Burn Out

The title of this post comes from one of my favorite books in Marcia Muller’s mystery series starring Sharon McCone, a smart, self-aware and generous San Francisco Private Investigator who finds herself so worn down from the violence and greed she experiences in her work that she becomes numb, barely able to function. She takes refuge at a remote ranch in eastern California and wonders if she will ever be able to lead her agency again, or care about the work that has inspired and intrigued her for so long. 

What draws her out of her depression is a chance encounter with a young Native American woman who reminds McCone of her younger self, if she had been less fortunate. As she begins to track down the young woman’s story, McCone comes to terms with truths about her own self, especially with her penchant for seeking out danger and living on the edge. 

I’ve been struggling with my own form of burn-out lately–nothing as dramatic as McCone’s, of course. I have two fairly major feature assignments due in mid-August, just over a month away, and while I’ve been working on them both, to say I’m not motivated is to put it mildly.

Motivation has never been a problem for me before. I have always been able to dive into whatever’s uppermost on my writing to-do list, and work methodically toward my deadlines.

Now, I struggle to make myself focus, and spend a lot of time looking out the window, pacing the house, tending my gardens, walking to the Post Office to check my mail, reading the news on my laptop… Anything other than work on the stories I need to research and write. 

It’s not that I don’t love to write–I do.

Writing is one of my two life-passions; the other, of course, is playing with plants–especially native plants, the pioneers for restoring nature to our everyday places and lives. 

What I don’t love anymore, I realize, is the freelancing part of writing, writing what others will pay me for. Which of course has been a major part of how I’ve made my small living for decades. 

I’ve been fortunate to write about things that fascinated me, whether the technology of removing dams to heal rivers (“Can’t We Just Blow It Up?” for Popular Mechanics), how wildfires behave (“True Nature: Fire” for Audubon Magazine) or the perils of managing invasive species (“Misty’s Legacy” for National Parks Magazine). I’ve loved the work, the learning, and the challenge of translating science into a story that informs and inspires readers. 

I’m still getting good assignments. Why am I struggling to motivate myself?

Five years of pushing myself too hard–through Richard’s brain cancer, through Mom’s decline, through shepherding both of them in the end of their lives, through caring for my dad in his first years alone, through finishing Terraphilia (the big house and Richard’s studio) and selling that property, through paying off the last of the brain cancer bills and building my small house and studio–five years of scrambling to cope with whatever was most urgent has simply taken a toll. 

I thought (optimistically, I now see) that I had skated through without consequences. I was wrong

I’m tired. Not too tired to prune the heritage tomato plants growing vigorously in the big round stock tank on the front deck, to pull invasive weeds along the creek, or write my daily haiku for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Not too tired to think about the next book even. 

I’m tired of chasing a living, tired of writing to order. 

Part of that is timing. Last Thursday, July 16th, would have been Richard’s 65th birthday, the date he aimed to retire and focus solely on his art without worrying making it pay. He didn’t make it. 

I’m not old enough to retire. I’ll be 59 this fall. Yet I find myself wanting to–not to quit writing. Like Richard, I just want to quit struggling to make the writing pay. 

And like Sharon McCone in Marcia Muller’s books, I am burned out. Not to that extent, but I can see how easy it would be to slide that far. 

So I’ve made myself a promise: After I finish the next two assignments, I’ll take a break. Not from writing, just from the hustle of freelancing. 

I’ll work in the garden, pull weeds along the creek and think about the next book. And while I’m doing all that, I’ll take a hard look at my finances and my reluctance to spend my savings.

I have things to say, and my patch of earth to continue restoring, whether or not anyone will pay me for it. 

(The photo at the top of the post is “Paula’s Find,” one of Richard’s functional sculptures. And if you’re wondering why it’s the only photo in this post, I’m working on a new computer, and my photo library–almost 19,000 images–is still transferring from my old one.)