The thing about burnout is you don’t always recognize it as burnout -- you’re just exhausted. Or at least that’s how I felt all the time.
I pushed myself to get my Ph.D., which at the beginning felt like a wonderful, exciting adventure. I was so sure it was the right thing for me to do, I was excited by every potential class, I wanted to discuss ideas with like-minded peers. By the end, I was a gross, haggard, overweight version of my former self. I hated everything and everybody, and couldn’t get my degree fast enough. I wasn’t romantic about graduating -- I had already decided I wouldn’t attend well before the 2020 Quarantine -- I wasn’t optimistic about my novel, I hated all books and the written word, I didn’t want to journal and when I did, it was whiny. But all I could recognize was I was tired and generally dissatisfied.
And then there was COVID. I admire all of those artists who came through COVID with a book, a series of paintings, a podcast, a boatload of ceramics: all those actresses who were quoted in People “I was honestly happy to take the break.” I tried to channel my anxiety into art. I started a new novel, then two new novels, and then conceptualized a series of novels. I turned on Murder She Wrote and typed out as many ideas as I could before panic shopping, taking long walks, homeschooling my kids, baking bread, and all the other indoor activities I could muster up. Those books remain works in progress.
I joined a writers group with some awesome women and then abandoned them.
I stopped watching all of my favorite TV shows.
I stopped posting on social media.
I threw out all my clothes -- they were shabby and faded from many hours in libraries, coffee shops, and behind a laptop.
I was looking to reinvent myself, even if I was not aware of it.
It was the clothing that finally tipped me off. I had nothing in my closet. I repurchased everything in either black or white -- inspired by Moira Rose’s monochromes. I read an article about PJ Harvey that said she did the same thing when she was done with an album -- changed everything from the way she wore her hair and the clothing on her body. I felt connected thinking that I was in the middle of an artistic transition. I would even tell my husband, “I’m transitioning.” Except it was really burnout recovery.
I don’t regret the decision of getting my Ph.D. I had a wonderful opportunity to work with excellent writers. I saw my work published. I gave a live reading. I gained valuable teaching experience. When it was all over, I was able to take a step back and look at how much it changed me.
The biggest change was the constant, nagging fear of opening myself up to any criticism. The process of getting a Ph.D. in creative writing is allowing smart people -- professors and students --to criticize your work. I was asking for the critique. That takes a toll. After absorbing all that criticism, I realize that I wasn’t creating to create anymore; I was creating with the knowledge that I was going to be criticized for it. I trusted that everything they advised me to do was in the service of making my writing better. And after a while, I started thinking, “No, that won’t work because of what this person said, and that won’t work because of what that person said…” I had too many cooks in my kitchen, but I also knew that I couldn’t kick them out. And once I could -- once I had graduated – some of the cooks hung around. The most cutting of critics lingered and made me hate the act of writing because I couldn’t forget some of the things they said.
Before I started my program, a trusted mentor told me, “I’m so happy you want to do this … but don’t let grad school ruin you.”
I said, “I won’t.”
But I had no idea. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I think what she was relaying to me was don’t let them break my spirit. My spirit is what makes my writing different from others. My perspective, my point of view, my way of describing the images in my brain, it’s different. And different is good.
I recall several times in grad school being frustrated with the “system”. I was striving for what everyone else was -- awards, accolades, prime teaching assignments, publication credits. I wanted all the external validation that I thought would make others respect me, or at least speak about me in the same reverent tones as those who won awards, received accolades, or were given coveted teaching assignments. I recognized that everything I wanted was external validation and often the coveted prizes, publications, teaching gigs, weren’t even things I really wanted. The prize money would have been nice. I only wanted these things because I thought if I was “a real writer”, then those things would come to me. The fact that I wasn’t receiving them was because I wasn’t good enough. And that desperate “Pick me!” energy along with a lack of confidence in myself repelled opportunities instead of attracting them. What I have learned is, if I didn’t teach, I wouldn’t be gathering source material. I wouldn’t have structure or money. I wouldn’t have writer Guinea Pigs to test out writing prompts.
I have since silenced the critics that plagued me. I have started setting new goals for myself. I am reading books again -- fiction and craft books. I’m editing. I’m writing. I’m trying to start a new writers group for my students, so I can share what I know. In an attempt to shake off the desperate need for validation, I’m instead learning how to feed my creativity. I’m relearning how to love the process.