Micro Lesson: How to Learn from Burnout—Or, Technically, Writing is a Ravioli by Gabriela Denise Frank

Posted Tue, 8/31/2021 - 11:08am by  |  Category: , , ,

The fall before COVID hit, I was barreling towards peak burnout—but I didn’t know it.

This was before the buzzy articles appeared in the New Yorker, Harvard Business Review, and Fast Company. I didn’t know what was happening to me—wasn’t it normal to work all the time and feel exhausted? How could I complain when I had a job with benefits, food on the table, a roof over my head? I was just lazy and weak. I needed to get tough, push through—lean in.

One thing I couldn’t figure out is why writing—the one area of life that had always been my refuge—was floundering, too. My stories and essays were muddled despite the hours I worked on them. In 100-plus submissions, I hadn’t received even one acceptance. My creative practice was crumbling along with my sleep, my health, my memory.

Quarantine provided an eerie backdrop for unwinding and examining what lay beneath. I was surprised to hear fellow artists confess that they, too, felt stalled long before the pandemic. We were all suffering from similar symptoms that only emerged in the confessional booth of isolation.

Where I once believed my creative life was separate and thus “safe” from corporate America, I realized how the tenets of capitalism had overtaken it. I had become obsessed with flashy objects to dangle on social media in exchange for likes, hearts, and applause. When such proof evaporated, it was a quick turn into self-doubt and despair. Though I knew deep down that market success and likes don’t connote worth, I was so eager for accolades—for someone to tell me and keep telling me I was good—that I lost my way chasing acceptance.

The gas tank was empty.

Writing was part of my recovery process, but what helped most came from outside literary art: music, dance, drawing, yoga, physiology, painting, collage, horticulture, qi gong, astrophysics, chemistry, philosophy. With each mini epiphany I wondered, Why isn’t this part of our practice as writers?

A year of experiments and rest reminded me there’s a difference between practice and publication. Practice—not a snappy byline—is what sustains a lifelong artistic journey. It’s easy to forget when popularity and publishing announcements become synonymous with doing something “right” or “good.”

In reimagining my creative practice, I collected lessons to share that became a class I’m excited to teach this fall:

Motivation is Practice

Who are you—really? What questions do you keep asking in your work? What fascinates or frightens you? What’s under that? How does your identity relate? How would your bio read if you weren’t trying to convince a jury to select you for something? Ground your practice in a clear understanding of self, and the winds of rejection will have less power to blow you off-course.

Pay Attention

When are you most creative? Under what conditions? Where do you self-sabotage? Support behaviors that feed your unfolding path—which means investing time in noticing what promotes your creativity and what drains it. Discuss this with other artists. Listen. Support each other.

Wonder & Delight

Follow the woolly bear caterpillar across the path; observe the intelligent craft of a hummingbird building her nest. Thrill at the cosmic synchronicity of bumping into a long-lost friend in a surprising place. Chomp juicy pink watermelon and recall that bittersweet summer when everything changed. Where do wonder and delight arise in your life and your writing? Thread this gold into the tapestry of your work. It will make the harder pieces sing.

Connect Body, Intellect & Creativity

You are not a brain in a jar. Attend to your animal body. Move, stretch, and energize however you are able. Exercise is writing, too. Physical rituals train your body to be ready for creativity. Show up physically and your mind will follow. Support yourself with rest, nourishment, and loving touch.

Experiment

Write micros. Make ink blots, collages, paintings, music. Mash up genres. Use thematic calls for submission as free prompts to write about what you typically wouldn’t. Research new topics and try craft techniques without being precious. You can submit what you make, but look first to experiment and iterate. Use the deadline to motivate you to finish. Allow yourself to be messy and imperfect (gasp!) while you develop new skills. Revel in nerdy, blissful making without being attached to an outcome.

Teach & Read

Be generous with knowledge. Pass along what you’ve worked hard to learn rather than hoarding it for your own gain. Read each other’s work with the aim to uplift what’s strong; it will train you to read your own better, too. Nothing imparts a lesson like teaching it to others—or sharing what specifically moved you about someone else’s work.

Technically, Writing is a Ravioli

Everything you do feeds artistic practice. Sleeping is writing, hiking is writing, research is writing, editing is writing, gardening is writing, experimentation is writing. Like a great bolognese, the ingredients must simmer together before the magic happens. Keep stirring and tasting. Complex flavors take time to develop.

You: A Lifelong Practice

While market savvy is part of professional practice, creative practice is driven by lifelong learning, curiosity, reflection, risk-taking, and research. Together, they feed the voice questing inside you. Tap into THAT. Do you meet the world with an open heart? Are you building upon what you know, and sharing discoveries with others? What if community—the lives your writing touches—was a metric of success rather than individual achievement?

This year, the acceptances have returned, which I read as a sign I’m finding my way, rather than as an end in itself. Green lights are encouraging, of course, but they doesn’t confer merit just as rejection doesn’t indicate failure. It’s one type of data, but not the whole picture.

Meanwhile, I encourage you, my fellow writers:

Enjoy kudos when they arise and celebrate the successes of others; note patterns of rejection as places for deeper reflection; check in on your motivations and intentions; dart down unbroken trails when the spirit arises—and move your body to make space for creative energy to flow. There’s much more world—outside and in—to discover.

Let’s go.


Gabriela Denise Frank is an Italian American writer, editor, and creative writing instructor. Her work has been published in True Story, Pembroke Magazine, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Baltimore Review, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her essay “BAD DATE” was named a Notable Essay of 2020 by Best American Essays. She serves as the nonfiction editor of Crab Creek Review and is working on her first novel. gabrieladenisefrank.com