On burnout, writerly cross-training, & little kindnesses
So, I've been considering various conversations with regard to The Guilt that surrounds a stretch of time spent Not Writing. Hence, I am going to talk, a bit incongruously, about the ankle I sprained last month!
Now, having been, at various points, a fairly dedicated martial artist, a competitive university pentathlete, and a lousy-but-disciplined teen ballerina, I have messed up both ankles a lot! I have also thoroughly abused my knees and feet! One of the more memorable bits of age 15 was spraining an ankle in tech week for La Bayadère, and going crying to one of the senior girls in the corps, who kindly taped my ankle, fed me some aspirin, pinned up my hair, and sent me right back out onstage. Mind you, this was a high school show, and I was not in any way a serious or especially important dancer, but Not Dancing never really occurred to either of us, because it wasn't a bad sprain; we'd both suffered far worse in training. For goodness' sake, we weren't even dancing en pointe! Dancing on a mild sprain, off pointe, in a decent-sized corps, for one weekend? Eh. Cake.
Now, at 15, I got away with this logic, but at 20, 23, now 27, sports injuries are a lot less forgiving, in part because I pulled stupid stunts like dancing La Bayadère on sprained ankles at 15, or TKD sparring on lightly fractured toes at 20, or footraces on bad knees at 23. And sure enough, my 27-year-old self went to the gym a few weeks ago, overtrained some kicks on a heavy bag, & sprained an ankle the next day by literally walking too hard on it, WELL DONE, ANDREA. (I've almost got full rotation back, though, so woo!)
Now, what do overzealous athletic types share with writerly creative types? Having been both, I'll say: a constant flirtation with burnout. Look, sometimes you will ill-advisedly dance or spar or otherwise aggravate your poor abused ankles. Sometimes, you do what you gotta do to hit deadline. This is true of writing and work and indeed, the ineffable exhaustion of existence in general. But there is absolutely such thing as overtraining, and yes, it sucks. So, how to cope with that looming, cackling spectre of The Guilt that insists on translating "I wish to avoid re-spraining my ankles" / "staring at my word count is becoming actively unhealthy" to "YOU LAZY BUM"?
Well, first off, The Guilt is being an ableist dickhead, among other things, and you should tell it to fuck off. However, recognizing that this is easier preached than acted on, if you'll indulge my ongoing athletic metaphor, I like to think of non-word count-focused activities as the writerly equivalent of cross-training. Dancers and martial artists don't just dance and spar, after all; we also do cardio, strength, stretches, barre, etc! Likewise, writers don't only write. We research, we read other people's words, we digest them, we study craft. Extending further: we talk to people, we nurture hobbies, we observe the little things that make the world around us tick. These things revitalize the creative well as much as mental/physical health. Those supplementary activities aren't just beneficial; they're necessary.
I should, at this point, add the disclaimer that I'm speaking from a blatant place of privilege across a few axes: most notably class & a certain degree of able-bodied-ness, both of which enable the anecdotes I've shared. My frame of reference might not speak to you! But framing aside, what I'm really hoping to crystallize are three notions: 1) not-writing helps make good writing, 2) you are more than the sum of words you produce, and 3) you deserve a space in which to collect the kindnesses you owe yourself.
All this to say: there's more than one way to be a productive artist/athlete/human. Yes, hard work is a given! Yes, you will probably have to play stressful scheduling tetris to make time for word wrangling! But for the love of your health and happiness, take breaks, or if you must, CROSS-TRAIN. Not all writer's work must be dredged from pen or keyboard while staving off carpal tunnel scares. At least half of writer's work, I'd hazard, is carving a crook in your soul for the world around you, and that much can be done in any number of ways. Revel in it, cradle the pause, and as multiple martial arts & ballet instructors have commanded me: breathe.