So is this what burnout looks like?
Back in the dark ages, I joined the other tiny handful of fish-nutters who had made it into what was reputed to be the toughest post-grad in South Africa (we started a full month before anyone else, had no vacations – and that one year is now a three year course) with the kind of subject fanatics who thought eating on your dissection table saved time. Besides, if you couldn’t find your mouth while staring through a dissecting microscope, you deserved to starve. It was a glorious, intense year, fueled on caffeine and a peer group who basically did almost nothing else, seven days a week. No-one left before midnight, 2 AM was common by the end of the year. We were driven, inspired and pushing ourselves to our limits.
And one of the previous year’s graduates, engaged the bludgeoning edge of science that was to produce the first artificial abalone feed (and a lot of dead abalone) paving the way for a billion dollar aquaculture industry, said to us on of last days when we were looking to him for advice on that great future we all thought was there: “Ichthy Honours? Oh, well done. That proves to everyone you could work hard, once. You’ll be f…all good to anyone for six months, and never ever work that hard again.”
He was… not that far off either, at least in that it took some recovery time, and while these were work-oholics, (I’ve kept some degree of touch), some of that ‘burn’ and the lessons from it endured.
In some ways, we were all bad learners.
Oh we were good at learning a lot facts, and a lot of methodology. A lot math, and a bit of Latin (honest, it helps you remember species if you understand the names).
But about ourselves, and about the demands you can make of your mind and body… much less so.
I plunged into a series of ventures, (next post-grad, fish-farming twice, and then writing, and trying to build a farm from nothing, with little) each of which I remained sure that by working harder and longer (if not smarter) than you average bloke, I’d somehow succeed.
By and large, I have indeed succeeded.
But it’s very like the drowning man (another subject I can speak with some experience of). Suddenly in deep water, at first he swims and struggles really hard toward the shore, trying to yell and doggy-paddle, before he goes down again. And somehow, by sheer bloody-minded determination and no real skill at swimming he gets to the surface again and makes another valiant effort toward the shore. It’s shorter than his first effort, and he makes a bit less distance. Then he goes down again. The third desperate gasping return to the surface is… often the last. It’s shorter and even less effectual. Once his lungs fill too much with water, and the water seems more forgiving than the struggle for the surface, barring luck, or intervention, the person usually doesn’t get to the forth try.
That varies from individual to individual. Some people just keep trying although they ought to be dead. Some of those get that foot onto the sand, or get a lucky wave.
But the key in all of this is: each struggle is shorter than the one previous. You may have learned a few swimming strokes with every return to the surface, but you’re putting more into staying up than your body is able to recover from with those couple of breaths before you go under again.
And that’s not a bad metaphor for a writing career. Your first book… well your efforts are herculean. Often ineffectual as hell, but you give it everything.
And then you plunge straight into the second book…
And give that everything too.
But it’s a smaller everything, because you just have less to give. It may be more skilled and ‘better’ but it’s chewing at your resources.
This pattern keeps repeating. You can see it in ever so many authors, until they finally sink into a kind of relieved despairing oblivion, or die trying.
I’m on twenty-something books. Quite a few are goat-gaggers which, honestly are two and half to three books long… and five books work. If I took it by average book-length, I’d be hitting 35 books now.
The days when I’d do a book in a month, and spend more time putting in edits than writing are long gone.
My swimming/writing may be better, but I just haven’t got that 18 hour days focus any more.
And every time I fight to the surface and get another book done… It takes longer and more out of me. Old authors inevitably have battle fatigue. In the case of the headliners and dahlings they have support from their publishers.
The rest of us… we have ourselves and our fans.
Which means managing the process as well as possible. And that starts back at book one.
Because no-one is superman, as much as I liked to delude myself.
There is a degree of pragmatism, a need to take some damage to yourself and your writing, simply because real life intervenes. You need money from a book. You only have x amount of time, etc.
But seriously, it’s a process of recovery – psychological (particularly emotional) and physiological which you NEED to be able to swim hard the next time. And the sooner you get into a pattern that works for you, the better, long term.
I finished the first draft of HEALER OF KARRES last Tuesday and I am now into what should be that recovery mode. As usual pragmatic needs say I can’t just do what is sensible and step away. I have to edit, get my first reader to edit, and put her edits in, and then go off to my tier of next readers, and get their inputs and put their edits in. Then we go to Eric, and possible offers. All of this takes time, and I will really need to get rolling on the next piece of work soon.
But, speaking strictly for myself that is the one key: Time. Recovery time. Time spent READING SOMETHING ELSE. I tend to put in a fair amount of physical exercise, and escapist dangerous pastimes too.
I recharge my social batteries – which is quite hard because all I want to do at this stage is… not to be with people. But being with people improves that.
It’s also good if you can come up with some sort of emotional and visible reward for the effort – be that a trivial expenditure, or some visible trophy. I am bad at this. So, generally, are publishers. You need that soon after finishing.
It’s like having a reached a rock Islet that lets you stand and breathe. The recovery may not be as complete as if you climbed out and set up camp, but if you did that, you’d never get in the water again. Every time I have tried to plunge straight in… well the cost has been high and the writing slower than if I stopped for a couple of weeks.
But I am up for listening to your mechanisms of coping with this.