Hustle Culture, Overextension, and Writer Burnout

The year 2020 did such a bang-up job on so many writers that here were are, nearly halfway through 2021, and most of us are only now beginning to take stock and recover. To shake ourselves off and start looking ahead to “business as usual.” 

That’s if we’re fortunate. Some of us are not.

Some of us are not recovering. Some have endured too much over the past year to be able to shake it off and get back to business as usual. And some can’t seem to because we had already reached our breaking point long before 2020 ever reared its ugly head. 

No image could come nearly as close to expressing how I feel than this doodle I found on Pixabay.

I put myself in this latter group. In 2019, I was already feeling browbeaten and brokenhearted as a writer, like I was spinning my wheels and gaining absolutely no traction despite giving every single thing I had to offer, sacrificing everything—my time, my relationships, my physical and mental health—on the altar of the author dream. 

So when 2020 hit, I had no reserves—creative or otherwise—to help me weather the storm. I had given too much, and given unwisely. And so I found myself left without too much but the thought: “Where did all my time and energy GO? Why do I have nothing to show for it?” 

So I examined all of my writing and writing-related activities over the past couple of years to find the answer. And, uh, it turns out that the balance of actual writing I was doing to writing-RELATED things was . . . well . . . off. Way more than I’d realized at the time.

Things that once brought you joy can start to feel like onerous tasks once they become part of the “hustle.”

What do I mean by this? I mean that most of my “writing” time was being taken up by things that were not actual writing, but that still felt like an important part of “being a writer.” Things like participating in professional development organizations and critique or beta groups. Reading for reviews, writing reviews, blogging, and social media. Even things like promoting other books in my genre or trying to read all the big-name titles in that genre (once that may have been possible, but now it’s no longer feasible). Basically, I spent my time on the things that made me a good “literary citizen” . . . but also things that, because I did not keep them in check, took all of my time and energy and provided me with very little return. 

We live in a culture of hustle. And I was HUSTLING.

Further, the act of hustling—even though I didn’t realize it at the time—was slowly KILLING my ability to write as well as any joy I used to find in my stories. And when I started to realize what was happening to me, and talking about it with other writers, I learned I was not alone. The culture of hustle and the pressure to perform personality in the name of platform building (more often for someone else’s gain than our own) had ensnared more of us than any of us realized. Our wheels have been spinning but we’ve been getting nowhere . . . because our energy has been misdirected.

Now there’s a chance that none of what I’m saying resonates with you. (If not, GOOD!) 

But if it does—in the event that you, too, are caught in the hustle—that you, too, feel little joy each time you sit down to write these days:

I give you permission to STOP.

If you want to. If you need to. STOP. Adjust your oxygen mask. Make sure that stream of life-saving air is hitting YOUR system instead of being diverted someplace else. Please.

In fact, here is a list of things that you can STOP doing right now:

Reading books that you don’t enjoy

Yes, even if they’re in your genre and even if they sold a bazillion copies and even if you’ve seen the cover splashed over every single social media channel—if you’re not getting something from the experience, put it down.

Reviewing books when you don’t have the time or the inclination 

I love sharing my thoughts on the books I read and I’ve written many book reviews over the years. But, even when I absolutely LOVE the title I’m reviewing, it still takes a fair amount of energy and time—two things I find myself increasingly short on. Further, once you start reviewing, you’ll often be asked to review titles you may *not* be quite so in love with—which becomes more and more demands on your time and energy for less and less reward.

Promoting (other people’s) books like it’s your job 

It’s not. Worse, you’ll spend your time promoting other people’s books (sometimes pure strangers!) which—even if they’re wonderful—will never feel as good as holding your own published book in your hands. And while it’s totally fine to amp up the excitement over a friend’s upcoming release, or a new title by an author you really love, you don’t have to devote major chunks of time to creating the perfect bookstagram post (or whatever) for every title that’s being cranked out by your favorite pub house in order to get a few more likes or followers. Which brings me to my next point…

Building your “author platform.” 

This one is tricky. We all want to immerse ourselves in the literary community and be a part of the conversation. We also want to “get our names out there” in the hopes that our social media following will help entice a publisher to take a chance on our debut. So it’s reasonable to want to get out there and get seen. But . . . do you know who doesn’t actually need an “author platform”? An author who doesn’t finish, query, and sell their book because they’ve been busy devoting too much of their time and energy elsewhere. So before you launch yourself on every social media channel, or start that new blog or podcast, make sure the endeavor is not only something you enjoy and WANT to do, but also that it’s not going to take away from your writing (unless you’re okay with that).

Critiquing and Beta Reading

Both of these can seem like really, really important things for writers—and they are. The trouble comes in when we overextend ourselves. In 2019, I found myself in four different critique groups that each met monthly (one even met twice a month!). On top of that, I agreed to beta read a ton of books—something which I really enjoy, but which takes A LOT of time (at least the way I do it). It was just too much. I’ve pared back a lot, but even now I’m still examining my involvements and whether they’re serving me as well as they might. Maybe we should always be evaluating and making adjustments as needed to ensure we can continue to grow the way we need to as writers.

Writing

Take a break. It could be a week, a month, or longer. Take as long as you need to regain perspective and rediscover what it was you loved so much to devote your life—or parts of it—to writing in the first place. It will always be there for you, when you’re ready to return.

So that’s my no-means-complete list of things you can stop doing. As for what you CAN or SHOULD do in order to regain that writerly spark? I’m still working on it. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

Write YOUR book at YOUR pace. Be gentle with yourself. Set reasonable goals and try your best to meet them. Forgive yourself if you don’t. Tomorrow is a new day.

Have you dealt with overexertion or burnout in the past? Do you have any tip or tricks for dealing with it? If so, share your experience in the comments so that we can all learn from each other!

26 comments

  1. Thank you for articulating what so many of us feel. I am kind of new to all of this, and admittedly, I’ve found that I enjoy the hustle a good deal of the time, but everyone reaches their limit, myself included. I know I’m happier being involved in the writing community than writing in isolation, but I am constantly trying to find the right balance. I don’t even do all of the stuff you mention in your blog post, but I might at some point, and it’s nice to hear your perspective on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Hilary! Thanks for the comment. I absolutely agree that having a writing community is crucial. And I’m so grateful to have Writers’ Rumpus in my life. It’s all about balance…of course knowing you need balance is one thing but actually achieving it is a whole ‘nother beast! lol 😂

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  2. Thank you for articulating my thoughts so beautifully, Rebecca. There is something backwards when, as writers, we spend most of our time doing anything but, and somehow the writing itself – the thing we all really want most to be doing – is the last thing on the list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Kirsten! It does seem to have resonated for some, and while I’m sad we’ve all been grinding ourselves down this way, I’m happy we’re starting to see it and alter our approaches (or at least engage a little more mindfully). Thank you for reading!

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    1. Ooooh, I am intimately familiar with ‘writer’s guilt’ and it makes me feel so good to think I’ve helped assuage even A LITTLE bit of it. Enjoy your well-deserved rest, Kelly!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A “good literary citizen”–I really love that phrase. And I love all the support & kindness in this kidlit community yet “hustle burnout” is real! Giving of yourself to others, whether it’s in this kidlit world, or to family members, or to work, etc etc can definitely cause burnout if we’re not also giving to ourselves. I highly recommend breaks! Thx for this great piece!

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    1. Thank you! I totally agree–the kidlit community is wonderful and supportive, the problem happens when we fail to prioritize/give enough to ourselves along the way. (And I also agree we should all take more breaks!)

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  4. Exactly. Wow, Becca, I think your honest words will resonate with many creative types. SO difficult to juggle everything, especially when life’s own surprises get in the way. I find myself only checking in on FB sporadically and not reading half the blogs I used to, but it’s still very easy to always have writing on the bottom of my to-do list, and then not get to it. You’re a very supportive person and an amazing writer. I hope you’ll put your own work ahead of all the extras you do for others and find peace and success in doing so. Time for us all to kick this last year and a half to the curb!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Marcia! I am happy what I’ve said resonates (well…sorta!) and I, like you, have taken a big step back from social media lately. And I *definitely* agree that it’s time to kick this pandemic year’s butt to the curb…you know, from a safe distance 😉

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