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  • T. V. Pinkard

Feeling the Burn

Burnout is a common topic amongst creative types, and most certainly amongst writers. It can be fueled by a great many variables, often several at once. Poor sleep, a bout of depression, getting stuck in plot holes. Maybe you’ve just had a really hard week.

For myself, I find the most common culprit is the ugly little demon known as imposter syndrome.

Yeah. That asshole.

That mean-spirited gremlin watches all the hard work you do; it has seen you follow through on your commitment to write every day, to read and study the craft at all opportunities; it’s observed the herculean efforts you put forth day after thankless, penniless day, and still has the audacity to shrug its worthless, petulant shoulders and say, “Meh. Not good enough.” It screws up your eyes so as you read over your work, the letters get blurry and stop making sense, leading you to dread that it might just be right.

Maybe these words are no good. Maybe the strides I’ve made aren’t enough to impress, and I still have so many miles to go. Maybe I don’t have the gift that will make my manuscript pop out at an agent or a publisher. Maybe this series, that I’ve spent the last five years writing will amount to nothing, no one will ever read it, it will never find a publisher, it will face bad reviews if it does. Maybe I’m wasting my time.

(Go ahead and add two or three of your own hopeless “Maybe…” statement, if I haven’t covered any of yours.)

Good. Now we’ve put it in front of us.

See, I don’t have the panacea that will eradicate the blight that is imposter syndrome. If I did, I could probably afford my own publishing company. Or several. There are days that it transforms from an annoying little gremlin into a fog that encompasses the entire metro area, and no matter where I go, I can’t seem to see my own hands in front of me. And while I can easily regurgitate the same platitudes I’ve heard all my life—it’s important to rest, you have to have off days, it’s okay to walk away from a project for a little while, self-care, self-care, self-care—I have to acknowledge that they have never done much to lift me out of these funks.

At my core, I’m a workaholic, and I say that with the word alcoholic in mind. Sometimes it feels like I’m addicted to working, and I have been told before it’s occasionally worrisome. We live in a world that values productivity so much, that we’re often pressured into being this way, and commended when we are. People use words like the grind to make it sound edgy and cool. Indeed, the word workaholic, itself, is frequently used as a humble-brag. It is not surprising then that I often struggle to convince myself that it is a problem because I can point to my body of work and say, ‘But look at everything I’ve done.’

And the work is substantial. I'm well aware that most people (and new writers) don't write 5+ full length books, even in sloppy first draft form, in a matter of 4 years. It’s hard to argue with results. So pride tries to take a stand to defend itself, not knowing that it’s fueling the very problem.

See, it's the imposter syndrome—my fear of not being worthy—that drives me to work like this. I had convinced myself that I could outsmart the beast; I could prove it wrong if I just tried harder and made my product better. Then there would be nothing to criticize, right? The logic was sound, but unfortunately that’s not how it works. I won’t magically look at my manuscript one day and stop questioning every last word. So I work myself into the ground until I feel like I can’t manage so much as a sentence.

If there’s one thing my poor therapist has gotten an earful of, it’s this: I’m not very nice to myself. So I would never tell you, dear reader, that “you should just work harder; work until your sleep cycle is totally fucked and you hate yourself,” because that’s ridiculous advice. Yet I find that I make myself the exception to every rule. I won’t tell you to deny yourself the basic compassion to acknowledge: you know what? It’s been a tough month. It’s been a tough fucking year. And you’re trying your best, and frankly that’s more than enough.

You should do those things. You should be kind to yourself. But if it’s not easy—or if it’s the hardest thing anyone has asked of you all week—then I’ll be the person to say, that’s okay too. Like any addiction, you can’t expect yourself to just switch it off. Simply pointing out the problem does not a solution make. In my case, these habits were learned and ingrained over years. I attended a private middle and high school that demanded excellence in every last garbage assignment you touched; kids gave themselves literal ulcers because you had to be great. You had to be the best. You had to thrive, and if you didn’t then something’s wrong with you, and you’ll never get into college, you’ll never amount to anything. So while I’d like to go skipping off, casting my bad habits disguised as good work ethics like frivolous petals in the wind, I know I can’t. Not yet.

But here’s what I can do: I can notice when I’m feeling burned. I can try to diagnose what’s causing it (on today’s menu we have: a kickback in insomnia, an increasingly contentious political sphere, a frustrating lack of communication, and not enough days off). And, to the best of my ability, I will try not to judge myself for any of it. That, for me, is enough to get started. If I can manage that, maybe next time around, I can notice how and when I start to slip into this place. Maybe I can stop myself before I get there by recognizing it early. But the unfortunate truth is that I can’t cure insomnia, restrict my hours, apply a better weekly routine, and kung-fu kick imposter syndrome in its stupid face all in one day.

Today, I’m a little worn out, and I’m going to try to be okay with that.

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