Refilling the Well: On Avoiding Creative Burnout

No matter how much you love something — your job, a favorite book, playing sports, chocolate chip cookies — there comes a time when you need to take a break from it. Nothing remains lovable 24/7 for weeks or months on end. It might be tempting to indulge, especially if you haven’t had access to something for a while, but the risk of binging is always going to be burnout.

Writing is no different. Whether it’s something you work on full-time as a career, or you squeeze it between your day job and family obligations, writing draws upon your creative reserves and demands you give it your full attention when you sit down in front of that blank page. It can be exciting and rewarding, but also emotionally draining to the point of exhaustion. That burnout can lead to some common issues, including writer’s block or sudden disinterest in a project that previously had you all fired up.

As with a day job that gives you weekends off and a couple of weeks of vacation each year, you need to schedule small vacations from your writing in order to keep the creative energy flowing. Julia Cameron refers to this as “refilling the well” in her series of books on writing. She recommends a weekly “artist’s date,” where you take yourself off for some non-writing personal time for a couple of hours — a trip to a museum, a movie, a long walk. But it doesn’t need to be a hard-and-fast weekly thing. Consider how much time you spend writing and then plan your breaks in proportion. But do take them seriously. Mark them on your calendar and don’t blow them off for anything other than a true emergency.

So what does it mean to refill the well? The idea is to simultaneously give your creative mind a break where you stop demanding it deliver story content, and to garner a bit of inspiration to supplement your existing arsenal. Creativity is a funny thing; the more you imagine, the more you can dream up, but the variety and strength of the ideas does require fresh input from time to time. It can be as casual as giving yourself permission to daydream without the pressures of an agenda, or as formal as planning a full day of culture or other activities. Take into account your level of fatigue; if your burnout is purely mental then some physical activity might make for a great break, but if you’re exhausted on every level, plan something low key and relaxing. Try mixing it up, as well, so you’re not always focusing on the same senses. Listen to music with your eyes closed, or wander through a botanical garden and smell the different flowers.

You can refill the well with purpose, too, checking out things that might help you flesh out the background of your current writing project, but try to make the focus on taking a break rather than looking at your outing as research. Let yourself absorb the sites and sounds and information, but draw the line at taking notes. You want to come away inspired and refreshed, not feeling like you were actually working.

What sorts of activities are good for filling the well? Anything that lets your thoughts wander and sparks new ideas. Long walks through new neighborhoods make for great opportunities to daydream, people watch, and check out different architecture. Or hike a local walking trail or through a nearby state park. If you live somewhere that offers walking tours, take one and get a new perspective on your city. Take in a sporting event or participate in one yourself: pick-up basketball, a local running club, etc. Seasonal outdoor activities can also make for wonderful breaks: apple picking, ice skating on a pond, horseback riding, gardening, sailing, wandering on a beach.

If you’re more of an indoor person, check out local museums, concert venues, or theatrical productions. Fix a mug of tea and stretch out on your couch with your favorite music playing. Indulge in a bit of pampering: a massage, a good manicure and pedicure, a facial. Take yourself out for a nice lunch in a restaurant, someplace where you can sit in the window and watch the world go by. Take a cooking class or learn to throw pottery. Head for the local arts theater and see a foreign film or documentary. Hit up some yard sales or wander through thrift stores and see what sorts of strange items you find for sale. Live near an historical site? Go take a tour. Indulge a neglected hobby.

Ideally, you will schedule these breaks occasionally and keep yourself from reaching the burnout stage. Think of them as mind maintenance. But if you do run yourself ragged — whether from pushing to make a deadline or because your non-writing life has conspired to keep you hopping — make a point of refilling the well as soon as possible. The worse the burnout, the more time off you’ll require — and you might need to devote time to a nice nap as well as to your well-refilling activities. Treat your creative mind as the important writing tool it is, and you’ll keep your best ideas flowing when you need them.