The Psychosis of a Burn-Out

The Psychosis of a Burn-Out

By Karen Mason

About a third of the way through my first semester of college, my Creative Synthesis professor opened one of his lectures with, “Now, how many of you are freshmen?”—usually an ice-breaker used on Syllabus Day, but whatever. This guy was a kook, so we went with it, the first-years among us, myself included, with hands raised.

He glanced around and said, “Okay.  You may or may not have noticed, but there’s this interesting phenomenon that happens here every semester.  Around the five-week mark, students start burning out.  For professors, it’s around ten weeks, but there’s a point everyone reaches at which the novelty and the vigor is all used up.  I’d like to encourage all of you to fight yours.”

And speaking for myself, for much of my college life thus far, I have.  I’m an English major, and, during my busier semesters, I’m writing all the time.  For the most part, I love it, but the burn-out still gets to me every now and again, as I imagine it does with a large portion of the college demographic.  It’s not fun, and, as this semester’s fifth week (at least at Mary Baldwin) progresses, I thought it might be helpful to offer some ways to not let that happen—specifically in terms of writing; I can’t help you with that other stuff.

As a writer, some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten came from another professor I had early-on in my college career.  In all things associated with the writing experience—college essays, novel-writing, pitching work to agents/publishers, etc.—her advice was, like the work of her least-favorite writer (Hemingway, in case you’re wondering), concise.  She said, “Keep going.”  

What exactly does that mean, though?  What constitutes the proper way to “keep going”?  Sometimes the concept itself is sufficient-enough motivation, and, if I’m being honest, my momentum through the early stages of the English program stemmed from the razzmatazz and big-headedness of producing, production, and the prospect of one day becoming a great American novelist who has the good fortune of banking off of her special artistic pain.  And I don’t think I’m alone in that.

But what happens when the ego and the ideas subside and the work keeps coming?  How do you keep going?

Depending on the task, some writers work from outlines or the conventions of a certain genre, and it’s probably not a bad idea to keep those things in mind.  They are, after all, the framework from which a world of successful pieces have grown.  But, if you’re starting out, it can be discouraging to learn that writing is not altogether free-flowing and actually pretty calculated.  And, if you’re a veteran to the craft, outlines can make you feel boxed-in and even bored of your own ideas, and the archetypes and conventions of genres pose the threat of making you bored by the work of others.  However, although a burn-out can come from any and all of that, it can, alternatively, come from none of that.  It could just be regular, frustrating exhaustion. But if we’re talking about schoolwork, it has to get done despite all our hang-ups.

I’m skirting around a failsafe method (You can always settle for implementing a personal writing schedule, but that’s easy to bypass, too.) because I’m not sure that there is one.  I’m also suffering from Fifth-Week Syndrome, which feels excruciatingly appropriate.  In the least depressing way possible, I don’t know what keeps me writing—only that, somewhere in me, I continue to feel propelled to do so.  And when all of that (the discouragement and the exhaustion and the weird, hokey-sounding schoolwide phenomena) gets stripped away, we either fight a burn-out or we don’t.  I’d like to encourage you to fight yours.