doing - if I don't want to do something original, I can edit, or if I'm not in the mood for fiction, I can write an essay, and so on. In the summer I can work from before breakfast until nearly bedtime and still not get burnt out. But there are certain times of year in which I am so busy with my day jobs that I can't do any writing at all. If I only have an hour free on any given day, I just don't have time to get in the mood to be creative. So if I have deadlines or particular projects I have to complete during those times, then it's a tremendous burden, because I'm trying to force myself to be "creative" on a schedule, which I don't think works very well. Although technically I'm not spending any more time working, it's much harder, and the results usually show that pretty plainly. So I take a break. I do not have time to write this month, I tell myself. Next month I can write again. And I will enjoy it more because I gave myself some time in which to miss it.

Laurie Boris said...

When I grow grim about the mouth and want to knock people's hats off... Seriously, if I take the time to listen to my body, I can usually tell when I need to go out and play, or work on other things. Trusting that the empty well will refill is another part of it.

Julie Musil said...

I've been feeling this way for the past few days. So much to get done. BUT…my kids are home from school. Work will get done, but I can't get these moments back with my kids. Balance is a tricky bugger.

Merry Christmas, Nathan!

Avery Tingle said...

Well, this is just me, but I have a book in progress, I work a full time job, I'm in the middle of a divorce (and new relationship) and I'm dealing with legal issues surrounding my kids. I GOTS the creative exhaustion.

This may sound arrogant but to me, the work has to get done, no matter what else may be going on, so I deal with the exhaustion by completely walking away. Usually, the Muse in my head will be like "Wait, you're really stopping?! Okay, wait! I'll tell you everything!" But I put the work aside, maybe for a few hours or a few days, and I get back to the things I love. I read. Play video games. Watch football. Remember that I absolutely love what I do and get back to it, reminded that I am doing this so I never have to do anything else again. That's how I deal with it.

JDuncan said...

Ditto, Nathan. I get the creativity doldrums or whatever you want to call them a couple times a year. Two to six weeks usually, where the interest to write stuff just isn't there. Then, for reasons I don't fully understand, the stories start popping in my head once more, the characters start doing things, and I get back to it. The worst is trying to write through those lows. Nothing is good, it's tedious, forced, and not enjoyable in the slightest. I've concluded that it's just the way my brain works. The ebb and flow of creative energies. The best one can do is just roll with it.

abc said...

I haven't yet had this thing you speak of. Maybe I'm too busy not being busy. This is an opposite sort of problem. Sometimes unhappiness can creep in here too. Actually, I'm exaggerating, But I wish I was busier with creativity vs. stressing about the job or the kid or that I'm eating poorly and not exercising enough or that my dog's teeth really need a cleaning! You know, life. I want some more creativity loaded in.

Merry merry Christmas, Nathan! Whatever you do I know it will definitely be worth our attention. I have loved your blog and your books! And I hope that you can find that balance you want. I suspect that because you are so thoughtful and aware, you are already half way there.

Robin Storey said...

I know exactly how you feel. After publishing two novels this year and doing all the necessary marketing,as well as holding down a part time job and trying to fit in family/friends time, I was exhausted. I was trying to start my next novel but it just wasn't happening, so I decided to take a complete break from writing until the beginning of 2014. It seems to have worked - I can feel my creative mojo gradually returning. It's the old 'can you have it all?' question? And I seriously think, no you can't. If you want high productivity, you have to make sacrifices, and sometimes they just aren't worth it.

Nicole said...

Just like you - I try to find that balance, don't always get it right, learn and readjust. ;) You're right about it being exhausting sometimes!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I can't step back and let go because I am on deadline. My column comes first, projects second and somewhere along the way I figure out how to have a life...which includes a full time job and family.
It's called plate spinning...I do it far.

Lisa Lane said...

I give myself a short break in between projects. I tend to write myself into the ground whenever I'm nearing the end of a book. All concern over health and personal well-being go out the window, and typically I'll complete the final 10,000 words in two or three days. I have no choice in the matter; the writer in me is compelled to do it.

When I've finally finished whatever I'd been killing myself to get done, the physical and mental fatigue can be quite profound. The well, so to speak, has run dry and needs time to refill. I've also expended so much time and energy that I end up physically ill. It's not uncommon for me to spend a week (or longer) in bed because the abuse I've put my body through has triggered a lupus flare.

When I'm too exhausted to write, I brainstorm. When I'm burned out and feeling out of ideas, I shift gears and work on something entirely different. When I'm too tired or burned out to do any of those things, I'll grab my Kindle and read someone else's writing. :-)

Anuradha said...

Finished a novel, published it and promoted it and already on to the next one and everything else and facing 'creative fatigue'? It is going to happen when you work that hard.
But, if you are hard(ly) working, no problem, Trust me!

Anonymous said...

@ Fadzlishah Johanabas--I've been going through something similar. While it's (the emotional trauma)thrown up some blocks, it's made me come up with ways to go around and sometimes through them. I've taken on a different POV, experimented with different subject matter, genres and styles of writing. I've tried writing through different sorts of characters and spoken--sometimes more comfortably, sometimes less--through narrators. I don't know that any of it has led to great creative achievement...I'm simply relating it and perhaps suggesting it as a process.

Any way you look at it, it's part of life, part of what makes us who we are. And the way we deal with it (or don't, which is also a way of dealing with it and changes us accordingly) changes our writing: subject matter, voice, what we even care about and think is worthy of putting into words. It can pare down, expand or show you different ways of conveying your message.

I think, for me, that emotional disconnect has led me back to less telling and more showing. There can be great emotional impact in the fact that your character (maybe you) can't say...find the keys to his (recently deceased) father's car though they're right in front of him or that he can't look someone in the eye or pay attention to things he feels are important, though he once could...that he's exhausted and can't find the strength to get out of bed. Maybe these are things you've been going through, maybe not.

If they are, and they're part of your new reality, they'll find their way into your writing. Maybe directly, maybe indirectly, but I believe they'll come back to you. That the emotion you're missing in your writing will come back to you and it will likely be stronger and more resonant.

Dan said...

I've also been one to say writer's block doesn't exist and I stand by that. But we do need short breaks. And there will be times we look at a blank page. It's all part of writing. For me, if I struggle writing in one format (novel), I'll work in another (blog, song, or journal).

Magdalena Munro said...

Happy New Year Nathan. Be kind to yourself and simply go with the ebb and flow of your nature. I'm still reading your blog and did so back in 2008 and continue to do so today. :)

For me, writer's blockage typically stems from fear vs ability as the essence of me is always there. Fear of mediocrity, fear of failure, fear of self loathing..on and on.

Here's hoping that 2014 brings you meaning, authenticity, and joy.

ammi roy said...

Keep working, great post! Just what I had to know.
jeux dora 2014

David Gaughran said...

Sometimes you just need to unplug completely. Hope you managed that over Christmas!

thewriteedge said...

Thanks again, Nathan, for sharing your thoughts in book form as well as the short email exchange we had. Here's my official review of the book, although I knew long before I read it that I would love it.

Suzan Robertson said...

When I get tired of working on my mss, I may put it aside for a day or two and do something arts-related or get outside, like taking a walk, listening to new music, drawing, watching a movie, a play or ballet. Or I look through my ideas folder and work on something else for a while.

Sometimes I brainstorm with my writer friends, too.

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