Why Is Writing Hard?

I write for a living. For several years, I taught writing for a living, as both a college professor and a developmental editor. And the question I hear more often than any other is “Why is writing hard?”

Why is writing hard? Why do people struggle with writing? Can writing be taught?

The question “why is writing hard?” presumes, first, that writing is hard. This assumption lurks in related questions as well.

It even appears in the question “Can writing be taught?” – a question I heard asked more often, and answered in the negative, in university writing departments than anywhere else. The assumption was that generally speaking, writing cannot be taught. Those of us who find writing easy were born this way. We have something the vast majority of people don’t – something that can be winnowed out and honed by other good writers, but that cannot be taught by them.

I think that’s nonsense.

At the same time, however, I’m often at a loss to explain how it is I learned to write well. My own experience with writing is innate and organic. I don’t know where or how I learned to do this; I just know I can.

So I started looking into the research.

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Thought With an Audience

Every time I asked this question in a freshman composition class, the consensus was the same: “To express yourself.” “To get your thoughts down on paper.” Each class also agreed, though less strongly, that “expressing yourself” was the easy part of writing.

But if the goal of writing is to “express yourself,” which is “easy,” then why is writing hard?

Expressing yourself in writing may be the beginning of the process, but it isn’t the end. In a 1979 article in College English, Linda Flower asserts that “expressing what you think” in writing fails to account for the public nature of writing. Our own thoughts tend to be full of shortcuts comprehensible only to us. We know what we mean, so there’s no need to define or explain key images, words or phrases.

When we transcribe those thoughts into writing, however, we’re placing them into a context that allows them to be accessed by other people. Other people, however, have no access to the contents of our brains except what we give them.

To write effectively, then, the writer must be able to take the perspective of the reader. By “stepping into the reader’s shoes,” the writer can determine which ideas need to be defined or explained for the written expression of their thoughts to make sense.

Failing to factor in the audience’s perspective “is the source of some of the most common and pervasive problems in academic and professional writing,” says Flower.

Why is writing hard? Writing isn’t merely thought; it’s thought with an audience.

Teaching Students to Fear Writing

The process of taking a student from “putting their thoughts on paper” to “creating a work that accounts for an audience” is, in essence, the process of teaching students how to write. That process, as taught, is a complex one.

In a 1979 article in Language Arts titled “Andrea Learns to Make Writing Hard,” Donald H. Graves details the process by which an eight year old named Andrea learns to write.

“Three months ago writing was effortless for Andrea,” says Graves. “It was as if there were no decisions to be made…. The subject predetermined the words. All she had to do was put them down.” Once written, Andrea’s words didn’t change. The first draft was also the final draft.

Over the course of three months, however, Andrea learned to revise, to think through word and sentence choices, to experiment with the ordering of ideas. To do so, says Graves, Andrea had first to let go of her attachment to “neatness,” or to thinking of the single written draft as something she couldn’t change or mar with revision notes. She also had to accept and implement directions from her teacher, including directions to insert changes into her written draft, to prewrite (here, by drawing the story before writing it), and to draft multiple versions of key sentences or paragraphs.

By the end of the three-month period, Andrea has adopted all of these activities into her own writing process. The result has morphed from a single draft to several pages of notes, alternate versions of topic sentences, and similar flotsam generated in the writing process.

Andrea’s process is similar to the process I’ve seen emerge from other student writers over the years. It suggests to me that the very process of teaching revision is one of the things that makes writing seem “difficult.” Beginning writers see writing as a one-step process: Write down the words in your head. As they advance, however, they begin to see writing as a more complex process.

You’re Doing It Wrong

The more complexities are required of a writer, the more difficult the task can seem. As educational therapist Regina G. Richards notes, “Many students feel writing takes too long. For some, writing is a very laborious task because there are so many subcomponents which need to be pulled together.”

Yet a complex process is not inherently a difficult one. Many complex tasks are time-consuming without being difficult (a point my own fourth-grade teacher was fond of stressing when we complained about tasks like copying out definitions from the dictionary). And many students master complex processes in other subjects, such as long division, without developing a lifelong antagonism with their “difficulty.” So what makes writing different?

In a 2009 article, Heidi Andrade et al. articulate an attempt to create clear, useful assessment tools for middle schoolers’ writing. Among the criteria included were measures that allowed teachers to mark down errors that “make the writing hard to understand.”

Yet, as Flower notes, the first step in most students’ – indeed, in most people’s! – writing process is to get their own thoughts on paper, irrespective of an audience. “Express your own thoughts” is, in a sense, the default state of writing. It is also, by its very nature, the most difficult for an audience to understand, because every point of reference is still the sole property of the writer.

In other words, when children find this sort of default writing marked down as “hard to understand,” the message they receive is “your natural instinct or approach to writing is itself an error.” 

These students are no longer starting from a “natural” or “default” state; rather, they are set back into the realm of actual error and the emotional unpleasantness that results from that.

“Accusations of laziness, poor motivation, and a reprehensible attitude are often directed toward deficit writers. The results can be a serious loss of incentive, a generalized academic disenchantment and demoralization,” says Melvin D. Levine (qtd. in Richards).

Yet often, these writers are not being “lazy.” They are operating from the default writing expectation or state because they lack the tools to do anything else  – and because they’re told that when they try, they’re “doing it wrong.”

What’s the Answer?

The answer, I think, cannot be to stop teaching writing as a process of reaching an audience. With the sole exception of the private diary or journal, all writing exists to be read by others.

Rather, I believe writing can be made easier by first acknowledging that “expressing yourself on paper” or “getting the ideas down” is not an error, but a natural starting point. After all, a writer who does not clearly understand their own ideas won’t communicate them effectively to others. Writers who write in terms only they understand are doing the natural first step in the writing process.

Once ideas are clear to the writer, then, perhaps teaching revision ought to be done in terms of the audience. Many of my own students reached college with the idea that “creating multiple versions of a thesis statement” or “coming up with an attention-grabbing first sentence” were writing steps that ought to be done, but with no clear idea why. When I explained to them that the entire purpose of these steps was to make sure your audience stayed with you, the lightbulb went on – and their papers improved.

Finally, perhaps it’s time for writers and writing teachers to step away from the page altogether. Taking the perspective of others is a skill. Like other skills, it improves with practice. Role-playing and similar tools may help writers bridge the gap from “my own ideas” to “ideas I share” without making the process feel like a total slog.


Writing doesn’t need to be impossible, but it is certainly work. Please consider buying me a coffee or sharing this post on social media.

Writer’s Block: What It Is and How to Beat It

I write several thousand words a day, both for a living and for my own amusement. And so I get asked about writer’s block more than anything.

“How do you get over writer’s block?” “What’s your secret for never having writer’s block?” “What is writer’s block, anyway?”

I often hesitate to answer these questions because I haven’t had the answers. Writer’s block has never been a longstanding problem for me. In fact, I usually suffer from the opposite problem – I want to stop writing and go do other things, but I’m driven to continue.

Fortunately, other people have done research on writer’s block. Here’s what they know.

writers block

Writer’s Block: What Is It?

When people ask about beating “writer’s block,” they’re typically talking about an inability to write that is separate from the desire to write. They want to write, but when they sit down to do it, nothing comes out.

Often, writer’s block occurs independently of the knowledge or ability to write. People with writer’s block know how to start a project; they may, in fact, have started many writing projects in the past and finished them successfully.

Writer’s block can also occur independently of having a topic or idea in mind. A person with writer’s block may know exactly what they want to write about. They may have both the internal motivation (“this is important!”) and the external motivation (“I’m on a deadline!”) to write.

And yet…they’re stuck.

Tips for Beating Writer’s Block

The logical first step in any case of “writer’s block” is to make sure that writer’s block is what you have.

In other words:

  • Do you have the desire/motivation to write a particular thing?
  • Do you have the tools, time and space to write the thing?
  • Do you know what you want to write the thing about?
  • Do you know how to start this kind of written thing?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” fix that first and see if it resolves the problem. If the answer to all four is “yes,” the problem is likely one of writer’s block.

What Kind of Writer’s Block Do You Have?

Not all writer’s block is created equal. In a 1998 article in Canadian Family Physician, Patricia Huston sorts writer’s block into three levels of severity: mild, moderate and recalcitrant.

Huston suggests different treatment strategies for each level of blockage:

  • Mild writer’s block may be resolved by evaluating and revising expectations, conducting a task analysis, and encouraging oneself to continue.
  • Moderate writer’s block may be resolved by engaging in creative exercises, like brainstorming and role-playing.
  • Recalcitrant writer’s block may require therapy.

Huston also suggests a number of strategies for preventing writer’s block, such as writing at the beginning of projects (often called prewriting or freewriting), working with a supportive writer’s group, and “cultivating an ongoing interest in writing.”

Revise Your Expectations

If you know what you want to write and how to do it, the problem isn’t a lack of rules or guidelines. But do you have too many rules and guidelines?

In a 1980 article in College Composition and Communication, Mike Rose discusses several writing students who struggled with writer’s block, comparing them to similarly-skilled classmates who had no such struggles.

Rose found that the blocked writers were often derailed by their adherence to overly-strict writing rules. Their writing “had to” look a certain way, or they couldn’t continue. In some cases, they couldn’t even start.

The strict rules these writers struggled with included:

  • The first sentence has to grab your audience’s attention. If you can’t write an attention-grabbing first sentence, you can’t continue.
  • An essay has to have three or more points. If you can’t make at least three points about your topic, the essay isn’t finished or doesn’t “count.”
  • You must have a clear plan and outline before you begin. You cannot start writing just to see where a topic leads; you have to know where the end is before you start.
  • An essay must be full of “scintillating insights,” so you have to collect cool facts, quips, quotes, etc. before you start. Then you must work them into the paper, even if some of them don’t seem to fit.
  • “Always try to ‘psych out’ the professor” by writing a piece that brilliantly subverts expectations while also meeting those expectations. If you can’t do that, your paper can’t possibly be good enough.
  • All the rules of good essay writing have to be used at once. For instance, you must use transitions for flow and evidence for weight, and you must balance these perfectly as you write.

When used as guidelines, rules like these can help an essay stay recognizable as an essay while also effectively conveying the writer’s knowledge of a given subject area. “Always” and “never,” however, are rarely useful rules in writing.

For instance, one of my high school English teachers insisted on the “attention-grabbing first sentence” rule. While I was willing to play along for the sake of my grade, I didn’t force myself to write that first sentence before I went on.

Instead, I’d start my first draft with a thesis statement, then move on to the points I wanted to make, then the conclusion. Once the conclusion was finished, I’d use its summary of the points made in the essay to inspire an attention-grabbing first sentence.

I used this method throughout my academic career. I still use it today. And I still get compliments for how well my articles are “tied together.”

Resources

ReadWriteThink: Essay Map – a user-friendly way to organize ideas.

EndNote – organize sources and references.

Hemingway App – helps you analyze the readability of a draft. You don’t have to make perfect sentences; you just need to write down any sentences, then put them through this app.

InstaGrok – put in any topic, get an interactive mind map linking it to other topics. Great for when you “want to write about ___,” but don’t know where to go from there.

Get Creative

Rose notes that over-planning can trip up writers of non-fiction essays and articles. The desire to plan perfectly may lead to paralysis.

The same thing can happen to fiction writers, whether or not they see themselves as the planning type.

Author Mercedes Lackey notes that “writer’s block” may actually be the writer’s subconscious recognizing that, for some reason, the story cannot continue in the direction it’s going. Sensing that the story won’t work, the subconscious puts on the brakes.

This kind of writer’s block “can happen whether you are a meticulous outliner or a seat-of-the-pants writer. You are about to make a big mistake, and your subconscious is stopping you,” says Lackey.

This type of block may be best resolved with Huston’s strategies for “moderate” writer’s block: Get creative. Ask, “what else could happen here?”, and generate ideas before evaluating or criticizing them. Try role-playing one of your characters to see what other reactions they might have.

For me, the “two for one” method works well to generate new plot ideas and potential character arcs. It follows one rule: Every solution to a problem must generate two new problems. 

Typically, I’ll run 30 to 50 iterations of this as an idea-generation method. In the finished story or novel, of course, it won’t go on forever; eventually the characters find a way to wrap up enough loose ends to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. As a means to figuring out the story and the characters’ responses to conflict, however, it can be powerful – and a lot of fun.

Resources

Seventh Sanctum – plot, character and setting generators

The John Fox – story idea generator

Reedsy Plot Generator – over 1 million components. Click various components to lock or unlock them, then generate again to fine-tune ideas.

When Writer’s Block Isn’t

Writers spend a great deal of time not writing. Writer procrastination and delay is a running joke in writing communities. It’s the reason so many writing-related hashtags on Twitter are full of people making fun of themselves for tweeting instead of writing.

This type of “writer’s block,” however, isn’t a hurdle. Rather, it’s what Donald M. Murray calls “essential delay” – the soil from which writing sprouts and blossoms. Writer’s block is a state of being stuck; essential delay is a state of preparation. If essential delay is wintertime, writer’s block is Narnia’s “always winter and never Christmas.”

The good news? It’s possible to turn a case of writer’s block into a state of essential delay, using the same strategies recommended by Huston, Rose and Lackey. Murray finds several different processes occur during essential delay:

  • Information-gathering. Professional writers “collect warehouses full of information, far more than they need, so much information that its sheer abundance makes the need for meaning and order insistent,” says Murray. When the need for meaning and order reaches critical mass, essential delay turns into writing.
  •  Insight. When various ideas start to coalesce into “a single vision or dominant insight,” writing may commence as a way to test that vision or insight. For instance, finding a problem that can be solved by writing may help a writer overcome the delay imposed by having a lot of ideas with no common theme.
  • Need. Writers often experience two needs: The need to write, and the need for the audience to listen. Until these needs coincide, however, the writer may stay in the planning or musing phase.

Planning and organization also play a role in the essential delay phase. In some cases, they’re necessary to move a writer forward – as long as they don’t absorb all of your attention.

When All Else Fails

When all else fails, use writer’s block itself as the source of creativity.

My favorite example of this by far is Dennis Upper‘s paper in the Fall 1974 issue of the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis. Titled “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block,'” Upper’s paper is a masterwork on the effects of writer’s block on otherwise trained and productive professionals. (I suggest you read the entire paper for yourself; it’s quite short.)

My own best piece of writer’s block advice is this:

Don’t let yourself think that writing the piece itself is the only thing that counts as writing.

Brainstorming, freewriting, outlining, doodling mind maps, reading the thesaurus entry for a particular word in order to see how that concept is connected to other concepts, falling down the Wikipedia hole – all of these are part of writing. Your “writing time” is just as productive if you spend it freewriting about a character’s motivations than if you spent it actually writing the story in which that character appears.

The trick is to find the balance between these activities and actually writing the piece you intend to show an audience. That’s what separates those who write from those who merely aspire to do so.


Inspired to beat your writer’s block? Here are two ways to say thanks: buy me a coffee or share this post on social media.

How Does an Author Begin Writing a Book?

“How does an author begin writing a book?” is another of the Most Frequently Asked Questions I (and a lot of published authors) face.

Every author comes at it a bit differently. Here’s how I do it.

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The One-Liner

I begin with a one-line concept. Most of these come to me years (or in a couple cases, decades) before I actually begin writing the book.

My current concept list for future novels in the Non-Compliant Space series, beyond the starting trilogy, looks like this:

  • what Molloy did next
  • time travel murder adventure
  • blockchain dystopia
  • the founding of Interstellar Science (Mai’s story)

(That last one is one of the concepts I’ve had in my head for literal decades; I started thinking about that one in 2001 or so.)

Character and Conflict

From the one-line concept, I decide who the main characters are, then start kicking around possible central conflicts.

For me, central conflicts always arise from who the main characters are. Whatever the plot ends up being in “what Molloy did next,” for example, is going to depend entirely on Captain Molloy’s attitude and behavior toward the central conflict. So we already know it’s going to be snarky and prone to flying off the handle for reasons no one talks about.

“Time travel murder adventure” already has a cast pre-determined by the first four books, and given who the cast is, I expect most of the plot in this one to be interpersonal shenanigans.

“Blockchain dystopia” has no characters at all so far, which means it’s fair game to fold into any of the other options so far. I can’t see Molloy caring at all about a blockchain-based dystopia, however, so it’s probably not going to feature as the central conflict in “what Molloy did next.”

Outlines and Suchlike Discontents

Once I have some idea who’s involved and how they’re going to react to the central conflict, I start outlining.

The first outline is usually a page long-ish paragraph summary of the main plot. If I manage to work up any sub-plots at this point, they get their own paragraph.

From here, I turn to the beat sheet method outlined in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! I write messy paragraph summaries as needed until I have some idea how the plot fits onto the beat sheet. This is the point at which sub-plots usually work themselves out for me; not only does the beat sheet explicitly leave space for them, but this is also where I see how they feed into the long decline from the Midpoint to the Dark Night and how they’re essential to the Finale.

Once I have characters, a plot, and a sense of the beats, I can start drafting.

More Scribbling

I typically start each beat with several paragraphs summarizing what happens in that beat. Each paragraph is a scene. If I need to extend this ahead two or three beats, I do.

Then I write the scenes. If I get stuck anywhere, I go back to freewriting paragraphs until I get unstuck.

I repeat this process until I’ve written all the scenes and put them in order. That’s the zero draft.

Almost a Book

Then I retype the entire zero draft into Word. That’s the first draft.

Then editing, a process that, like sausage-making, is best left undescribed.

At some point in this process, I may or may not put on pants. The pants-wearing phase is optional (at least until I have to talk to another human being in meatspace).

The process of finishing a book is somewhat different from the process of starting it. I’ve covered that in detail elsewhere on this blog, including this detailed three-part description of my actual writing process.

But that’s how I start.

How to Get Better at Art By Producing Fifty Pounds of Crap

Art & Fear, by David Bayles & Ted Orland, has been one of my favorite books of creativity since my now-spouse introduced me to it in graduate school. In particular, I’ve come back to this story again and again:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Which brings me to a seemingly unrelated topic: Why do I keep spamming my blog audience with terrible Christmas songs?

Simply put: I’m trying to make fifty pounds of terrible pots.

Beginners are frequently the loudest about their struggle with “perfection paralysis,” but it can plague creators at any stage in their learning curve. For those of us in the performing arts, attempting to switch from performance to choreography or composing can cause a mental Blue Screen of Death. We’ve always executed what we were told to do; what should we do when there’s no one telling us how?

I became interested in composing back in high school, but it wasn’t until recently that I had both the tools and the time to try my hand at it. I’ve been playing music since my mother taught me how to plunk out the chorus to “Jingle Bells” on the piano when I was five, but except for a brief course in blues improv in high school, I’d never tried to write any.

And the sheer volume of my knowledge of music served to stall me out – big time. With thousands of hours of playing and hundreds of hours on music theory behind me, I should be able to produce something good on my first try, right?

…If you believe that, go listen to the Bad Carols, in order.

They get consistently better as you go down the list. The first one, in fact, is crap compared to any of the others. I didn’t really hit my stride until “Skin Carol” at the earliest, and I wasn’t close to happy with a piece until the melody of “By Candlelight Swans Three.” Halfway through “In Christmas Hot Damn” I switched gears to writing an arrangement of “Riu, Riu, Chiu,” which I also currently hate.

I had to get past my belief that I had to produce something good. I had to produce just anything.

And I was getting bored with just asking Botnik’s predictve-text keyboard to generate histories of various holidays. I wanted to do something more involved with the tool.

Hence “Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For.” They didn’t have to be good – in fact, limiting my lyrics to those generated by predictive text pretty much guaranteed they wouldn’t be good. They just had to appear regularly. And the automatic deadline of December 25 made it fairly easy to ensure they’d happen on time.

I generate a lot of creative work, every day. It’s literally my job. And I recommend this method for improving in any creative genre.

Want to be a better writer? Assign yourself half an hour a day in which your only goal is that your pen/fingers never stop moving across the page/keyboard. If you write “I’m a terrible writer and I should go walk into the sea” fifty times in that half hour, so be it. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

Want to be a better choreographer? Write 32 to 64 counts (4-8 sets of 8) at every rehearsal/practice session you have. If you can’t decide on a piece of music, set your playlist to random. If all you do is plies for your first 32 counts, fine. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

Want to create a better vlog, host a better podcast, draw better Lovecraftian horrors? Generate five new ideas every single day. Hell, make it ten. Make it twenty. If the first hundred are all variations on “Interview [insert Lovecraftian horror here],” fine. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

A lot of beginners, in particular, fear that if they just start with the basics – simply writing “My mind is a blank and I suck at writing” over and over, or drawing the same anime characters again and again – they’re wasting time. They’ll never move past those basics. Their masterpiece novel/manga/interpretive dance will never materialize.

As the ceramics class proved, however, the masterpiece won’t materialize if you don’t make fifty pounds of crap first.


If you found this post useful, help a fellow artist: share this post on social media or buy me a coffee.

Merry Christmas, BIL

My spouse’s family has a sporadic tradition reserved for high-value gifts: Make them impossible to unwrap.

The gold standard is the Christmas my spouse’s grandfather suspended a gold letter opener in the center of a packing tube, then glued it shut so perfectly there were no visible seams. My spouse’s aunt, who received this gift, had a minor breakdown trying to open the tube. After six hours, her father relented and let her use tools.

See, there are two rules to this game:

1. The gift has to be high-value, and

2. The recipient may not use tools or assistance from others to open it.

I did a lower-stakes version a few years ago, when my sister in law decided that her daughter needed a Kindle. Niece was about 7 at the time, making this her first Very Own Device.

I wrapped the Kindle in four separate boxes, nested within one another. From respect for Niece’s age, attention span and fine motor skills, I did not make the boxes hard to open.

This year, my spouse’s brother is back from several months of serious medical stuff. My brother in law is a grown adult.

And my gloves are off.

This is a jar of truffles, wrapped in bubble wrap and wrapping paper. Isn’t it cute? The perfect stocking stuffer for the foodie on your list!

It needed a little something. Like, say, four layers of strapping tape applied in one continuous motion.

I don’t know if we can trust this dollar store wrapping paper to stay on by itself. Better wrap it in a coating of packing tape just to be safe.

“Hey, I got my brother this new tackle box. Would you mind wrapping it for me?” said my spouse.

Not at all, dear. I’d be happy to.

It fits just great into this box that coincidentally fits great into four other boxes I just coincidentally have happened to have been saving for months in case I needed to get revenge on my brother in law for kicking my butt in Bomberman one too many times.

The wrapping paper was not shiny enough. It needed another coat of packing tape.

Also (not shown) this box was not strong enough, and so I added a coat of strapping tape.

This one was acceptably shiny, but I covered every seam in packing tape just to be safe.

This box got wrapped with normal amounts of normal Scotch tape. Lulling the victim recipient into a false sense of comfort is a very important part of the game.

The boxes have gotten so big by this point, I had to move to the floor to wrap. I finished the seams on this one with packing tape as well.

Our tiny truffle jar, all grown up and nestled into its final box! (Cats shown for scale.)

The final wrap job. Since kraft paper is so fragile, and since my roll of packing tape was beginning to wane, I wrapped the entire box in packing tape until I emptied the roll.

“Well…that’ll make it fun,” my spouse said when I announced that I had used an entire roll of packing tape.

Merry Christmas, BIL.

Christmas Carols Nobody Asked for, Vol. 6: Hollering Christmas Home

(For an explanation of this project and links to previous volumes, see the master list.)

The vast majority of Christmas carols played on the radio today were originally recorded in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. In other words, the carols that Gen X, Millennials and now Gen Z are growing up with are the ones that give Baby Boomers a case of the nostalgias.

That’s slowly changing – notice how Mariah Carey, Wham! and Michael Buble are sneaking onto the charts – but we’re still subjected to a disproportionate number of songs each Christmas season that are still played solely so Boomers can feel feelings.

In their honor, I decided to write a carol in the 1940s-1960s carol tradition: Flowy, nostalgic, heavy on the random minor piano chords, and basically lacking in artistic quality.

As always, Botnik’s predictive text keyboard provided the lyrics, and I composed the tune in Noteflight.

Hollering Christmas Home

My heart wrapped up in ribbon,
Will touch my arms again,
I’ll miss this starry kickback
in June when I think twice.

Give more snow to spend
on tinkle tunes again,
holding everybody
by the fire.

Making lists,
Buying all,
Underneath the children,
Hollering Christmas home.

Here’s the score [pdf].

Here’s the audio file [mp3].

How to Recover From Burnout

I’ve seen several tweets this past month about the lack of resources on recovering from burnout.

“Everyone talks about how to avoid it,” one Twitterer noted, “but nobody talks about what to do once you’re already there.”

This strikes me as an unforgivable gap in available knowledge. In the interests of doing what I can to fix that, here’s what I’ve done to recover after I went down in flames in the fall of 2009.

How to Recover From Burnout

Prologue: Some Background

I am not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or any sort of mental health professional. I strongly recommend finding one or more people in this field whom you trust and working with them as part of the recovery process if you possibly can.

I am, however, a person who was hospitalized for burnout three times before the age of 30 and once more at age 33. I’ve been told by several doctors that if I did not slow down, I would die. I am addicted to work.

So here’s what worked for me. It may not work for everyone.

First: Know Thyself

A lot of people get into the burnout zone because we don’t see what’s happening to us until we’re burned out.

I don’t say that to assign blame. There are a lot of real and compelling reasons we don’t see it. We have bills to pay. We have families to support. We really believe that if we just work hard enough, we’ll reach the state of Successful Adulting(TM). Often, we want to believe that we can fix problems in our lives by working harder, because working harder is a thing we can actually control.

So we don’t look too hard at whether the work we’re doing is sustainable. That’s not a fault, but it becomes a responsibility.

The first step to reversing the burnout course is to see it for what it is.

Do This:

  • Make a list of all the stuff you actually do in a day. All of it. If you’re so fried you spent five hours lying in bed listening to Spotify, write that down. This is not the time to judge whether something was sufficiently “productive” to “count”; this is the time to note where it is you actually are.
  • Make a list of all the stuff you’re not doing, but is worrying you. That bill you haven’t paid in three months. The mystery Tupperware in the fridge that has learned seven languages and is currently the mayor of South Bend. Your chronically disorganized laundry pile. The fact that you missed your best friend’s birthday – again. Again, this is not the time to judge; it’s the time to get all that stuff out of your head.

This is often an uncomfortable experience. You might start feeling angry or panicky. You may blame yourself for having “wasted” a bunch of time or feel the need to get up and do one or more of the things on the list. Strong negative reactions are normal and okay (although they, by definition, do not feel okay at the time).

As much as you can, be present with those feelings. Breathing exercises can help you manage the load (there are guided tutorials on YouTube and in apps like Headspace), too. If you need to walk away from the list and come back later, do that.

Remember, you are in a tough situation that is not your fault but is your responsibility. That might feel unfair as fuck. It is. But you don’t have to let it stay that way.

Second: Increase Friction

I recently wrote a piece (which I will link here once it’s live) on the negative effects of frictionless UX online. The instant and often passive way we can fill our brains with inputs by scrolling Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, or by letting YouTube or Netflix autoplay whatever’s next, means that we’re filling our brains in a way that we as a species have never really been able to do.

For example: My husband rolls out of bed at about 6:30 am in order to be out the door at 7:00 am and fully awake and engaged with teenagers by 7:20 am.

The first thing he does when he gets up is to grab his phone and stagger to the toilet, where he scrolls through his email and messages and starts to plan his day. In the first five minutes, he reads and deals with as many as fifty different bits of information.

We’re both old enough to remember the days of yore before ubiquitous Internet and social media, in which that kind of information load wouldn’t have been possible. Now it’s not only possible, it’s expected: My husband says there’s no way he could possibly be ready for his job if he didn’t do it each morning. He’s expected to walk into work knowing all the stuff people sent him after he left the evening before.

This is a “frictionless” world for information. And I’m convinced it is a major factor in our burnout.

Do This:

  • Pay attention to where your information inputs have gotten frictionless. Are you zoning out after dinner and scrolling Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr for hours on end (whether or not you “should” be doing something else?) How often does Netflix stop to ask you if you’re still alive?
  • Make it harder for other people’s content to reach you. Delete one or more social media apps, or turn off push notifications, or bury them somewhere in your phone. Mute or unfollow contacts you don’t interact with much or that you see often enough in real life that you don’t need to keep up with them online as well. Do this in stages, starting with the ones you use/need to see least. The goal is to give yourself greater control over what information actually reaches your brain.
  • Replace with content you really want to consume. Instead of scrolling Twitter in the morning, read one or two blogs you love. Subscribe to a fiction magazine or journal: it’s a great way to get short, entertaining reads in your favorite genre, especially if your brain isn’t handling full-length stories yet. Or just consume the “content” of less damn noise in your life.

The goal is to carve out space for your brain. It’s not always easy, especially if (like me) you developed the habit of scrolling endlessly through Pinterest in order to avoid both doing what you needed to do and realizing how burned out you are.

There are good reasons for doing this, though. Even Facebook has admitted that too much passive scrolling causes worse moods. And at least one study found that limiting social media reduced loneliness and depression, at least in undergrads.

But That’s My Social Circle!

For a lot of folks, especially disabled folks, social media is a lifeline to the rest of the world. Even if you still spend a lot of time on social media, fight to increase friction where you can. Curate your lists, and spend more time engaging (the Facebook study claims that moods improve when people like and comment instead of just scrolling).

The goal is to put yourself in control of the information that is currently overloading your brain. To do that, you’ll need to change your relationship with your sources of information.

Third: Commit to Existence

Increasing information friction in your life helps carve out space and free time. Space and free time are absolutely necessary to resolving burnout.

Let me repeat that, because it’s that important: Space and free time are absolutely necessary to resolving burnout. 

Burnout occurs because the pace at which we attempt to do things isn’t sustainable. We don’t restore the energy we use day after day. Instead, we eat into our reserves – until we don’t have reserves anymore.

Do This:

  • Get a blank calendar. Or play on hardcore mode and delete everything in your existing calendar.
  • Schedule the following four priorities: sleep, meals, movement, and relaxation. The last category can include play, fun hobbies, religious/spiritual pursuits, or anything else that has helped you feel more like yourself in the past. Schedule all four separately. “Sleep” and “relaxation” are not the same category. Don’t assume you can both eat and go for a walk at the same time.
  • Schedule everything else around these four priorities. Sleep, meals, movement and relaxation are non-negotiable if you want to continue living.
  • Reevaluate those lists. If there are things on your “things I should be doing” list that you can’t fit in the schedule, ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t do them. Not if they didn’t get done – if you didn’t do them. Delegate or let them go as necessary.

I’ll repeat this too, because it’s important: Sleep, meals, movement and relaxation are non-negotiable if you want to continue living. 

Fourth: Fuck You, Pay Me

In the process of reevaluating those lists, notice how many things you’ve agreed to do, or have been handed to you, or that you think you should do, that you aren’t getting paid to do.

I don’t just mean pay in terms of cold hard cash, although that’s certainly important in order to afford things like food and a safe place to sleep. I also mean “pay” in terms of mental and emotional energy and support.

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: Your mental and emotional energies work in some ways like a bank account. If you loan out too much of them without getting reapid or receiving interest, eventually the bank goes bust. And if you’re burned out, your bank is going bust.

One of the keys to reversing burnout and avoiding relapse is to resolutely refuse to do things for which you do not get paid.

Do This:

Look at your lists from the first step. For each item on the list, ask yourself two questions:

  1. What do I get out of doing this? For work, the answer might be “a paycheck.” For cooking, “a hot meal.” For doing laundry, “clean underwear.” For picking up the yard, “So that Mrs. Nosy next door doesn’t call the ordinance guy on me again.” And so on.
  2. Does what I get from doing this adequately compensate me for the energies I expend in doing it? Only you can answer this question for yourself, because only you can decide how much energy it takes you to do something and whether you’re happy with what you get in return.

Use these two questions to evaluate things you do with your time. If you’re not satisfied with the answers to both questions, reconsider whether you need to do the thing. Maybe you can just stop doing it altogether. Maybe there’s an alternative way to do it, or to get it done, that makes you feel more satisfied with the return on your investment.

The goal is never to invest physical, mental, emotional or spiritual energy in anything that does not adequately compensate you for doing so. I call this the “fuck you, pay me” attitude. If it doesn’t pay you, don’t do it.

In some cases, you may need to take a few steps to see where the payment is. For instance, driving your kids to sports practice may not seem to compensate you at all; but having happy, healthy kids who feel supported may be extremely valuable. (Of course, if you’re driving kids to practices they don’t even want to attend, it may be time to ask them whether they’re happy with what they get from this activity.)

Take Note: If the answer to the first question is “nothing” or “nothing that actually matters to me,” don’t even bother with the second question. Strike the thing off your list. It’s a vampire. Revoke its invitation into your physical or mental space and never invite it in again.

When in doubt, ask yourself, “What if I just never had to deal with this ever again?” If your feeling is one of overwhelming relief, it’s time to eliminate the thing or find another way to do it.

Fifth: Forget Quick Fixes

If you’re hoping you can do the above four steps and fix your burnout overnight, I have bad news.

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t resolve overnight. Burnout is the result of a longstanding pattern of non-sustainable behavior. While these steps can help you redirect yourself onto a more sustainable path, you still have two major factors to contend with:

  1. You’re going to need time to recover what you’ve already lost, and
  2. You’re going to have to guard against relapse – probably for the rest of your life.

I had my last hospital stay in 2015. While I was there, my psychologist and I worked hard on creating a plan to prevent relapse. I’ve adhered to that plan, but it takes conscious effort every day. And I’m still finding ways to improve it; for instance, I recently deleted every social media app I have except for Twitter, which I buried in a folder on my phone so that accessing it has to be a deliberate decision.

A Note on Selfishness

It’s very hard to maintain recovery from burnout if you’re a naturally giving type. Finding a sustainable way to live your life can feel very much like devolving to a state of utter selfishness.

In fact, the opposite is true. Burn out for long enough, and you’ll end up permanently disabled, if not dead. I’m considerably more disabled than I would have been if I had started dealing with my burnout symptoms in 2004, when I first noticed them.

By focusing on my sustainability first, however, I’ve become much more able to keep the commitments I do make. I’m more reliable, because I make sure I have the energy to do things before I agree to do them. And while I’m more disabled than I was in 2004, I am far less disabled than I was in 2009 or 2014.

Burnout is one of those situations in which selfishness is a necessity and a good. If you do not protect your basic needs, you will have nothing left to give anyone – ever.


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