Kameron Hurley: Busting Down the Romantic Myth of Writing Fiction, and Mitigating Author Burnout
One of the most interesting parts of working toward being a career novelist is watching how many of your peers stay in the game. My first real brush with the death of the dream was after I attended Clarion in 2001. By the end of the workshop, we already had several folks who’d come into it with the expectation that they were ready to be career novelists, but who decided that no, actually, this slog wasn’t for them at all.
You might think that meant Clarion was a waste of time for them, but let’s put it this way: imagine how valuable it’d be to realize you didn’t really want to pursue a career, hobby, or passion that hogged all your time and headspace. Imagine having the freedom to put that energy somewhere else. For those folks, just knowing that writing novels for a living wasn’t at all what they thought they wanted was just as valuable as having the workshop experience validate their initial choice.
We’re raised on romantic writer myths. We learn this gig is all about toiling alone in a cabin in the woods, drinking and smoking too much, battling depression and insomnia and squeezing words onto the page like blood from a stone. It’s a solitary, transformative act. I see media perpetuate this myth quite a lot – there are obsessions over the writing ‘‘process’’ and writing ‘‘quirks,’’ trying to get every author to dish on how drinking a bottle of aloe juice while doing jumping jacks on top of a car is the only way they can kickstart their creativity in the morning.
Throughout my teens, I endured writing workshop after writing workshop where people talked about their passion for writing. It was a compulsion, a need, something they could not stop. That was all very well and good, I thought, but people are driven to compulsively drink alcohol, too. I was more interested in learning how to get better at writing than defending the passionate, unknowable mysticism of how the sausage got made.
What I’ve found over the years is that there are various checkpoints along the writing path that lead to a writer dropping out of the game – low sales, bad business experiences, health and personal issues, financial issues – but most of all, what leads people to quit is general burnout. It’s burnout on the whole thing: the rigorous deadlines, the disillusionment with publishing, the failed expectations, bad reviews, and constant criticism and self-doubt.
Sometime during the extensive rewriting of my fourth published novel, writing fiction ceased to be fun for me. Not just ‘‘not always fun,’’ but really, 24/7 not fun. It had become pure, unadulterated grind. I’m used to writing for a living – I’m in marketing and advertising, writing all the spam e-mail that clutters up your inbox and the junk mail you toss into the trash. I had no expectation that I’d be in love with writing those all the time. I expected to be burned out on writing marketing copy all the time. But not fiction. Because… romance?
The fantasy I sell with spam e-mail – easy money, an escape from 9-5 living, attractiveness to your preferred type of human (in four easy payments!), and insurance against impending apocalyptic disasters – isn’t something I have to be romantically passionate about to do well. I also came at it with the expectation that it wasn’t something I did all by myself in some mystical way. I worked with a team of folks – creative director, designer, production manager, account manager, marketing managers, product managers – to make great work. It wasn’t just me chugging back cocktails at midnight in the office like an episode of Mad Men, coming up with something brilliant. It was a process. It was work. And when the work got too suffocating, there were always my colleagues to commiserate with.
Strangely enough, it wasn’t until I transitioned from being a hobbyist writer to a book-a-year writer that I realized the different expectations I had for my fiction writing, compared to my marketing writing, were actually toxic to my career. I expected that writing fiction would always be fun – it was my passion, the one thing I’d always done. When it wasn’t fun anymore, I’d just stop, right? The ‘‘I’ll write when it’s fun’’ mantra is why my first published book took four or five years to write.
Enter deadlines, and you kind of have to throw that foolish idea out the window. Deadlines required that I come up with words even when they weren’t there (especially when they weren’t there), even when it wasn’t fun. So my second book took just 16 months, and the third 14 months. I rewrote my fourth from scratch in nine months, and I’ll have written my fifth in 11 months, if all goes as expected.
It’s hard to have a joyful, fun-making experience 100% of the time when you’re working at that pace and holding down a day job. I enjoy the writing I do for my day job, too, but I’ve learned to recognize over the years that there are two types of writing there: big, fun, challenging campaigns where I get to solve clients’ problems, and boring, nonsense, paint-by-numbers crap that pays the bills.
I’ve learned to expect it. I take the joy when I can.
Yet when I started to lose my joy in fiction this year, I wondered if there was something wrong with me. I feared burnout. I wondered, just as those folks must have at Clarion, if this was really the right thing to be doing in my spare time.
What I had to come to grips with is that writing novels wasn’t a magical merry-go-round of nonstop fun. More often than not, just like any other job, it was a mix of joy and grind, incompetence and compassion. What set me up for the burnout was the mythology we’ve created about the transcendent power of the written word, about writing for ‘‘passion’’ and about how loving what you do somehow means it’s no longer ‘‘work.’’
The most dangerous lie we tell ourselves is that writing novels shouldn’t feel like a job. It encourages younger and newer writers to work for little or no pay. It convinces those with a book or two under their belt that there’s something wrong with them when the writing is no longer fun all the time. Worst of all, when we hit bumps along the road, we’re convinced we’re the only ones to feel this type of burnout, and that there’s something wrong with us because of it.
One of the most powerful things I ever did for my career, and my continued sanity, was to get to know other writers facing the same challenges. Social networks like Twitter and Facebook, supplemented with the occasional convention, have connected me with incredible people willing to share their own fraught publishing journeys. What stunned me more than anything else is how each of us thought our experiences were entirely unique, when it turned out we shared many of the same fears and frustrations.
What will keep me writing far longer than I expected is not, necessarily, my passion, my talent, or the romantic story of how stringing together words will help me transcend the mortal plane. No, the deeper I get into the publishing game, the more I realize that what will keep me going when everything crumbles around me is the incredible support, advice, and commiseration I’ve gotten from other writers. It’s that camaraderie we should be celebrating, and talking more about, instead of doubling down on the myth of the lone wolf writer who conquers the world with pen in one hand and whiskey bottle in the other.
I may often run around my house with pens and whiskey bottles, but writers are not sustained by whiskey and romantic myths alone.
We’re sustained by one another, and our fantastically true stories of the oftentimes funny – and sobering – reality of our chosen profession.
4 thoughts on “Kameron Hurley: Busting Down the Romantic Myth of Writing Fiction, and Mitigating Author Burnout”
I’m reminded of the passage in Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” where he admits that even he doesn’t enjoy writing, but he does enjoy having written.
So you admit you sell “fantasy” with spam email? Any moral compunctions about deceiving people?
Has there been any decline in the quality of your novels as you spend less and less time on each one?
There’s a pervasive mythology that jobs are interesting. People tell themselves this lie to persuade themselves to go do the work that earns the money to pay the bills. The sad reality is that most work quickly becomes routine and boring. Just because you are engaged in writing new stories does not mean writing itself escapes the problem of routinization. Apart from those who are obsessive and therefore tend toward mental illness, everyone engaging in the same “job” over any significant length of time will have to go through a barrier of pain and disillusionment. If you are still working at the end of this critical phase, you have made it into the ranks of the professionals (many of whom sleepwalk their way through life to maintain sanity). If you find the burden too much to carry, you will seek other work. For a time, the change will inspire interest. Sadly, the new job will soon go the same way as the old. So you grit your teeth and go on until you can stand it no longer. Life’s tough when you have to work for a living.
Thank you for busting the myth of the lone writer. After the fifth book I’m not as driven as I used to be and wondered about the differences I feel now. Your post assures me that I’m not unique! My present writing support group has been going strong for 13 years and we would not be as happy without it.