Burned Out on the Business of Writing? 6 Insights to Rediscover Joy and Passion

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!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

___

Love Helping Writers Become Authors? You can now become a patron. (Huge thanks to those of you who are already part of my Patreon family!)

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Ok, I’m going to add one. Get a posse. Don’t be the lone cowboy out their riding the range. Certainly, find a group of writers you can speak with honestly both on your work and your life. As your business grows look for partners. You do need to understand how the process works, and should start out doing all if it – lest you go broke. But, it’s fine to add editors and artists and people you trust to hand to move parts of the process forward. If you are looking at other media, there are video and sound editors that can take a ton of work off your back. A word of honesty (wait, aren’t you a writer?), I haven’t reached the point where I’m successful, but I’ve thought about how I will re-engineer my process once success comes so that I focus on what I take joy from.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely. To the degree it’s financially feasible, it is incredibly helpful to be able to hire appropriate professionals.

  2. Great post. No matter whether it is writing or basketball or dog training, when you equate what you do (and the results) with with your self-worth, you are treading in dangerous territory. A lesson I keep relearning with every new adventure. Thanks for continuing to share your insights. ❤️

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s true! For me, as an Enneagram 3, learning about this type’s challenges have been especially eye-opening.

  3. I relate to so much of this! I’ve been burned out with life…I am just starting to enter the phase of, “Oh, writing is something that IS worthwhile even if it doesn’t fit into the idea I had been taught of ‘productivity’.” Scarcity mindset is something that I fight on a daily basis.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, working through “productivity mindset” is just as important. It’s not that productivity is bad; it’s just that, for many of us, our internalized messages about *why* we should be productive can often be surprisingly toxic.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. It’s all relatable. I’ve had deep creativity issues that I’ve had to address, and as you said, it was all a matter of perspective. After completing my first big project, I thought I would follow up with more books every year. When that didn’t happen, I felt broken, and really, I was. So I decided to take some time to learn more about the craft and about myself. In a way, it’s my internship. Julie Andrews has this great quote, “Nothing you do in life is wasted.” Especially if you know how to look at it.

  5. This reminds me of the song “Change” by (G)I-dle (you can find a video of it on YouTube), especially the lyrics where they talk about how they dreamed of love and fame and once they became loved and famous they lost their dreams.

  6. This was so insightful. Thank you for sharing your hard earnedeasons.

  7. Deeply profound post. Having gone through similar upheavals your words really resonate with me. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s not a fun thing to go through, but I would do it all over again to learn everything I’ve learned.

  8. AnneLouise Feeny says

    As usual, thank you for your honesty and authenticity:) Your words hit several nerves with me: family stressors, health challenges, morale denting, etc. I’m starting to climb (I hope) out of a nearly 5-month health crisis, during which I was unable to do much of anything. I especially missed writing–it had been my salvation during Covid and kept my morale intact. I missed it as one would miss a dear friend. Some sparks are starting to re-ignite. At least I hope so. It’s convinced me more than ever that body, mind, and spirit have to be collectively nourished for us to live a worthwhile life. Thank you, again, for reinforcing that. Your are an absolute joy! Sending love and hugs:)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I was listening to something yesterday that talked about the differences between what we want and what we need when we are trying to accomplish something in our lives. The wants are important (e.g., I want to write), but the needs are non-negotiable (e.g., I need to heal).

      I have certainly experienced times when I felt frustrated or even guilty for spending so much time on my health or other challenges. The false paradigm here is the idea that spending time working through things other than writing (or whatever else our goals may be) means we aren’t honoring the writing. Really, however, spending the time on our health is the first step in being able to reach toward the end goal.

      Fulfilling our needs often isn’t as fun as fulfilling our wants. Most of the time, we’d much rather sit down and create rather than go to the PT or cook ourselves a healthy meal or get an extra hour of sleep. But if the lack of these things is keeping us from doing what we want, then working on them isn’t time *away* from what we want. Rather, it’s time spent working *toward* what we want. At least, that has been a reframe I’ve benefited from.

  9. Yes. I, a writer, prided myself on being hyper-focused, which straddles the fine line between that and having OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.) Then, last week, I fell, got a concussion and the loss of the use of one hand. My daughter commented that it is G-d’s way of slowing me down. I agree. Let’s pray that we figure out that we have to slow down an easier way. (P.S. Thankfully, I’m recuperating quite quickly.) Good luck to you all.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Aw, I’m so sorry to hear that! May you heal quickly, and may your convalescence turn out to offer many gifts you couldn’t have expected.

  10. wptruesdell says

    It’s amazing that this would be your topic today! Lately, I’ve felt burnt out. But today I realized my fatigue comes from the business of writing. Not the creative writing. When I see topics that try to give writing ideas to spark their writing, I shake my head. When I retired a couple of years ago, I jumped right in on the things I never had time to write or complete writing. I took it seriously, like a new job. Now I’m overwhelmed with the amount of help and advice and the sheer number of authors out there, my own Baby Boomers causing so much of the flooding. So I’ve decided to take a big step back (Simon says!) and just write for myself again. Drop the business BS. Your article will help me when I return. And I know I will.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hear, hear. That is exactly the decision I made: to write for myself. Whenever I have done that, I have inevitably created my best work and been proud to share it. But I go into it with the commitment to myself that this is worth writing just for me and that no one will see it unless I decide in the end that I want them to because it’s a genuine desire.

  11. theotherworldsnet says

    Wonderful! Awesome! You are on fire lately!
    Thank you again for sharing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thank you! I’m very excited about all the content I get to share this year. Glad you’re enjoying it so far! 😀

  12. Thank you so much for this. I have been walking right alongside you in this for about as many years. Burnt out, blocked, depressed about not being to sit and write despite desperately wanting to. This truly was an eye opener for me.
    Thank you for sharing!
    Tabitha L. Blackwell

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I know exactly how difficult that feels. The best advice I was given was keep going, be willing to sit with the hard stuff, and keep doing whatever is in front of you do. May you see you way through soon!

  13. What a heartfelt post! I felt every bit of this and understood where you were as much as I could. Burnout is always lurking close by, ready to close in when we let it. I think writers as a whole are more susceptible to it, just because we can get so focused on what we’re doing that we don’t realize that we are overworking ourselves. Thank you for sharing your journey and the beautiful story of recovery!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      We writer are a passionate bunch. 🙂 It can be easy to let that passion turn into obsession, which can quickly turn into burnout. I have always said that fiction techniques are about finding balance. Turns out the writing life is too!

  14. There is deep wisdom in what you have shared in this post. A number of years ago, I ended my professional career in a state of burnout. It was easy to recognize the the external factors that pushed me to burnout: a toxic environment, culture of overwork, and pressure to make decisions that betrayed my values. It was much harder to come to understand the internal factors. These included having a production mindset, perfectionism, and a profound lack of self worth. As I watched my health slip away and my creative spark go out, I realized I had to leave that career. I grieved the loss of it but refocused on healthy living, family, art, and writing. It was an opportunity for soul-searching and a reset. I love my current life as a writer, and I’m mindful about not recreating the same patterns that led to burnout.

    So, as you can see, your eloquent words have resonated with me. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m so sorry you went through that. But what an amazing story you have! Thank you for sharing it here.

  15. Amazing post – it reminds me of the book I read on the last day of 2023: 4000 weeks, a book not specifically about writing but a difficult/true read about how we’re NEVER going to finish that to-do list, we’re never going to hit that magical moment when we stop being imposters, when everything is DONE. It’s very significant for writers I think because you have to come to accept you’ll always have more ideas than finished projects and so on.

    Thanks for everything you do!

  16. These are absolutely wonderful insights. I seem to burnout for a couple of months (at least) every time I write a book for the past few years. I’ve even written to you about one. It’s such a crippling experience. I’m going to apply these to my current slump.

    Also, have you heard of chakras? Your experience of pains in your head and neck and how you’ve found to deal with them closely resemble chakra healing. I have the opposite reaction. I experience pain in my solar plexus (representing will) and have to focus more on my throat (where we speak truth). The chakras are energy centers attuned to sounds and colors, which make working with them fun.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.