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?
Susan 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.