17.51: Feel The Burn
Your Hosts: Dongwon Song, Piper J. Drake, Peng Shepherd, Marshall Carr, Jr., and Erin Roberts
Let’s talk about burnout. It’s been a long few years (with some of those years feeling like decades) so this may seem timely, but burnout can happen during otherwise ordinary times. Ignoring it or simply trying to “burn smarter, not harder” can have serious repercussions.
In this episode we talk about why we burn out, how we recognize it, how we deal with it, and how we (eventually) recover from it.
Credits: This episode was recorded by Matthew Drake, and mastered by Alex Jackson.
Homework: Write a kind, delightful, helpful letter to your burnt-out future self.
Thing of the week: Wings Once Cursed & Bound, by Piper J. Drake (coming in April, 2023).
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Key Points: Burn out! When do you shelve a book series and change genres? The dreaded second novel? Online stresses? Shifting as a writer? Give yourself time to process it emotionally. Burn out has a long recovery time. You need to recognize your own burn out symptoms. Look at your priorities, the boundaries of your life, and what you have committed to. Be aware that coping mechanisms may mask a lot! Say no to things. Recovery? Recognize that we are people. Learn your tells! Also, look for the things that help you recover in life. Sometimes you need a break, but sometimes you can write yourself over the hump. Make sure your task list includes doable things, too. Golf, hobbies, these can also help. Go easy on yourself. Let your process and strategies evolve.
[Transcriptionist note: I may have mislabeled some of the speakers. Apologies for any mistakes.]
[Season 17, Episode 51]
[Dongwon] This is Writing Excuses, Feel The Burn.
[Piper] 15 minutes long.
[Peng] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Marshall] And we’re not that smart.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[Piper] I’m Piper J. Drake.
[Peng] I’m Peng.
[Marshall] I’m Marshall.
[Erin] I’m Erin.
[Dongwon] Okay, so this week, we’re talking about a big topic. That topic is burnout. It’s been a long few years, guys.
[Dongwon] There’s been a lot going on.
[Dongwon] Burn out is an issue for writers and people in publishing generally kind of at any time. But I feel like that’s been a little bit elevated over the last few years. I know it’s something that I’ve struggled with personally, both before this whole stuff kicked off, before the pandemic started, and also a little bit in the past couple of years. How about you guys? Have you been going through it?
[Piper] Absolutely. It has made major life impacts for me. I will say I burnt out so hard after working really hard on my day job in 2020 that I had a heart attack in 2021. I also ended up having a very difficult discussion with my editor about the fact that my contracted work that was contracted for romantic suspense was one that I could not continue to write. So we decided, as a team, my agent, my editor, and myself, and my publicist that we would shelve that romantic suspense because I couldn’t continue to write it and completely brainstormed an entirely new concept that would be a contemporary fantasy series instead, which is launching in April 2023 instead. I feel super lucky that we work that out.
[Peng] Yeah, I have a… I actually have a question. I want to go back when we get to this point in the podcast to ask you about the book that you shelved. That’s related to burnout and…
[Piper] Yeah. Absolutely.
[Peng] I would say, so, for me, the… It was really a perfect storm of burnout inducing stuff that happened, because I was working on the dreaded second novel at the same time that the pandemic happened, so it was really… Both of those things are already very hard by themselves, and then together it was just… It was great.
[Marshall] Yeah. So, I’m a teacher. During Covid, lock down, that’s what I burnout. It was really tough to sit at that computer all day and speak to students and try to teach them and everybody’s stressed. My kids are stressed, they’re trying to get their stuff done. So I’m in a little bit of a different position. I’m working on things, but during that time, I really struggled. Really struggled to write at all. What kick started the back end of that was starting in a Masters program which is forcing me to write. So… But the burnout is real. I’m still… Feel like I’m feeling it.
[Dongwon] I feel like you’re trying to solve your burnout with more work, which is a real choice.
[Marshall] Yeah, honestly, that’s what’s happening. That’s okay. I’ll get there.
[Dongwon] Sometimes it works.
[Erin] I’ll say I think a lot of my burnout was more things that happened during Covid than Covid it’s self. So I used to work at a social justice philanthropy nonprofit in communications. So when things happen in the world like Black Lives Matter protests, like just shenanigans, bad things in the world, it was my job to come up with like a really measured kind response. Which meant that I didn’t have a lot of time to actually process. I had to like get something out in 24 hours that’s like the perfect wording that will make everyone feel better about the world when nobody can. So the effect on me was that I started shifting as a person. Because I was taking a lot of the emotions in and that made me shift as a writer. I spent a lot of time fighting the new writer I was becoming, by trying to like go back and make projects work that I was in the middle of, instead of acknowledging that as I’m changing, my writing is changing, and therefore the project is changing.
[Piper] I think that’s a really interesting insight. Because there is a book that keeps getting recommended over and over and over again, and I think you might have been thinking of the same one, Dongwon, but I can’t remember the author. So we’ll have to put it in the show notes. But it was about burnout and dealing with it and the fact that in these cycles of things that are happening to us, stressful situations that are happening to us, often times people move forward and don’t actually process emotionally. What that would do was actually just delay or prolong burnout and make it worse and worse. I think a lot of times people think that if they just change environment or change something, they feel that relief, and burnout’s over. But it’s not. There’s a lot of long term recovery time required for burnout.
[Peng] Well, I think for me, one of the hardest things about burnout for me is that it takes me a really long time to realize I’m burned out, that that’s what’s wrong. So, sometimes that’s… You can be burned out for like years without actually realizing that you’re burned out. Then that’s a whole nother… Once you acknowledge that you’re burned out, that’s a whole nother phase that you’ve got to go through. But it’s… How do you all know that you’re burned out? Are we getting better at recognizing it in ourselves now?
[Dongwon] I think I’m learning to spot it a little bit better. For me, I struggled a little bit as I mentioned with burnout before. I used to work with a start up. That was like insane hours working under incredible pressure. So when I left that job, I took some time off and really had this moment of like, “I have been doing too much for too long.” That was also coinciding with the move across the country and all kinds of stuff. So I kind of had a little bit of experience with it before. Then, as I was building my agenting business over the last five years before the pandemic started, it… I had taken on so much and taken on so many clients and had so many projects and there was so much coordination that I think it took me a little while to realize once we got to this point where I was just inside all the time and not able to go out into the world… I was traveling constantly. I was like gone a week out of every month for the year before. So when it came to slow down and stop, I just completely stopped. I had a really hard time figuring… Even getting through my normal day to day to do lists for those first few months. I think it was a big moment of having to really sit down and look at my priorities, look at the boundaries I had on my life, and look at like what I had taken on and what I had committed to over the past few years.
[Piper] I think I should learn to do better, because what was happening was I was so functional in my dysfunctionality. I do suffer some elements of ADHD and executive dysfunction, things like that, but my coping mechanisms help mask it so much. I was so effective with time management and task management, project management, program management, because of the skills that I had developed over the course of my career with my day job, that I masked everything until I literally suffered a heart attack. Then I was ordered on bed rest. I just stared and was not able to function, not being allowed to do anything. So we actually had to figure out that my physical… Like, we would notice my physicality first, like, the elevated heart rate, the fact that I have a tendency to stress bake or stress cook when I’m starting to feel stress, or that I have a tendency to project plan as a form of procrastination. So people are like, “Wow, you’re so great at planning. Wow, you’re so great at creating task lists. Wow, the whole wall is covered with Post-it notes of your task lists. Color-coordinated, shape oriented, categorized. You’re burning out.” That looks so effective and functional, but was actually signs of me burning out.
[Marshall] Yeah. I’m starting to get a little bit better about noticing it as well. A lot of times it has to do with when I start sleeping worse or trying to cram too many things in late at night, that kind of stuff. I started saying no to things, which has helped, especially at work.
[It’s so good and so hard]
[Marshall] It’s so hard. Then there’s… I coached the golf team for 12 years at my high school, and I just had to say… I couldn’t… I didn’t… I wanted to do it for the kids, but I just had to say, “No, I couldn’t.” Because of all the other things. Now, I don’t know if the balance is any better, but I did say no to a couple things. So that’s been helpful.
[Marshall] I want to circle back one more… To something Erin said as well. I did write something. You mentioned Black Lives Matter, when all that stuff came up, I got… I did a lot of angry writing, and I turned a really angry rant into an essay that got published on NBC Thinks. So that was kind of… That felt like something.
[Marshall] Processing, at least.
[Dongwon] Let’s pause for a moment to talk about our book of the week. A little difficult to insert in that pretty heavy conversation, but, Piper, why don’t you take it away?
[Piper] So I think we can say that this book was written during the pandemic. To Marshall’s point, I was so proud of myself that I actually managed to write it, because this was the book that we switched over to after we realized I was burned out and couldn’t write romantic suspense anymore. So it is a contemporary fantasy titled Wings Once Cursed & Bound. It features a Thai American heroine who is also a throwback kinnaree, which is a Thai bird princess, particularly from Thai mythology, one of my favorite, favorite mystical beings from Thai mythology. I just would really love to see more and more Southeast Asian mythologies out there in books and in media, that I decided to write them. This story is very much kind of hijinks and shenanigans in search of objects of myth and magic and bringing them in before they can do harm. There’s other groups that are opposed to that and really want to take objects of myth and magic and just toss them into the most dense human population possible, just so humans can implode. Right? So that’s basically the premise of the series. Wings Once Cursed & Bound is really centered around this Thai American heroine, the romances that she has, a vampire who really just wanted the shoes that she got cursed with but she didn’t die so he didn’t really know what to do with her. Shenanigans ensue. Yeah, I’m super excited to be able to share Wings Once Cursed & Bound coming out April 2023. So depending on when this podcast airs, it is already out for preorder, but it may be available for purchase directly. And the cover…Ah!
[Dongwon] So, once again, our book of the week is Wings Once Cursed & Bound by Piper J. Drake.
[Dongwon] So, for the back half of this, I want to give it a little bit to talking about recovery. I mean, I don’t know that any of us are necessarily all the way out of it, right, like, it’s a process. It’s a process, and a slow process, but do any of you have things that you’ve been trying or has been working for you or you had worked in the past? If there’s been anything that has been particularly effective at helping you?
[Erin] So I will ignore you and first say one quick thing to the first half, which is that I’m… I think it actually does relate to recovery, which is that the people we are as writers are also the people we are as people. I think that’s something we often forget is that we’re not in a different box as a writer. So, something that I’ve been trying my whole life is to understand myself, like a poker tell. So if I start doing something odd that I’ve never done before, I’m always like, “Why?” I figured out the first time I would always buy lottery tickets… I would suddenly feel compelled to buy lottery tickets when I hated my job. It was always the first time that I hated my job, was I’d be like, “Wow, that scratch off is looking really compelling today.” So that was the tell. On the other side, I often look for what are the things that help me recover from things that are not burned out, but any time that I’ve sort of dealt with a crisis in my life. I find sometimes just like taking walks is a very kind of thing that people say, but I made myself… At one point I said, “For 30 days, I’m going to like go out and take the air,” like a Jane Austen heroine.
[Erin] Every day, at 7 PM, I’m just going to take a stroll and walk around just to get myself out of the rut. Because I was finding that I was spending the whole day and night just working and working and sitting at my desk, working from home. So I was like anything that I can do to break the cycle. That’s helped me before when I needed to get out of things, and so it will help with the writing type of burnout as well.
[Peng] This is a recovery or… Just taking steps to try to recover from burnout is complicated for me because I have realized about myself, and I don’t actually have a conclusion to this, but it’s something that I’ve noticed so maybe I can slowly figure out a healthy way forward. But, for me, a bad writing day is still more fulfilling than not writing at all. But also, when you’re really burned out, you do need some kind of a break, but then it’s this weird cycle of… I still, even when I’m incredibly burned out, I still feel better if I write terribly and if I didn’t write at all. So it’s interesting that the… The medicine is also making things worse in a way. I don’t really know where I’m going with this. But I just wanted to put it out there, because I think a lot of us do, as writers, feel guilt over taking time off, and sometimes you really should take time off, but on the other hand, sometimes keeping writing is what actually gets me over the hump. Eventually.
[Dongwon] There’s a comic SC going around that sometimes it’s like, “Too burnt out to work, but when you try to rest, all you do is think about work.”
[Yes. Exactly that.]
[Dongwon] So you just split the difference and just feel bad the whole time. Anyways, I’m poorly summarizing it, but, yeah.
[Peng] No, but it’s exactly that. I find that a major part of my personality is that I like to achieve things. If you tell me, “Today is going to be a rest day and you’re not going to do anything.” Or the doctor says, “You’re going to rest for a month in bed and not do anything but go to the bathroom.” That’s horrific to me. It’s incredibly stressful to me. It doesn’t make me feel like I can recover from burnout at all, because all my brain does is turn on all these things that I need to do. So, we had to figure out things for me to do on bed rest that left me feeling like I had achieved something. Even if it was just brushing my dog. I have achieved getting my dog to actually do a little leg twitch three times today. Which means I was good at the pets. Right, like that kind of thing, like, I needed to achieve things that brought me joy. So my task list started to include things like eat pie, take a nap. My task list started to include things that were very, very doable in addition to big task items. So at the end of a work. That I would allow myself, I could be like, “Hey, I accomplished things.” That makes me feel super good and makes me feel super energetic. I started paying more attention to including things in my day that made me happy and that… And making those more of a priority than things that were important to get done to reach somebody else’s goals.
[Marshall] Yeah. My recovery, most of the time, consists of going to play golf really early in the morning and listening to podcasts because I do it in between shots. It helps. It doesn’t take anything off my plate necessarily, but I found I’m able to handle those things so much better if I get up and play. At least nine holes, it doesn’t have to be 18 holes. But… So when the golf course opened up again after the lockdown, I made an arrangement to go before they even opened. I’m teeing off at 7:30 in the morning. It’s a beautiful walk next to the ocean, that’s lovely. So that’s what I do.
[Dongwon] Yeah. I think I’m kind of in a similar [garbled] to Marshall, where I found that my hobbies were the things that kind of saved me. I like to do woodworking, I build furniture. So, like spending time in the shop, which was so hard to be like I’m going to take today and go to the shop and do this difficult thing that’s going to be exhausting, and like all this stuff. But as soon as I started doing it, it just unlocked all these other parts of my brain. I think sometimes when we’re working, we take things out of the tank, and we forget to put stuff back in the tank. Right? Peng, I think even what you were saying that sometimes the work can be re-filling in its own way, even when it’s not going great. But there’s also times where you just need to go do something else. Go outside, go for a walk. I got into hiking and birding during the pandemic, both those things helped me a lot. So. I think there’s all these different strategies. The thing that I would say is if you’re feeling this way, go easy on yourself. A lot of people are. I think the vast majority of my authors… Sorry, guys, I’m calling you out, but… Are behind on projects, but that’s fine. Everybody is. Everybody’s delayed right now. It’s been a really difficult time. Don’t put that pressure on yourself to immediately be the person that maybe you were when you were starting out. You are evolving, your process is evolving, and you’ll find the strategies that work for you. That sort of get you back to the place that you want to be as a writer. So. We are pretty much out of time at this point. But thank you all for talking about this really difficult topic. I think that is really helpful for people to hear people at y’all’s level talk about our experiences with this. So, this has been Writing Excuses.
[Dongwon] We didn’t decide on homework.
[I know. Do we have homework?]
[Erin] I’ve got homework.
[Erin] I’ve got homework I just made up. So, one of the things that I think I find helpful, to go with what Dongwon said, is treating yourself the way that you would treat someone else. Because a lot of times we are kinder to other people and gentler and so much more gracious than we are to ourselves. So homework is to write yourself a letter as if it was someone else, and just say whatever it is… Like, whatever… Like, how you’re doing, like if you came to yourself and said, “I’m burned out, I’m working all these projects.” What would your reply be? Write that down. That’s your homework.
[I love that homework]
[Dongwon] I love that so much.
[I love it]
[Dongwon] Thank you, Erin. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write. Or take a break. Whatever you need.