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Blog Briefs: On Burnout, with Steph Swainston

In which a bunch of authors & editors are invited to answer the question: How do you deal with creative exhaustion?

This series was initially inspired by an article on author Steph Swainston’s willing exit from her two-book deal. Swainston didn’t pinpoint burnout as the reason for leaving her writing ‘day job’, but her answers sounded eerily similar to the burnout problems I’ve been listening to – & experiencing – for years. The desire to do something meaningful, to recover a sense of wonder, to work on your own terms.
Early on I asked Swainston if she would engage with the question of creative burnout as part of this series. She responded straight away, but I’ve held her answer back until now, the last burnout interview right before the wrap party. Here’s what she said.


You have to let your fantasy world grow with you. You cannot keep it preserved the way it was when it was first published, because it’s trapped on paper and can’t change, but you will change. The real world foists new experiences on you and you will age. Your opinions and your character will evolve. Looking over your own work, you’ll think it a bit odd, maybe old-fashioned or childish. You have to reinvent your writing to suit who you are now. Do not try to fossilise yourself at the age of your first success. This is fantasy and should be the most lively form of literature; if you want aeroplanes and oligarchs instead of swords and kings, or peace instead of war, of course you can have them. Throw out the old and reinvent to keep up with your new taste.

This reinvention isn’t an immense chore. It is the same creative flow that caused you to write the fantasy world in the first place. 

So to any writer who has creative exhaustion I’d say: Maybe you’re stuck in a rut because you’re trying to write in a style that no longer suits you. You know this deep down, but you fear to change because your first books have been so successful. The publishers and fans seem to want more of the same, but you’re sick of it. For heaven’s sake stop thinking you should duplicate it: You’re different now. If you have the strength to lead them in something new, they’ll know it’s good. They’ll be excited and they’ll follow.

Put all your old notebooks in a crate and shove it in the attic. Forget publishers and awards. Don’t open any of your novels trying to create consistency where none should exist. This is fiction and we celebrate its lability. Nothing you have previously written is important, only the bits in your memory. Pick up a few scraps of paper, because a shiny new notebook is offputting. And write a scene for yourself.

Then another.

Steph Swainston

7 comments on “Blog Briefs: On Burnout, with Steph Swainston”

  1. What a wonderful and inspiring answer! A fitting end to a great blog series. I’ve enjoyed reading these very much.

    I empathise very much with her description of how you might (and probably, should) want to disassociate yourself from early work, not because you feel embarrassed by it, but because you have grown beyond it, and need to grow beyond it in order to develop as a writer.

    Heh. Lucky for me, my early books weren’t all that successful, right?

  2. deborahb says:

    Steph raises a really interesting point in her answer, I think. As a writer, you’ll probably grow creatively across your career. What moves & inspires you will change, your response to it will change, and so on. But as someone who produces a saleable *product*, others will want you to be ‘reliable’. I don’t really understand the implications for a career, but I think the personal implications are pretty clear.

    >Lucky for me, my early books weren’t all that successful, right?< Oh, really? And how will you feel 20 years from now when everyone wants you to be exactly what you are today?! :)

  3. Ha well it would be nice to be that successful now! But yes, a quick way to creative stagnation is to try to replicate too closely what you’ve done in the past. I guess if there is a trick, it’s to try and establish variety as early as possible. But that comes with all sorts of problems, too.

    I’d love to be the author that… no one could predict, from book to book. But I’m already facing preconceptions based on my previous work (like that these new ones will probably be appropriate reading for 10 year olds… whoops!). And I also want to make a living at this thing. Which complicates matters.

  4. deborahb says:

    >I guess if there is a trick, it’s to try and establish variety as early as possible. But that comes with all sorts of problems, too.< Erm, yes. F'instance, people will accuse you of 'not yet finding her own voice', & other patronising rubbish. *cough* Just, hypothetically. >And I also want to make a living at this thing. Which complicates matters.< Very much. I'd love to just be financially independent of writing BUT ALSO not needing a separate, maddening, exhausting day job to achieve that. So, *complete* financial independence, then.

  5. Ha well I have the sort-of benefit where my maddening, exhausting day-and-night job (parenting) isn’t going away any time soon, so at least I don’t have the pressure on me to earn a full time living from my writing… yet. A comfortable part time living is so much less scary a goal!

  6. deborahb says:

    :) And yet, on top of those two workloads you’re also a prolific social commentator for the genre, another mostly-unpaid role, & one I DO NOT understand you having any time for at all.

    You really should have far more burnout than you exhibit. ;p

  7. Heh if I started burning out for real, I think I would go supernova.

    (also I love what I do, which kind of… helps stave that day off)

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