Writing hangovers are a thing. Reading is one of their cures.

While I love them, creative spurts can also lead to burnout

Can one too many Medium articles can be as tiring as one too many cocktails? On writing hangovers — and how to avoid or treat them. Photo by Michal Lizuch from Pexels

Last week, I went a little too hard on …. the writing (also on the beer one night, but that’s a story for another day).

Although I’ve never set out to write every single day — and think it’s typically bad advice that I counsel against — I ended up churning out about 3 pieces per day, just on Medium, every day towards the end of last week.

How and why did I have so much to write about?

As I shared here recently, I use this Medium blog as my creative blank canvas. It’s a sort of staging environment for the ideas percolating through my head.

My stories aren’t paywalled which means that this writing isn’t a money-making enterprise for me. And in stark contrast to the kind of thing I help clients with — putting together detailed editorial calendars and meticulously scheduling social posts are core activities–my writing here isn’t planned for the most part either.

My creative process is as open-ended as my (non-existent) editorial calendar.

Sometimes, when I’m doing something else, or picking up groceries, a thought strikes that I need to get onto paper.

At other times, I wait until a nice organized creative window presents itself to hash it out. At other times again — particularly if there’s a business angle involved so that I can justify interrupting client work— I drop whatever I’m doing to get drafting.

Typically, I’m busy either with client work and fit this Medium posting around the margins. There are days — in fact probably most — when I don’t write for fun at all and use my leisure hours to socialize or do just about anything else.

But the time periods during which I’m particularly busy with freelancing work and get a creative spurt are the ones that set me up for writing hangovers.

This happened towards the end of last week when I found myself almost falling asleep at a party because I was so spent from a week of back-to-back assignments and learning the rudiments of photography.

Writing hangovers, I believe, are remarkably present among writers — who tend to both be passionate creative types and who work in an increasingly output-driven demanding profession.

So let’s dive a bit deeper into them — and how you can get back on the writing straight and narrow.

Writing Hangover: Symptoms

Like the better-known kind of hangover that follows on from excessive alcohol consumption, writing hangovers involve a kind of mental fogginess and weariness that isn’t relieved by adequate sleep as well as a general sense of exhaustion and stifled creativity.

That’s my experience and definition of them anyway.

What do they feel like if you’ve never experienced one?

One who is used to getting up and hammering out creative work — like writing or painting or film-making — might find himself suddenly inexplicably unable to do so despite all the required background material being in place.

You slept plenty, the coffee’s on your desk, but you just can’t seem to bring yourself out of procrastination mode. You might also feel just generally exhausted and like doing anything other than spending time sitting in front of a computer.

Burnout, it should be pointed out, isn’t a medically-recognized syndrome. But having experienced it myself, I’m in little doubt that it’s a real mental condition. Writing hangovers, to my mind, are like shorter-lived and less severe versions of that.

Differential diagnosis and disclaimer: I’m neither a physician nor a mental health expert and coined the term writing hangover to refer to a short lived period of exhaustion after an intense burst of writing. If you’re worried, or it’s going on longer than a few days, consider reaching out to see one of the above.

Writing Hangover: Treatment

Like the hangovers that are induced by consumption of alcohol, the severity of a writing hangover is commensurate to the amount of consumption that preceded it.

Which is to say:

The more vigorously you write and the shorter the time period during which you write, the worse the subsequent period of mental burnout can be.

Like those that involve alcohol, writing binges are the most like likely to lead to adverse symptoms. Like with alcohol, the Mediterranean-style writers of this world — who write in moderation and rarely over-indulge — are most likely to come out on top.

There’s one other commonality between the two that I’ve found.

Just as sometimes you can miraculously avoid post-alcohol hangovers by factors that aren’t immediately clear to you — or maybe that’s just me? — sometimes it’s possible to bounce back from intensive bursts of writing without any subsequent fatigue.

At other times — again like alcohol — a thoroughly sensible level of consumption can leave you worse for wear the following day. A lot demands upon your overall conditioning.

But like alcohol-induced hangovers all hope is not lost.

Like alcohol hangovers, prevention is preferable to frantically looking for cures. But if you find yourself at the latter juncture, it’s also better to know what to do ahead of time.

For writers, that means understanding that expending creative energy comes at a cost and if you want to avoid feeling lethargic for a few days you have no option but to pace your creative output or — even though this can be painful — scale it back.

Sure, you can avoid self-care and pull subsequent all-nighters hammering out your book — and going to work the next day. But ultimately you have to realize that there’s likely to be a mental price tag attached to such decisions. When it comes to writing, there’s rarely such thing as a free (energetic) lunch.

Sometimes, however, creatives are wont to stifle the creative urge and just want to get their output out while it’s top of mind. In other words, writing hangovers tend to happen. In that case, hangover remedies come into play.

Complete Digital Disconnection

My observance of this aspect of Judaism can be patchy at times, but if there’s one part of the religion that I both love and think is an amazing concept is Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

I don’t want to interject too much religion into a blog that’s supposed to speak to people of all faiths, but please consider disconnecting completely from electronic devices for 24 hours as a non-denominational recommendation (observance of the Shabbat mandates this). This is the writing hangover equivalent of reaching for the vitamins and water.

While this may smack of superstitious thinking (or a confirmatory bias) to some, I honestly see a correlation between how well I manage to disconnect on Shabbat and how productive I am in the days that follow it.

Disconnecting means more than just turning off your computer, although that’s a great start.

You need an activity to fill in the void left by the absence of sitting at your desk and working at your computer.

In Judaism, that filler activity tends to be a mixture of prayer, socializing, and recuperation (read: sleep). But you can find the cocktail — I mean blend! — that works best for you.

Lyndsay Knowles wrote a nice piece for The Writing Cooperative on the subject.

The title speaks volumes. And its kernel is roughly this:

And when you write about your life, as I often do, getting out and living — being present with the people you care about — is part of the writing process.

If you write all the time but do nothing but sit at a computer and type at a keyboard, you’re likely to eventually run out of original and inspiring things to write about.

Disconnecting has both negative and positive aspects: removing yourself from the repetitive aspects of your day-to-day and immersing yourself in something more engaging.

If you need some recuperation to shake off the weariness of a writing hangover, don’t forget to account for both aspects in your plan of action.

Reading Other Writers’ Work

It (almost) goes without saying — at least according to many — that every writer should be an active reader.

Personally I find reading both relaxing and informative.

But for whatever reason, I have a hard time doing much reading when I’m immersed in one of my creative spurts.

It’s almost as if I have two settings: writer and reader. I can stay in one setting without much effort, but I have immense trouble keeping both switches turned on at the same time.

Something that I’ve discovered over the years is that reading can serve as a nice antidote to writing-related exhaustion. This is beneficial and logical on a few levels:

  • After a busy period of creative work, it’s relaxing;
  • It fills your head with new ideas and samples of great work that you may wish to emulate. For writers, both professionals and hobbyists, it provides inspiration;
  • It gives you something to do and think about instead of your writing business / your own writing pursuits

The trouble that I find — you may too — is making the transition. Going from a hectic period of writing for clients and into consumption mode doesn’t happen overnight for me — and I mean that quite literally.

I’m the type of person who has a hard time switching off and gets a lot more out of a week off than a day.

Irrespective of how you’re mentally wired, if you’re tired enough to have Googled ‘writing hangover’ (and if you’re here, there’s a good chance you have), I’d like to offer this as a remedy to put into your hangover toolkit.

If you’re a professional writer who’s burning the writing candle on both ends — combining client work with your own — then I reckon there’s a good chance that this post resonated with you.

Even if you’re “just” a passionate creative with a day job, it’s easy to forget how mentally draining even creative work undertaken for fun can be.

The best way to combat writing hangovers, in my experience, is to carefully meter out your creative energy.

But sometimes energy gets in the way and we’re left looking for cures.

If that’s where you are, then consider giving the above your consideration.

Final thought:

If your writing hangover originates from an over-aggressive content marketing push — mine sometimes have — then I think it’s helpful to remember that content marketing is the ultimate long game.

You (likely) don’t need to create an arbitrary amount of content today in order to achieve long-success. You (likely) don’t — and shouldn’t — write every single day in order to become a better writing.

Thought leadership ghostwriter for technology clients and non-fiction books. Site: DSRGhostwriting.com. Book: amzn.to/2C3jkZS

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