Wednesday, April 15, 2015

I Bet They Take Naps

I’m drafting this late at night, and since I’m going to edit, you won’t get to see how bad my rough drafts usually are. And the reason I’m pointing this out is that it’s something I need to remind myself of. Unfortunately writers don’t live in a state of perpetual inspiration (if you do, I might have some serious problems with you), and the words that tumble onto the screen aren’t born beautiful. It takes a good deal of plastic surgery to make them presentable.

Last week I was very encouraged by your response to “A Writer’s Diet” (T. A. Christensen evenfeatured me in her lovely blog). Before dashing out that piece in a fit of exhausted panic, I contemplated calling it quits and offering my apologies in lieu of a proper post. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that you can’t do that. Oh sure, breaks are important, but I’m talking about giving up whenever it gets hard. Trust me, if you only work when it’s easy, you won’t accomplish much. Ultimately it’s important to learn the difference between burnout and discouragement. Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and smash through that wall with your face and…okay, I’m just going to let that one die. And yeah, I felt like I was writing a bunch of garbage, but apparently not everyone agreed with me (I’m still baffled about that). So thank you, people, for your positive feedback. It means a lot to me.

Today I want to talk about perspective, but in order to do that, I need to back up a little. I am both a morning lark and a night owl. Often I try to manage these dual lifestyles simultaneously (and the results tend to be less than stellar). As with early mornings, I like the loneliness of nighttime, the sensation of being the only one awake in my house. I jam my ear buds in and crank up the music and type furiously as the darkness presses in close to read over my shoulder. In these hours of perfect, peaceful solitude, I can truly hear myself think. But after a long day, I can’t fend off the drowsiness for too long, much as I’d like to. And that frustrates me. I push myself to the limit—writing until my wrists twinge and my fingers can’t hit the keys because they’re falling asleep. Then I drag myself to bed, head swimming—already dreaming.

While those nights are some of the best times for writing, they can also be some of the most discouraging. You see, when I’m fatigued, I don’t reason well. I become distractible and emotional (which is a terrible plight for an aspiring Vulcan). Even an encouraging day can end badly if I stay up too late. By the time I break away, the music galls my mind, the click of keys annoys me, and the words on the screen seem worse than rubbish. Since I’m not the impulsive type, I don’t have to worry about deleting my work in a fit of rage. But that doesn’t mean I don’t readily sell myself out when I’m tired. Unfortunately, some forms of fatigue can’t be cured by sleep. You can only cram so much into your mind—ask so much of it—before your brain needs you to relax while it tidies up.

If I try to push past that point, I lose perspective and clarity. After completing a rough draft, I can’t trust myself to evaluate it honestly. In the same way, I can’t trust my judgement when I spend too much time with anything. I may love a song, but listening to it two hundred times in a row might skew my enjoyment for a while (this has happened). Things like binge-watching your favorite show, writing a novel in five days, and hanging out with your friends for an entire summer aren’t bad—but you might just get cranky near the end. Burnout is your mind’s way of saying it’s time to take a step back, change gears, and occupy yourself with something else while your brain processes this overload.

I was so tired last week, I was ready to admit that I really don’t know what I’m doing, that I don’t have anything worthwhile to say. And maybe a lot of you were disappointed with last week’s quality—I know I was. As a writer, my cynicism is both a blessing and a curse. If I don’t doubt myself, I’ll spit out junk and call it good. But if I doubt myself too much, I’ll edit my darlings to death. Unfortunately, the balance between the two can be a lot harder than you might expect. So this is my challenge to you (and to me) for when we suffer burnout, as we will from time to time. When you find yourself next to tears or tantrums because everything you type seems worthless, step back and say, “You know, I don’t recognize any good in this at the moment, and I don’t think that this project will ever see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m tired, I’m discouraged, and I just want to curl up into a ball and cry. But you know, I realize I can’t be the best judge of that now, so I’m going to set this aside and take care of myself. Once my mind has recovered, I may be pleasantly surprised by just how much potential my project has.” (Cue heart-warming, inspirational music. Flowers fall from ceiling as bubbles float through beams of sunlight. Try not to get all this sap on your clothes.)

Writers are brave people, and I’m not saying this to toot my own horn because, really, I admire all the rock star authors who do this for a living and balance all the many responsibilities of being published. They have so much on their shoulders, stuff that aspiring authors like me can’t quite relate to. Just remember, while they manage to keep plugging away, I bet they take naps from time to time.


  1. I have the same problem- I over edit or think it's already good. The balance is hard. Writers are brave, you never know if other people are going to like your work or not, you never know at what point it is ready. Writing often feels like trying to find the light switch in the dark.

    We should all have a nap from time to time :) Life always looks better after a nap :)

    1. Balance is so hard. And I always feel bad for writers who put their baby out there, only to have critics tear it apart. But yeah, it's very difficult to decide at what point a book is "good enough". The last thing any writer wants is to look back and realized they put their work out too soon. And your comparison is spot on--writing definitely feels like blindness.

      Absolutely. Life is definitely better after a nap, unless you accidentally sleep for three hours and wake up groggy... Yeah, naps are great. :)