Friday, 23 August 2019

Are You Burning Out?

By Nick Cross

Photo by pcorreia

As I write this, it’s Wednesday lunchtime, and I’ve just realised that I need to post this blog on Friday. It’s my lunch hour at work, and I’ve spent the morning in meetings, answering emails and interviewing candidates for a job. This afternoon, I have three hours of back-to-back workshops. In the back of my mind, I’m stressing about the fact that I only have a week and a half to finish the illustration package for my novel, so my agent can start submitting to publishers. On top of that, my house is full of plumbers, on an ever-more-expensive quest to work out what is wrong with our central heating system.

I tell you all this not to gain your sympathy, but to point out that my life is quite busy, as I’m sure yours is too! As writers and/or illustrators in the modern world, the majority of us are either freelance or propping up our creative careers with a day job. But because of this, we need to be extra careful to protect our mental health, especially from the dangers of burnout.

What is burnout? My employer, Oxford Dictionaries, defines it as:

Physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress

Which sounds very dramatic. But in actual fact, burnout tends to come on more gradually. This article suggests burnout typically involves:

Emotional exhaustion, cynicism or detachment, and feeling ineffective

For a long time, burnout was a concept more associated with people working in ultra-high stress environments like financial trading. But this year, there have been a number of much-discussed articles about how the modern gig economy affects workers, and particularly millennials. In fact, when I did a Google search for “millennial,” “millennial burnout” was one of the top suggestions.

It was a Buzzfeed article from January that kicked everything off. In it, millennial Anne Helen Petersen talks about how she found herself unexpectedly paralysed by menial tasks, and her disbelief at the idea of burnout – because she was still getting so much done! But this overwork culture (instilled by parents from an early age), is what drives millennials to feel that they are never achieving enough, even though they are working all the time. Sound familiar to anyone?

Photo by Derek Gavey

I myself have struggled with burnout for a long time, though I didn’t know that was what it was until quite recently. It was first triggered about ten years ago when I was working from home, doing a job I hated. Aside from a couple of high-stress conference calls each day, it felt like no-one was monitoring what I was doing, or even cared what I achieved. I become demotivated and sluggish, doing less and less each day. My writing career seemed like a lifeline, and after I won Undiscovered Voices, I embraced that side of things, excited by the possibilities of leaving my awful day job.

Sadly, it was not to be. Not only did I fail to get published, but I discovered how insidious burnout is, how stealthily it infects every part of your life. Writing – the thing I had loved so much – became a desperate chore, and I struggled to put words on the page, even as my then-agent pressured me to deliver the manuscript. Full-blown depression followed, and I fell into a deep hole that it took several years to claw myself out of. As Anne Helen Petersen says, there is no getting better from burnout – it is a chronic condition. Even though I have since taken a much better day job and found my way back into writing, I regularly feel the demotivating forces pulling at me. I ask myself questions like “what’s the point?” and “why should I bother?” This often causes me to contemplate my own mortality, but rather than that motivating me to get on with stuff, it leads to a gloomy kind of pondering about whether one person can have much of an effect on our crazy world.

The nature of modern culture - and especially social media, with its endless facility for enabling comparisons – has certainly exacerbated the problem of burnout. Suddenly, the things in our lives that are supposed to reduce stress now actually increase it. Keeping fit and healthy has become a chore that fills up our already-overflowing schedules with gym sessions, yoga classes and quack “wellness” remedies. Even watching TV has become an exhausting experience, with a multitude of options and a new “must see” show popping up twice a week. A recent Nielsen report discovered that US adults watching streaming services are paralysed by choice, spending an average of 7 minutes selecting what to watch before every programme. We might mock the concept of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) but it’s a very clear manifestation of the burnout culture, this idea that no matter who you are, no matter what you do, there is always something better you could be doing.

Photo by Remy Sharp

If any of the above has resonated with you, what can you do to reduce your risk of burnout? As with many misunderstood conditions, opinion on treatment options varies. One of the articles I cited earlier actually found that building resilience made burnout worse, not better! This was possibly because the pressure of trying to be resilient was yet another stress on already over-stressed individuals. Those who are self-critical perfectionists (like me) are particularly at risk of this. As a counterpoint view, I read an article from Psychology Today that claimed writers never really get burned out, because "they have a built-in reserve of mojo to draw from" and a "sense of deeper purpose that can mitigate the frazzle of life no matter what happens with their work out there in the world." Of course, those of us who aren't magical butterflies may wish to seek a more practical solution!

This article offers some good advice on steps you can take. Particularly, it encourages detachment from external validation and criticism (think rejection emails), and being smart in your approach to social media. Focusing on the process rather than the outcome is another recommendation - I am finding it useful recently to think about the work as an end in itself, with no expectations of what it might lead to. The publishing industry is capricious, and I have got myself into trouble in the past by making grand assumptions.

It’s hard not to compare ourselves to other people - I have been frustrated with myself this week, feeling that my illustration skills are not at the level of my peers. At least it has stopped me worrying about my writing abilities, I suppose! The truth is that we are all on a continuum, and there will always be people who we perceive as being happier, more talented or more successful than we are. But these are just perceptions, and dangerous ones too. The road to burnout is paved with distorted thinking and the idea that working really, really, really hard will achieve our life goals. Yes, by all means be persistent in your approach. But try to be kind to yourself too.

Nick.


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Bed in Summer - a select selection of Summer reading


Bed in Summer

In winter I get up at night

And dress by yellow candle-light.

In summer, quite the other way,

I have to go to bed by day.



I have to go to bed and see

The birds still hopping on the tree,

Or hear the grown-up people's feet

Still going past me in the street.



And does it not seem hard to you,

When all the sky is clear and blue,

And I should like so much to play,

To have to go to bed by day?

R.L. Stevenson


I remember coming across this poem in an ancient copy of A Child's Garden of Verses. It was actually the Summer holidays and I was at my grandparent's house and yes, it was still light. I was cross about being in bed when it was warm and light and the poem spoke for me about having to do something I didn't want to do and the thing I did want to do, tantalisingly just out of the window, out of reach.

I loved all those night-time adventure stories where children braver than me would explore and discover secrets about others and about themselves. So, here's a selection of Summer night time reading from my past ...


I used to love reading science fiction whereas now I prefer to watch it.

Image result for tom's midnight garden

Tom's Midnight Garden. What a wondrous and delicious adventure for those warm Summer nights; sneaking outside with your PJs on and your eyes wide open to magic.

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Okay, so this fantastic series is more of a Winter read but I think I read it all year round. I think it's akin to reading Alan Garner. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was a special favourite along with, The Owl Service.


Image result for the owl service

 This book of fairy tales is one of my first books and I ADORED it. I read it over and over. I especially loved the story of The Children of Lir from Ireland in which the four children were turned into swans by a wicked stepmother (of course). These stories led me to the brothers Grimm and the story of the brothers cursed to be swans but saved (mostly) by their human sister making nettle shirts before the curse was complete (ouch). So brilliant and brave. I think the boys were grateful.



On the subject of boys, I used to devour short stories of any sort but back in the day, the anthologies for girls were all schools and horses. I wanted stuff to stir!


I don't have any of the boys stories anthologies but the above gives you a flavour.


And yes, The Hardy Boys was a favourite as well. I chomped my way through all the library copies one Summer.

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Oh, The Three Musketeers! How I longed to join their ranks! And how confused I used to be by the misleading title!

I thought I'd end my brief tour of books from my Summer's past with a quote. What I was looking for when I read was adventure and excitement and a way to really feel what I could not do as a child. Books were my refuge, my joy and a door into my many worlds. 

Did you ever read a sentence you loved the way you love your favorite animal? My favorite animal is a lioness; how she doesn’t have a mane but she always has some blood around her mouth. And how the lionesses work together like good friends when they want to kill something. I’ve never seen a lioness in person or touched one or slept in the same bushes where a lioness lives, but I’ve known since I was a little kid that I love them the most.

Sometimes when I’m reading a good book and I’m under a blanket and no one’s trying to talk to me, I forget that I’m reading. The tall grass of the story grows up around me, and I’m just another silent creature whose heart beats in that world. If I sit still and keep reading that way, sometimes a sentence stalks by as lovely as a lioness. Blood around its mouth; that fresh, that killer. I read it once, and I know I have to read it again, not look away, watch closely how it moves.

And then I start to notice my eye muscles moving my eyeballs back and forth again, and see the black of the letters on the gray of the page, and I’m just plain reading under a blanket. It’s still fun. But the reason I read is for the lionesses. For the sentences that pull me in with all their teeth.

Farmer, poet, doula, and performer Laura Brown-Lavoie


in we go ...

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