Confessions of a Burned Out Writer

I’m looking at a blank page. I write a sentence, select it and delete it. I put on the new Justin Bieber album and change my mind, switch to some 80s music. I check my text messages. I’m looking at a blank page.

I quit my job in September. There were lots of reasons why and I rotated through them depending on who I was speaking to. Stopped growing, you know how it is. Mentor left, just not the same without her! Social media’s a cesspool, it’s time for a change. I glossed over the inter-team rifts and the ugly politics, the existential crisis over my values and the changing political landscape in which we worked. I kept it professional, kept it light. My anger crackled through anyway, singeing my smile as I waved goodbye. 

It was hard to explain my rage and exhaustion, the meetings I scrolled unseeing through Twitter and the mornings I wanted to die. In November I wrote about burnt toast, how professional burnout can’t be meditated or medicated away. The essay got a lot of shares on LinkedIn. My former coworkers talked about burnout at the company retreat. People texted me about it. I sent back shrug emojis. Culture only changes from the top.

I have a recurring nightmare that I’ve forgotten that I quit and I go back to my old office, open up my laptop and start working. Someone else is sitting at my desk and colleagues ask what I’m doing here but my boss keeps assigning me projects to complete. Eventually I remember that I quit, I quit, I’m free, but I don’t know how to quit again, I don’t know how to leave. Do I need to give another notice period? Can I just get up and go? What am I allowed to do? Will I be here forever, scrolling through Twitter, glaring through meetings, overheating in my button-down dress shirt? I wake up angry again, the sheets twisted around my legs, my boyfriend frowning at me over his coffee mug.

It’s mid-February now. ‘You can’t untoast toast!’ people keep tweeting at me, quoting my burnout essay. Still true, I want to reply. I am charred and scared, unable to focus on work, stifling panic attacks in the elevator after consulting gigs. I’ve upped my dosage of antidepressants and I faint on the subway, dehydrated. There are blackened bread crumbs in between my laptop keys and the spacebar keeps sticking because it’s one of those new faulty butterfly models. I’m trying to think of this time as unpaid medical leave as I eat through my savings and play The Sims for hours. For the first time in years I need to work hard without structure or clear expectations, just fucking grind and sell and smile and fake it. For the first time in years I can’t. Freelancing is a bad fit for someone who can’t even open her email. 

I’m looking at a blank page.

The truth is—the purest truth is—I quit to write. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. When I was a little kid, before I knew how letters worked or how to hold a pen in my fat baby hands, I would take a marker and draw squiggle lines across the pages of a Composition notebook. Line after line after line, page after page after page. My mother saved boxes of them, marbled Composition notebooks full of squiggles in orange and black and blue. I wanted to write before I could even really read, before I understood how to tell a story. Where did it come from? How did I know so early on that writing was all there was to me?

My plan was to quit my job and crank out the rest of the book proposal I’d been working on for years: a memoir about hookup culture and casual sex. When I told my coworkers about it at my farewell party, it sounded super impressive. I thought it would be easy once I eliminated distractions and commitments, that the book would simply erupt from my fingers and I’d dance around my apartment going ahah! In the year before I quit, I wrote one excellent chapter and several terrible ones. For a week I stayed at my dad’s house and poured seven years of repressed trauma into a sixty-page account of the worst year, the one when I got herpes and my ex attempted suicide and I stopped being the same person, the selfless, trusting romantic. I sent the Word doc to a bunch of friends with the urgency of a scientist making a breakthrough: Look! Read this! I understand it now! 

I didn’t write another word of the memoir after quitting. Without my job to occupy the bulk of my mind, I could look at the draft with clear eyes. It was underbaked, navel-gazing, painful—a collection of furious squiggles. There was a lot of good writing there, but it wasn’t a book I was capable of writing yet.

I wrote a romance novel instead. It was part eruption part discipline: I wrote every day, sometimes at the library, sometimes on the train, sometimes in my bed at 3am. After years of swearing I’d never write a novel, it took me two months to finish the first draft. It was hard work, but it was also a relief to write something funny, something straight-forward in its horniness and yearning. Every character in the first draft was another version of me, lost and angry and insecure. The second draft is an excavation of who they are despite having me as their creator. I’m struggling most with the final quarter of the book, the requisite Happily Ever After. Writing an authentic HEA is a challenge when your entire point is that there are no happy endings for millennials. My characters are chained to their hometowns and their terrible jobs by student debt. The heroine is a bisexual, traumatized journalist who keeps getting laid off. Her love interest lives with his mom. What does an HEA look like for a generation abandoning marriage in droves? What does escapism look like for a readership who wakes up every day in Trump’s America? What does a love story written by me, a burned out adult child of divorce with no real aspiration other than to own a large bookshelf someday, feel like to write?

I send the latest draft to friends who don’t read it. Look! Witness this! I quit my job for this! 

Here’s what I know. My confidence is the lowest it has ever been. And I mean ever—lower than when I got herpes, when a charming boy with a mean streak called me a whore, when internet trolls suggested that I brand my forehead with an H. I don’t walk with the sharp strut of an arrogant only child anymore; instead I emerge reluctantly from my apartment at four in the afternoon in my sweatpants to buy more Diet Coke. At parties I am skittish, rude, picking fearfully at my food like I used to as a child. I get a splitting headache at five in the evening and have to lie down. I listen to podcasts and doze, the sun setting across the wall. Eventually I realize I’ve forgotten to take my antidepressant today—the side effects on this higher dosage are brutal. 

I’m looking at a haphazard stack of pages printed out at the local library while the woman in line behind me scowled. She asked, Jesus, are you printing a novel? 

I was up for a job in January. It would have brought me back to Connecticut, a quieter life in the suburbs with my old car and an apartment all to myself. Shitty salary but full health benefits, a routine, healthy structure. I brushed away my toasty corners in the mirror before a four-hour series of interviews. I covered up my black spots of burnout with makeup and charming anecdotes about working all day on Twitter. It quickly became clear that the role was a bad fit, too junior and poorly structured for what they wanted it to achieve. They asked me questions about rejection: What do you do when you’re working with someone who doesn’t understand social media? How do you handle having your ideas discouraged again and again? If a decision is made that you don’t agree with, are you able to let go of your disappointment? 

At the end of the day, the recruiter asked me if I was interested in the role. I hesitated, big smile, dry throat. Then she told me that I was a beautiful writer, but. 

But.

I withdrew from consideration the next morning. 

It says something that I’ve written one hundred thousand words of a novel in the last five months and I still feel like a failure. You see, I haven’t published anything online. Not really. An article for MTV that didn’t make waves, an advice column at a big publication that got killed due to budget cuts. The burnout essay on my blog that everyone read. Years of blogging have turned me into a validation addict—what good is my writing when I can’t post it and watch the page views go up? It will take years for this romance novel to see the light of day, assuming I’m one of the lucky few who actually publishes, who gets to see her name on the spine of a paperback at the Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue. I’m impatient, but more than that, I’m embarrassed. Why did I quit my job? I quit my job because I was sick with an illness no one can see, that people dismiss as just stress like I’m some privileged whiner who doesn’t know how to work hard. I quit my job because I wanted to write a book that failed and I wanted to write articles that I’m too drained to pitch. I quit my job because why the fuck do I feel the need to justify it to you? Why do I wake up most mornings feeling humiliated despite having done nothing wrong? Why do I care so much about what other people think? Why am I not good enough for myself?

I have this idea of what a writer looks like. She shares her latest essay on Twitter with a self-aware joke or a straightforward description, links to the esteemed magazine without gloating about the byline. She posts a screenshot of her book deal’s announcement in Publishers Weekly and tags her agent, her editor, her publisher. She reads an excerpt in black jeans and a colorful blouse at poorly-lit bookstores in Dumbo and she asks Twitter which author portrait she should include in the paperback. She posts her word count to her Instagram story.

I need to picture something else. Writing is private. It’s refilling a McDonald’s cup with Diet Coke as I rearrange the same four lines of dialogue all afternoon. It’s selling books and clothes and purses to pay rent and avoid job searching for another few weeks. It’s entering that beautiful fugue state when you don’t know what time it is but you’re in it, you’re really in it, and you are connected directly to who you are as words fill the page.

Being a writer is writing. It’s not gloating or posting or networking or going upstate for an exclusive application-only plus $2,000 to cover expenses writer’s retreat. It’s not even publishing. It’s writing. 

When I look at those Composition notebooks full of toddler squiggles I remember how urgently I wanted to write. At that age I didn’t care about readers or payment or clout. There was a story inside of me bursting to get out, characters and colors and conflicts. Whole epics whirled through my imagination. I don’t remember the details, but I remember that desperate frustration of needing to write and not being able to. I just wanted to put words on the goddamn page. They were my words and I loved them already. 

I quit my job because I needed to. It was the right decision: I hit a wall for my professional development, and I fell out of love with the mission that balanced out the nonprofit salary. I was also mentally unwell, unhealthy and angry and stuck. And I wanted to do more of this. I love this. I want to do more of this for a while, put the words down on a blank page and nudge them around. Sometimes they’re squiggles and sometimes they’re romance novels and sometimes they’ll be cultural analysis that goes viral in a happy accident. But regardless of who reads my work, I love to write more than I have ever loved anything. I am a writer, whether I’m burned out or depressed or trending or forgotten. I write.

I know that much. I’ll figure out the rest some other time.

 


 

P.S. If I were less burned out, I might have pitched this essay to a publication, worked on it for a week with an editor, and then gotten paid a few hundred bucks for it. I’m not doing that because my burnout cannot handle that pitching process, and also because I wanted to navel-gaze as much as this topic deserves.

As a result, I’m going to ask you to consider leaving me a tip if you can afford it. Thank you for your attention and your support.

Help support my writing by leaving me a tip here.

 


 

Related: There Is No Cure For Burnout

(Photo by Kim Hoyos)

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

2 thoughts on “Confessions of a Burned Out Writer

  1. You have a real talent for conveying raw feelings into words. Far from a collection of furious squiggles. Everything I’ve felt through burnout you’ve somehow captured what I fail to explain to people.

    I quit about a month after you last year, in October. This was still after a 3 month leave of absense, and going back for 6 weeks was my final shot to see “if it was me (a problem that I had just fabricated) or the environment”.

    Now I’m putting any focus I have into an app I call Healr, for burned out employees to find out the culture of companies before they join. Like your book though, energy only comes in spurts, and I’m embarrassed with what I have. 4 hour spurts per day at the moment. But anything up from 0 hours a day is a positive post-burnout. 🙄

    I hope that your confidence comes back. I was recently assessed by a psychiatrist and he failed to diagnoze me with anything but “incompatibility to work at companies”. Ok. If this is true, why do I still feel shame for quitting my job? I don’t know, but I I hope that it fades for you and me both soon.

  2. Wow, reading this… I didn’t realise others felt the way I do. After graduating from university with my English Lit and Creative Writing degree, I struggled to find a job and took the first one that accepted me. The strain of the twelve-hour shifts meant I couldn’t even look after myself, much less write.

    And when I quit after only six months, I thought I’d be over the hard part and I’d be able to write again. Every night after, for months I had nightmares exactly like the ones you described. I still get them sometimes out of the blue three years later. I’ve only just started to feel inspired to write again.

    I have to say that you’re not alone in this. And as someone who’s finally starting to get through it, myself, you’ll find the drive again. Writers are a community and we all need to address issues like this more.

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