In my opinion, there are two types of exhaustion.
Actually, there are probably more than two types, but this is not a medical opinion, so we are going to say there are two types of exhaustion.
The first is physical. You worked too hard, didn’t get enough sleep, or, if you are the awesome kind of person that does this sort of thing, you wore yourself out lifting weights or running or some other kind of exercise. Your feet hurt, your muscles ache, and what you really need is a good night’s sleep, or a hot bath, or just an hour or two to lie down and read a book or binge watch Netflix. Maybe a foot rub is in order. Or a glass of wine on the couch. Whatever spices your tea.
The second type is mental exhaustion.
This one is a little harder, and it’s the kind that writers deal with on a daily basis. Mental exhaustion is harder to identify, harder to explain, and—in most cases—harder to recover from.
We’ve all been there at one time or another. You sit down to write and stare at your computer screen for three hours without hashing out a single word. Or you force yourself to conjure up a sentence, or a paragraph, or even a full page if you have a lot of stamina, but it all goes into the trash anyway. Your ideas are flat and refuse to come to life, your characters haven’t spoken to you in a month, and there’s a deadline looming.
When writers are mentally exhausted, their stories lose their magic, the job they love so much becomes a drudge, and all the creativity that writers are supposed to have in unlimited fountains runs dry. In the end, we’re left with empty pages, a headache, and a mountain of frustration at our inability to just do the work we’re supposed to be doing.
So how do we creatively refuel? It’s a little hard to tell your brain to put its feet up and take the evening off. In my years as a full-time writer, I have had to come up with a different list of ways to give my brain some time to reset itself. Hopefully they are as helpful to you as they have been to me.
1) Give yourself time.
This is the hardest one for me. I like quick solutions, an extra hour of sleep, a dose of caffeine, some new vitamins, and off we go!
But mental exhaustion isn’t like that. It doesn’t clear up overnight. In my experience, for the writers that are well and truly burned out and fully emptied, the best thing to do is to just stop.
Stop writing, stop thinking about writing, stop working on plot points or trying to envision scenes or build settings.
Three days in, you will have a tiny creative spark in the back of your mind. If you jump on that spark and try to write with it, you will kill it.
I’ve done this. It sets you back.
So just leave it alone. Take walks, do life, get coffee. But don’t write. Don’t think about writing. Don’t talk about writing. Give it a week before you even look at your manuscript again. More, depending on how burned you are. I’ve given it a month. Sometimes more.
2) Have adventures.
“Would you like to have an adventure now, or would you like to have tea first?”
~ Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
Your brain needs story fodder. It needs something to feed those wonderful, brilliant ideas that you pour into your writing, or it will starve. So take it adventuring. Take it to the beach, and walk barefoot in the waves. Look for seashells. Watch the gulls. Draw in the sand.
Go to the zoo, and sit on a bench and watch the tigers for a few hours. Or the turtles. Or the monkeys. Watch the people who are watching the monkeys.
Go to a new coffee shop and sit in the corner to watch the world go by, or go for a walk in a park that you’ve never been to. It doesn’t have to be expensive and it doesn’t have to be quiet—or crazy exciting, like a theme park—but it does have to be different.
Your brain needs something new.
A change in routine. A breath of air you haven’t been breathing for the last six months. Get away from your computer, get away from your office, or your bedroom, or your living room, and have an adventure.
3) Cut out the caffeine.
Caffeine gives your body a boost of energy when it is physically exhausted. It might help you stay awake through a six page college essay that’s due tomorrow morning.
It will not help you be creative, and it will not fill you up when you are empty.
4) Do not jump straight back into your writing routine.
My house is heated by a wood stove. When I build a fire, I build a frame with kindling and paper and tree bark, and light that. First a spark, then a little flame, yes?
And if I dumped a huge log on that flame as soon as it was big enough to get hot, it would die.
The same is true for that little creative spark you feel after three days. It needs time to become a flame, and then to grow a bit. Don’t dump a fifteen hundred word count goal on it, because I promise, it will probably die.
Start with small things.
Journal with your characters. Write a character sketch, or a setting description. Build up over a week or two. Start with a hundred words instead of a thousand. Ease into it, and take the time to remember why you love this story, these characters, and this plot line.
You cannot pour from an empty jar.
That’s just the way it is, dearest writer. You cannot give when you yourself are empty. So be willing to take the time to refuel your creativity and your mind.
Read wonderful books with characters that haunt you.
Sit down with your friends, or your family, or someone from work or church, and have the kind of conversations that go deep.
Put on music and dance. Sing at the top of your voice. Worship, read your bible, and talk to God about nothing and everything. Pick flowers, collect seashells, bake cookies to share with a friend. (Or eat them all by yourself, because I will not judge.) Cook good food, learn a new skill, and find joy in your life that does not revolve around words on a page.
The words will come. You are not washed up, your stories will not be empty forever, and you will find that spark of creativity again. Until then, find what brings you life, find what fuels your soul, and spend time counting the stars.
That, too, is part of writing.
Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.