we are burned out
like chestnuts left roasting on an open fire way too freakin' long
|Isabel Cañas||Dec 15, 2020|
As a writer, I'm a plotter by nature. Know thy enemy, they say, and yes, I do: I know that staring blank page without a plan makes me freeze. I know that I have to see the shape of the thing on paper before I tackle it. I’ve combed the internet and gone through craft book after craft book looking for The Perfect Outline.* I’ve made spreadsheets for drafts and for revisions, for tracking emotional beats and red herrings and for worldbuilding.
I take a similar approach to my career. Every year, I use December as a time for reflection. Looking back and taking stock of the year gone by is a key step for planning the next one; I often make time to dig through my Google docs and unearth the goals I set out for myself back in January.
That is so not happening this year. Nope, nope, nope. May that Google doc whither in the vast bleakness of the cloud. May all of our innocently-drafted January 2020 goals and/or resolutions never again see the light of day.
It's not that I didn't get anything done this year. Quite the opposite, at least until fall. (And now, that I think of it, that may be the root of the problem.)
Early in the pandemic, I channeled my anxiety into work, as I often do. I read up a storm in March, desperate to escape (the balm of choice for this anxious heart: Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash). In April, I wrote/edited over 100k words across three different projects. Over the summer months, I wrote some short stories, abandoned others. Blasted through ~150 pages of medieval Turkish translations for my PhD dissertation. Came up with no less than 7 novel or novella ideas (and remember how I said I’m a plotter? By “idea” I mean full outlines/synopses, character Story Genius backstory, beat sheets, the works). Did revisions on a novel. When fall hit, I began teaching.
And then NaNoWriMo swung around.
I love NaNoWriMo to pieces. It and my birthday make November my favorite month. I have had a whack at it every year since 2013, no matter the circumstances, and more importantly, I’m always excited to tackle it every year. The community! The anticipation! The coy glint of a fresh, unsullied project!
This year, I knew the election was stressing me out. I knew being an election day worker would kick my word count to the curb for at least two days. But I can totally do it, I told myself. It’s how I channel my anxiety! Look, this project is full of comfort characters! It’ll be the perfect place to hide out from the world!
Reader, all of these things were true.
I am known among my friends for being able to churn out first drafts at a terrifyingly steady clip: 4k a day, 5 days a week is my comfortable pace. With a bit of conditioning, 6-7k a day, sustained for about a week or two, is absolutely doable. (I once even pulled a mythical 10k day last November!) This is something I’m proud of. It’s a skill I didn’t used to have, one that I have worked hard to improve and keep for many years.
And it just wasn’t fucking happening this fall.
The days following November 7th, I felt like I had just stepped off a rollercoaster. I was relieved, but trembling and nauseous. I was spacey and forgetful. I experienced what felt like a massive adrenaline drop, followed by a long, slow crash.
A lot of fast drafting for me is trust. I trust that when I reach out for descriptions, my hand will come back full. That my feet and ankles and knees know how to land, no matter how far I leap. For weeks—the entirety of November—drafting felt like reaching for a dance partner and coming up with empty air. I tripped often. I ate dirt. I wanted to cry from frustration, but honestly, I was just too tired to.
I managed 9,000 words over the month.
My worst NaNoWriMo to date, no contest. I don’t feel bad about it. I have reached a point in my life where I’ve learned to call a spade a spade: this is what burnout looks like. There is no fighting it, no pushing through. I didn’t even have the energy to. All I wanted to do was hibernate until January.
Now that teaching and grading are done and term is finally over, I actually... kind of... can? A little?
Part of that involves curling up with a heated blanket and sleeping 10 hours a night. (And it is glorious.) Part of that has been bringing intention to how I refill my creative well. I wanted to use this first newsletter to share some strategies I’ve been turning to nurse myself back into fighting shape for the new year, in the hopes that perhaps they may help you too:
Fresh air, move around, ideally daily
I’m in quarantine at my in-laws in British Columbia right now, therefore can’t go on runs, so I have been jumping rope on their driveway as a way to get my heart pumping and fill my lungs with fresh air. Here, we’re lucky enough to be surrounded by cedars and oaks and Douglas firs and a view of the sea. I love watching the water change over the course the day, from mirror-like in the early in the morning to the glimmer of yakamoz—the reflection of moonlight on the sea (and one of my favorite Turkish words)—at night. I’ve been a city slicker for the last 6 or 7 years (bouncing between London, Chicago, and Istanbul, now settled in New York), and I now realize that breathing air free of pollution is not just utterly delightful, but a privilege not to be taken for granted. And being able to see the stars—ah, I missed it! Stargazing wakes a dreamier, younger, more open part of my mind.
I fell woefully behind on my short story reading this year. It used to be my favorite commuting activity, and in the absence of commuting, I’ve missed a lot of good stuff. I'm looking forward to end-of-year lists to help catch me up to speed! But I’ve really enjoyed these two stories that have come out recently: both involve the magic of growing things and tender queer love stories.
B Pladek’s “What the Marsh Remembers”: a story I had the honor of workshopping back at Clarion West in 2018, B’s brilliance is finally gracing the pages of Lackington’s. Not available for free yet, but certainly worth the few bucks, if you can spare it.
P H Lee’s “The Garden Where No One Ever Goes,” a gem of a pocket-sized tragedy in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
I’ve been better at novels. For the first time ever, I hit my annual goal of 52 books before December 31st! A few I’ve loved in the last few months: The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen, Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, The Land of the Cranes by Aida Salazar, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. A runner up: Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas.
Half this job is daydreaming. Lean into it. I have a habit of picking a song as a daydream vehicle and obsessing over it for a few weeks; “No Plan” by Hozier has been a constant staple of late. Lipsynching to Maluma's “Hawái" in the bathroom mirror while doing my skincare was the source of a major plot breakthrough recently. Of course, like any moody millennial, I’ve been listening to Taylor Swift’s evermore since the minute it dropped (quite literally, I’m unashamed to say) last Friday. And finally, this dark academia-themed playlist has made me homesick for Gothic campuses, quiet reading rooms, and watching early autumn twilights through narrow library windows.
Staying off Twitter
I know, I know. I hate it when the holier-than-thous preach abstinence just as much as the next self-respecting gremlin, but really. Going cold turkey on the bird site has freed up so much space in my brain and made a world of difference in my everyday anxiety levels.
Reading about craft and process
Writer newsletters have been bringing me joy, comfort, and inspiration in my fallow season. I especially love the writer Isabel Yap’s Substack newsletter, hot yuzu tea, and novelist Laini Taylor’s Patreon. Both have writing processes so different from my own; I learn so much from them. They are incredibly wise and so compassionate in their reflections about craft and self-worth. Seeing their names pop into my inbox sends a wave of calm over me.
Starting a commonplace book
Last winter, when I first moved to New York, I made a habit of going to the now-closed (*cries*) Poets House to write. As I was gearing up to tackle a novelette, I spent a few days pulling any book that caught my eye off the shelves and flipping through them. If lines or stanzas jumped out to me, I wrote them down in my notebook. I then turned around and wrote one of those magical, muse-fueled level-up short stories (of course it is now trunked, but c’est la vie).
What happened? Maybe it was something to do with slowing down, with intention, with really paying attention to the shape of imagery and the texture of syllables. Whatever this was, I thought now was as good a time as any to try it again: I now have a notebook dedicated to copying out lines from novels or stories that resonated with me. With writing prompts. With craft advice. It’s slowly waking up my brain, throwing open windows and beating the dust out of old rugs.
50 First Sentences
Late this summer, a few of my Clarion West friends starting doing an exercise where they wrote a list of fifty first sentences. They produced brilliant work, and after some hesitation, I joined in. I quickly realized three things: 1) man, it is way harder than it sounds, and 2) also takes way longer, but 3) at some point, your brain cracks and starts looking at language and story sideways, and somewhere between sentences 25 and 40, you come up with some really interesting stuff.
To get myself warmed up before I tackled the exercise, I gobbled up first sentences. I yanked a bunch of books off my shelves and cracked a few short story anthologies to study up, but if you want to join in, you can start with this fantastic list of first sentences compiled by Zoraida Córdova here.
That’s all I’ve got for now, folks. I have no idea what I’m doing with this newsletter business, but I hope, if anything, you’ve seen you are not alone in your burnout. I hope you all can take some time here at the end of the year to rest, refill your creative well, and rebuild your trust in yourself as a writer. I believe in you.
I’ll poke my head back here in a month or so to talk about habits and some beloved fast drafting techniques. Until then, it’s hibernation time. Catch you on the flip side!
*If you were wondering, a mashup of Save the Cat Writes a Novel and Lisa Cron's Story Genius is, as far as I’m concerned, the perfect outline. I will die on this hill. But that’s a whole other newsletter’s worth of outline-geekery!
From the archives:
“The Kingdom of the Butterflies” is a retelling of the Arachne myth that draws on the Aztec pantheon; it is a story of sisters standing up for one another against brutal odds. It was the first story I wrote at Clarion West in 2018 and, as such, is near and dear to my heart despite its flaws. It was published in Luna Station Quarterly a year ago this month.
Nothing to report... well, at least not yet ;) Early 2021, however, will be exciting indeed—be sure to make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss any updates!