Burn Out


"Paula's Find," a firepit sculpted by my late husband, Richard Cabe.

“Paula’s Find,” a firepit sculpted by my late husband, Richard Cabe.

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.

McCone 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. In the end, it is another case that draws her gradually out of her malaise, but not before McCone learns some important things about who she is and why she cares.

I’ve been struggling with a form of burn-out lately. I have two major magazine assignments due in mid-August, 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 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 enough to land interesting assignments for good magazines; even though the magazine market has shrunk drastically, I still do.

Why am I now struggling to motivate myself?

Five years of pushing too hard–through my late husband Richard’s journey with terminal brain cancer, through my mother’s simultaneous decline, through caring for my dad in his first years alone, through finishing my former 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) that I had skated through those hard years without consequences. I was wrong.

I’m tired. Not too tired to prune the heritage tomato plants growing vigorously in the 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. 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 work I love pay.

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 see how far my savings would take me.

I have things to say, and my patch of earth to continue restoring, whether or not anyone will pay me for it. I could get excited about that work.

Prompt: What writing excites you? How can you free yourself to spend more time on it?

Sus short hairSusan J. Tweit is a plant biologist and award-winning author whose mission is to restore Earth and we humans–one book, one yard, one place and one heart at a time. She lives in Salida, Colorado, in a house she helped design and build on a reclaimed former industrial dump site with a gorgeous view of the Rocky Mountains. This essay originally appeared on her blog.

11 responses to “Burn Out

  1. Oh, Susan. Just want to give you a big hug!! You’re the best. (Cathy Bell)

    • Cathy, Many thanks for that virtual hug and for understanding. I hope you’re taking care of you, too. And writing?

      • Trying hard to take care of myself. It’s a challenge right now with health issues, but I am hopeful! And soon I’ll be doing a generative Lighthouse class which I hope will get some new material out of me! I thought about you and Richard this morning as I walked into work–there was a person meditating or praying in the memorial garden…so beautiful.

  2. Cathy, Those health issues are your body speaking to you, so please heed them! I’m glad to hear you are taking a Lighthouse class, and I hope it’s inspiring. I love that you get to walk by the memorial garden on your way to work, and that very cool landscape-scale sculpture, Corpus Callosum, as well.

  3. Cathy, I am resonating with you today. Since 2009 my 46 year old son died suddenly, a husband was dying of cancer, I retired from a job that I had hoped to continue with, but after Lyme’s Disease, shingles and all the losses I just had to quit. The still small voice said so. I have re-married and now living in a retirement community. Some days I get excited about writing. Other days I am just depressed. Hoping we all find our way.

  4. Susan, I am so happy that while you are plowing through this very trying period you are able to do so in your snug new home surrounded by plants you love. I wish I was fabulously wealthy; I’d write you a nice fat check for two year’s worth of living expenses and tell you to write what you please, plant what you please, and rest as you need. Maybe the wish alone will give you a little boost.

    • Jude, Thank you for that generous wish! It doe give me a boost. I’m determined to figure out a way to write what I want, tend my restored landscapes, and rest. “Life on the financial plane,” as Richard called it, will work out however it works out… 🙂

  5. Susan,
    Such a beautiful, deeply honest and soulful examination of where you are in your journey. I can only trust that your instincts are guiding you into the next turn in your journey. Meanwhile, I wish you deep peace and healing.

    • Mary Jo, Thank you for your compassionate words. I am a bit slow sometimes to pay attention them, but once I do, my instincts are always good at finding the path that’s right for me. The trick for me is slowing down and paying attention in the first place. I’m working on that!

  6. Susan, it is no wonder you are tired and need a lull to restore the well and build up your energy reserves. I’m so glad you are giving yourself this necessary time. Rest is a gift, and a necessity!

    • Janet, Thank you for the support and understanding. I know you know what it’s like after being your dad’s supporter all those years, and I hope you’re learning your new path and finding time to restore yourself too.

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