Freelance Writers Aren’t Content Machines

When burnout looms and threatens to make you collapse

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I know it’s going to be a long day when walking up the steps to the galley makes me feel light-headed.

Ferry crossings are my favorite thing about living in the Pacific Northwest, and I always look forward to being on the boat, come rain or shine. But on only an hour’s sleep, the motion is making me feel distinctly unwell.

One table across, a young guy is making the most of the galley’s culinary offerings and enjoying a breakfast of cheeseburger dipped in clam chowder. The smell combination is so unexpected and nausea-inducing at this hour that I abscond to the deck to breathe, still unsteady on my feet.

I walk straight into an impromptu open air concert courtesy of a lone man playing his guitar and singing. I smile at him as I walk past while trying not to cry. Little does he know his talent is the gift that’ll keep me going all day, the unexpected burst of random human art I will cling to.

The long day in the city proceeds despite itself as I navigate appointments, run errands, and work from coffee shops where no matter how expertly brewed the coffee, it always tastes off because I’m so exhausted my senses aren’t working at they should.

To keep myself awake, I shun the bus, chomp my way through a pack of Canadian peppermint gum, and walk everywhere without realizing how dearly I’ll pay for my exertions the next day.

Today, my one goal is to avoid passing out until I can get a ride home and there are several near misses.

I break into a sweat in front of my laptop before uncontrollable shivers make me put my jacket back on almost immediately.

The minute I sit in the car over twelve hours after I left home, I fall asleep, still cradling the neck pillow I brought along. Upon arrival, I go stand under the shower for a very long time until I can feel myself regenerating.

It’s past midnight and whatever words I put together in the city are no good so I scrap them. This means work still needs to happen else I can’t support myself.

So instead of crawling into bed, I write and don’t let up until I’ve produced an essay about how dehumanizing America can be.

The basket of walnuts is almost empty.

Amused, my father stares as I methodically crack nuts and shovel them into my mouth. To him and my stepmom — both lifelong gourmets and bons vivants — this is a reassuring sign I’ve recovered my appetite. To me, this is yet another bizarre culinary compulsion I can’t explain.

I’m still not hungry but I crave walnuts the same way I’m drawn to 100% cocoa chocolate, the sticky kind without sugar or sweetener. And I keep making eyes at the espresso machine with which I developed a co-dependent relationship within hours of landing in Paris. It doesn’t help that my father uses Italian coffee as smooth as liquid velvet.

But no matter how many double espressos I consume, the much awaited zing of clarity doesn’t come: My brain has become impervious to caffeine.

I soon realize my curious cravings are a result of my body attempting to keep my mind functional. In other words, I am doping my brain. In my normal state, I’d be amped up and bouncing off the walls in tears as I have a ridiculously low tolerance threshold for caffeine. One too many cups of joe and the tears come, unbidden. But after months of protracted insomnia and inhumane levels of stress, nothing registers anymore.

However, my body is urging me to slow down. I break out in a rash, my digestive system starts going haywire, nausea intensifies. I finally identify the persistent fuzzy feeling in my head as low-grade migraine. Every day, my brain seems to be stretching further to accommodate the impending storm.

There are extenuating circumstances but I’ve coped so far so it stands to reason I should be capable of doing more of the same.

To recap, depression stole my editorial abilities and livelihood for five years and I was too cash-strapped to access therapy. I now live out of a suitcase between the US and the EU so I can be there for my family as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for Stage IV cancer.

As life-affirming friendship continues to hold me together from across the miles, I decide things could be worse and I’m likely just under the weather.

Instead of taking it easy for a while, I vow to think better and write harder.

Like many freelancers, I can’t afford to rest.

When the bulk of your income depends on audience engagement as mine does, there’s no respite. You need to keep coming up with copy so people don’t forget about you. You need to keep building up momentum lest it should vanish when you’re not paying attention. This explains why many writers succumb to the temptation of cranking out filler content, memes, and commit crimes against poetry just so they have something to feed the algorithm.

The absence of substance or style needn’t even be an issue when you’ve built up a large following. Many of us live in echo chambers and draw comfort from seeing our opinions reflected in the words of others without having to engage our brain. Clickbait is popular because the lowest common denominator always wins out. One look at your local media landscape — wherever you might be in the world — will confirm this.

Pushing back against declining editorial standards doesn’t make financial sense.

And yet, I have to if I ever want to reboot my professional life. The pressure I put on myself is relentless yet familiar, as anyone who’s ever worked in a newsroom will attest. I dare myself to dig a little deeper every day because the right words have the power to chip away at mental health stigma. The same stigma that stalled my life, blighted my marriage, killed my career…

For this to work, we need to be honest enough to address and document everything, and debunk certain harmful myths many of us perpetuate. Most people spend their time seeking an instant shortcut to success rather than putting in the work. And of course there’s no shortage of folks waiting to cash in on gullibility because ours is a market economy based on supply and demand.

While burnout is a prospect most freelancers dread, most of us refuse to entertain it.

It’s something that only happens to others, right?

When you are a freelancer, burnout is an occupational hazard.

In response, we have the unfortunate tendency to take on as much as we can while we can, sometimes sacrificing quality for quantity. When you don’t have the luxury of a guaranteed salary, you live in an effort-based economy. You might not be able to control audience engagement but you can control your output so this is what writers of lesser means like me focus on.

What few will concede is that this focus comes at a price. Because we have a reputation to defend. Because we are building a personal myth and need to come up with the extraordinary origin story that sells and makes us into a household name.

The race for the dollar has the potential to turn humans into a brand, our words into a commodity, and our lives into a freak show.

But only if we let it.

While I went from reporting on the lives of others to turning the pen on myself out of necessity, I am a human, not a product, and certainly not a brand. My craft, skills, and experience are the wares I peddle to editors, my life is the material I use, and my words are the combination of both.

To me, writing is a calling and a profession, not a status symbol — it doesn’t come with a pedestal.

When something defines your life the way vocation does, you might as well align it with how you earn a living. That way, at least you’ll be one of the few who enjoy their work and never lack motivation.

In capitalistic terms, passion makes you a self-starter. When your only goal is to honor it, you’ll set out to make the impossible happen and won’t rest until you do. And then you’ll move on to the next thing. There’s no passion without monomaniacal devotion to your craft, hyperfocus, and obsession.

Therein lies the problem: You don’t know when to stop so you dismiss the signs of an impending breakdown as an inconvenience.

If you’re anything like me, you might even joke that it’s the keeping going that keeps you going. And then you throw yourself into yet another ambitious project and burn the midnight oil because it makes you feel alive.

Until you keel over.

This is how burnout happened earlier this year.

One day, it takes me more edits than usual to finish anything and my thinking process grinds to a halt. Everything is muddy, nothing makes sense anymore, language becomes clunky. Experience and automatic editorial habits count for nothing. What used to help no longer does.

I know something is off when my walnut consumption goes through the roof. When I run out of 100% cocoa chocolate, I become antsy, a junkie jonesing for her next fix. I don’t even like sweet things and don’t usually care for chocolate. By then, coffee tastes like water and smells off. Forlorn, I stare at my computer screen for hours, wringing my hands as my brain stalls.

My worst fear, that of losing my writing voice again, has finally materialized.

In an attempt to limit damages, I drag myself to bed before collapsing, light on, duvet off. I remember nothing and come to 12 hours later, drowsy, skin ablaze with high fever, drowning in confusion and not quite sure where I am.

Rinse and repeat for three days straight during which I don’t even have the strength to get out of my father’s condo. Bedroom to bathroom to kitchen to sofa is about the best I can do. And still I write, I edit, and I try to communicate and what used to feel natural is laborious until I understand this is what burnout looks like.

But when your pay check is click-based, vocation is your worst enemy as it pushes you to always do more. No matter how many times you might fall off the horse, you get back up, dust yourself off, and keep going.

With this in mind, you document your burnout so others will know the warning signs you chose to ignore and will choose to ignore again.

Because writing is service, not self-serving.

And editorial quality is a commitment you don’t ever renege on.

I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in motion between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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