In the ever-evolving landscape of the writing profession, where deadlines loom large and market trends shift like shadows, it’s not uncommon for writers to find themselves engulfed in the relentless flames of burnout. The business of writing, with its demands for marketability and strategic branding, can sometimes obscure the very essence of what drew us to the craft in the first place: the pure joy and passion for storytelling. If you’re feeling singed by the pressures of the business of writing, fear not. Amidst the ashes lie embers of creativity waiting to be rekindled.
At the end of 2023, as I sat down to consider what “lessons” I wanted to share in my annual New Year’s post, I found I had gleaned so many things from this busy, productive, and rewarding year that I couldn’t thematically contain them all in one post. The “official” New Year’s post I shared last month talked about what my experiences had shown me about living (and writing) Flat Arcs. What I didn’t get to talk about in that post were the many specific lessons I learned last year in rewiring my relationship to the business of writing.
Over the past few years, I’ve talked about the period of significant burnout I experienced beginning in 2016, which included nearly four years of writer’s block. I learned so much in working through these experiences and am happy to report recovery from both the burnout and the writer’s block. Something I haven’t talked much about yet is how this burnout shone a light on dysfunctional aspects of my relationship with the business side of writing.
A few months ago, I wrote about how my relationship to marketing has evolved, and last week I discussed some of the mindsets necessary for writers to succeed at marketing and business. Today, I want to go deeper and share six insights I received in 2023 that are helping me rewire my relationship with the business of writing into an experience that is not only sustainable but deeply rewarding, creative, and generative.
Why It’s So Easy for Writers to Get Burned Out on the Business of Writing
First, a little background. I began my career, rather unwittingly, sixteen years ago. I didn’t really intend writing or teaching about writing to be a career. I was a sheltered homeschooled stay-at-home daughter, and writing books and starting little online businesses was just the sort of thing we did back then. I loved writing stories, and I started a blog to help me sell those stories. That blog and the subsequent writing-craft books I published became a huge adventure all their own, and before I knew it, I was earning enough to call myself a full-time writer.
I never had a real business plan beyond seizing the opportunities and proving to myself that being a self-published author at the inception of the indie boom was legit. I also had no clue what I was getting myself into. I wasn’t aware of what “joyful marketing” coach Simone Grace Seol talks about on her podcast as “The Three Stages of Growth“:
1. Creation (when you’re writing the book, building the business, etc.)
2. Acclimation (when you’re adjusting to the new identity of success)
3. Acceleration (when you’re taking everything you’ve learned and going 2.0)
I was good at creation and acceleration, but I had zero awareness or skill when it came to acclimation. To repeat Seol’s excellent insight:
So many of us think that hitting the goal is going to be the best thing ever, but then we realize that once we do hit the ambitious goal it starts to feel really, really scary and anxious, and we just kind of have a meltdown a lot of the times…. The pain of acclimation … is that now that you’ve created the thing that you wanted to create, now that you achieved the goal, now you have to get used to … being somebody who has that as part of her reality.
By the time 2016—that massive epoch in my life—arrived on the wings of a huge personal crisis, my relationship with my business was already significantly dysfunctional and unsustainable. The work I was doing to earn money was becoming increasingly disconnected from my creativity. I was making choices based on what I thought I “should” do or what would be most lucrative, versus what really excited me or aligned with my own values. As a result, I was suffering major anxiety attacks almost every time I opened my email. I lived in fear of criticism, and I was constantly chasing after some elusive idea of success that would slay my raging imposter syndrome.
Then when personal crisis hit, I very nearly gave up on the business of writing altogether. For several years, I cut back drastically on almost everything I was doing. I spent the next eight years (and counting!) getting real with myself about the patterns and beliefs that had caused me to create such dysfunction in my relationship with my business (among other areas of my life).
6 Insights to Rewire How You Relate to the Business of Writing
Now my experience may be extreme, and many writers will never reach this level of burnout. My situation was also ultimately founded upon and catalyzed by belief systems, relationships, and events that had nothing to do with my writing or my business. However, over the past years as I have discussed various aspects of my experiences and how they have taught me to heal and grow, I have received so many emails from so many of you who are able to relate on one level or another.
From my vantage point, I see how my struggles are ones so many writers also get tangled up in and, ultimately, for the same reason: because we don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into and because we aren’t taught how to create functional operating systems for the business side of writing. I spoke about some of the culprit misconceptions in last week’s post about why marketing is hard for writers. Today, I want to share some of the lessons I have been learning these past years that have changed my life.
I believe these things need to be normalized and talked about more in writing communities. They shouldn’t frighten anyone away from achieving as much success with their writing as is humanly possible. Rather, they should act as cautionary road markers to help us make decisions that arise from our own deepest alignment and health, rather than in response to some external guideline of what we’re “supposed to be doing” or what being a career writer is “supposed to look like.”
So today, let’s explore these six invaluable insights to rediscover the joy and passion that initially set our writerly souls ablaze!
1. Balance Speaking Up and Setting Boundaries Online
Okay… so imagine a long pause between this sentence and the one before it, because I’ve been sitting here for several minutes, trying to find the words to express something that still feels surprisingly vulnerable. And I suppose that’s the whole point of this first insight. Living as a writer means being willing to speak and to write from a deeply vulnerable and authentic place and then to face the potential criticism and judgement of the world.
It is crucial for writers to be able to create protective boundaries. This, however, is easier said than done. You can stop reading reviews on Amazon, but if you intend to continue with a blog or a social media presence, you can’t close your eyes to what followers are saying. Every day there is the opportunity to run across something someone is saying about you that feels triggering.
Ultimately, the boundaries must be created within ourselves. The only things that trigger us are those that already live within us. At its simplest, if someone says “you’re a bad writer” and it stings, it’s because you believe it at some level. More insidious, however, is the adjacent belief that this someone out there in Internet-land—who is probably someone you don’t know, will never hear from again, and whose own expertise is unproven—deserves to tell you how to live your life.
I was struck by how deep this belief had been ingrained in me when I was working through ways to create boundaries that would keep out unwanted criticism. The thought that arose was, But if I’m wrong, I should be criticized! Whoa. That stopped me short. For me, the unconscious belief was that I deserved any and all criticism that any random person with a random agenda wanted to sling at me. The countering belief I had to find was that I deserved to protect myself and I deserved to choose for myself whose advice I listened to based on my own value system.
2. Stay Connected to Your Own Authority
Boundaries are an external protection system. They are walls erected to keep danger out of our homes. But boundaries are not unbreachable. If an external boundary is our only defense, we’re ultimately doomed. It is important to reach down deep inside and find the strength of our own individual authority.
It’s like that old saying:
If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.
But this, too, can be externalized. When we project authority onto something else, it is often in the belief that if we just follow that person, system, or thing, we’ll be just fine. We often do this unconsciously, not realizing we are identifying with this thing less because we align it with it and more because we derive a sense of approval and protection from it (even and sometimes especially if opposing groups offer resistance).
What I have learned for myself is that the only way to access true strength is to reach deep inside and find one’s own. There is no substitute. This is not easy. Accessing that strength and that ability to hold authority over one’s self often requires digging through all sorts of layers of unsafety in one’s programming. It also requires a radical claiming of personal responsibility and accountability—because now there is nothing else on which to shade blame.
For me, learning to recognize what is happening energetically when I abandon my authority to someone or something else has been a gamechanger in rewiring my ability to hold my own center when triggered and, just as importantly, to find the strength and self-worth to set boundaries unapologetically. Abandoning my own authority often makes me feel physically sick, including intense pressure in my head and neck. When this happens, I have learned to relax my throat and neck, to bring attention back to my solar plexus, and to focus on the crown of my head. I imagine a straight pole of light aligning my body from above the top of my head to below the bottom of my feet. With practice, holding this inner posture of authority becomes easier and easier. The tendency to feel sick in the presence of someone else’s negative opinion grows less, and the capacity for showing up with more authenticity, truth, and conviction echoes a quote that has been one of my favorites from childhood:
I speak the truth not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little more as I grow older.–Catherine Drinker Bowen
3. Choose Projects That Light You Up
Many writers may relate to my struggles to harmonize the brutal practicalities of writing as a business with the whims of creativity. Like so many, my life path began simply because I loved telling stories and creating worlds for my imaginary friends. At the point this approach led to profitability, I was delighted. I got to make my living as an artist! But I soon learned that trying to turn your passion into a vocation leads to all sorts of strange bedfellows.
Never mind the demands of commercializing art, let’s just talk about the opportunities. The opportunity is there for so many of us to make good money off our art. The catch is that the art becomes a job. The harder we work at it, the more success we may find. But also, the harder we work at it, the more tempting it can be to work just a little more, a little harder, produce a little more, write a little faster, put out just one more book and then one more and then one more… until it’s not fun anymore. And the well runs dry.
As I have grown better at blocking out the external voices that preach “should, should, should,” I have watched as more and more space has re-opened within me to pursue my own creative delights. Recognized by Freud as the super-ego, this voice embedded in the deep psyche dictates that our choices and actions should accord with an external authority (seeing a theme here?). For me, one of those voices has been that of “being productive.” As an Enneagram Three, one of the great Lies I work to overcome in this life is that “I am what I do.”
Greatly humbling though it was, my period of burnout was a tremendous gift. During those years when my ability to be productive was so reduced, I had to re-learn that my worth did not lie in what I did or in my identity as a writer or a teacher. I had to rediscover the bits I enjoyed about creating and to learn what it was I truly wanted.
This remains a process for me, but last year saw me actually listening to the rumblings of creativity deep within my sacral. Instead of looking solely at what projects were most practical or productive or influential to my bottom line, I began to ask, “What lights me up?” What would I be excited to work on? What feels creative? This was part of what allowed me to return to fiction after a four-year break. It has also completely changed how I interact with my business projects.
Last summer, when I asked myself what project excited me, the answer that left me feeling butterflies of excitement was the Archetypal Character Guided Meditations. The idea seemed weird and off-the-wall and perhaps not very practical. I had no idea if people would resonate with the project, but I did it anyway just because it sounded fun to me. I trusted that my own inner spark of creativity would lead me to the most rewarding projects. Being able to show that level of faith in my creative self did more to refill my well than any other practice I have worked with in these past eight years.
4. Live in Abundance
The overweening productive mindset often arises out of a conviction of scarcity. Throughout my twenties, my unconscious motivation for my breakneck productivity was mostly the idea that if I slowed down for even a second, I’d be destitute. But as burnout threatened, I was struck with the realization that it really didn’t seem to matter how much I earned. There was no end goal that said if I earned “this much,” then I would know I was okay and could relax.
Last year, I purposefully examined my relationship to money. I began digging into my ingrained beliefs and stories around scarcity and abundance. I recognized the profound tension that showed up in my body whenever I looked at my bank account balance. Didn’t matter how much was in there, I would always feel it was never enough. I began to work with this to shift out of fear and into gratitude. The truth is, I am incredibly privileged and have never wanted for anything, and yet it is the mindset of scarcity that influenced every decision about how I ran my business.
One reframe that has been particularly helpful to me is the recognition that “money” doesn’t exist. It’s just an energetic placeholder as we transition one physical manifestation into another. I put energy out into the world via my words on this blog and the books and other products I create for people. That energy comes back to me as numbers in my bank account, which I then eventually transform into food and clothes and Netflix subscriptions and plants (because I always need one more). The energy of those things, in turn, fuels me to once again share my energy with others through my work.
Ultimately, it’s all the same energy. Abundance is not just the money coming in. It’s also the creativity going out. The irony is that when we fear money won’t come in, our conduit for putting creativity out into the world often constricts—becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Working through money stories and cultivating gratitude and abundance around money is a vital skill. This is especially true for those of us who are self-employed and who accept both total control and total responsibility for the resources we bring into our lives.
5. Create With Gentleness
When I returned to writing fiction last year, I did so with utmost respect and caution. I was committed to not repeating the mistakes that led to my alienation from this blessed expression of my creativity. Instead of returning to my creativity “on push,” with a determined focus on productivity and daily to-do goals, I returned with a conscious desire to be “in flow” with my creativity. This time, I wasn’t there to tell it what to do. I was there to listen.
And what I have learned is something I’ve never been very good at in any area of my life, and that is gentleness. I have started writing this story with no preconceived ideas about how the process should go. I have no deadline, no intention of completing the outline or the first draft by such and such a date. I don’t even have the intention of publishing it. I’m not here because I know anything at all. I am here to listen and to learn.
I am in a unique situation, since I don’t currently need this particular book to be published in order to support myself. But I believe the lesson applies to us all, no matter what we’re creating or why. And the lesson is simply: honor the process. You never value creativity so much as when you think you’ve lost it. After it’s left you once, you realize it could always leave again, and you do what you must to correct the habits that chased it away in the first place.
6. Know “You Are the Luckiest Person in the World”
Finally, perhaps the single most revolutionary integration I experienced last year was a lightning shift in perspective early in the spring.
When you’ve been through some tough spots in life (and who hasn’t?), it can be hard not to drag a little of that darkness around with you. Even when things are pretty good, you can’t help but look over your shoulder and wonder if the dark times are about to overtake you once more. This, too, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—unless you change it.
My own experience happened on the eve of having to say goodbye to family who live in a different state. I went to bed that night awash in sadness that “this was my life.” I projected the difficulty of the moment onto all of my other challenges and struggles, telling myself a familiar story in which I was defined by circumstances outside of my control and by my sadness about it.
For about a year up until this point, I had been working daily with a little practice in which I would access embodied feelings such as joy, gratitude, excitement, and love. Lying tearfully in bed that night, I remembered my practice, and I accessed the place in my body where I knew I experienced gratitude. In essence, I consciously created the experience of gratitude in my own body. I did it with the expectation that I’d feel momentary gratitude and then flip back into feeling sorry for myself. But in that moment, the phenomenon of being able to consciously shift my own inner reality hit me like a lightning bolt. I realized in a visceral way: it’s all perspective. How I feel in my body, how I look at the world, the stories I tell about myself—they’re all perspective.
In that moment, as the feeling of gratitude buzzed through me, I examined how the sad little stories I was telling myself could just as easily be flipped on their heads. I thought about my family, my business, all the amazing adventures I had taken and the things I had learned in the past decade. “You are the luckiest person in the world,” I told myself. And I believed it.
Subtle as it was, that moment (which was the outcome of many months of dedicated practice) was life-changing. Although life and all its challenges continue, nothing has been quite the same since that night.
And so my final insight for rewiring one’s relationship to the business of writing—or to literally anything else in life—is that perspectives can be changed. Changing them is generally not an overnight proposition. But determinedly accessing the truth that even in our challenges, we are the luckiest people in the world, opens up an entirely new landscape for dealing with the challenges and the opportunities available to us in this life.
I hope these insights are of help to you. They are, of course, personal to my own experience. But I believe they speak to the same challenges many writers face as they continue with long-term careers, and I hope some of my own examples can help all of us create functional, healthy, and ever-evolving relationships with our creativity and the business of writing.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What have you experienced as your greatest challenge with the business of writing? Tell me in the comments!
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