Anxiety or Burnout? The mystery of my missing motivation

I am normally a self-motivated person. I know what I want to accomplish and I get it done. All my life I have been a workhorse, churning out whatever work I needed to do—homework, work work, video production, writing. But for some reason, I have been highly unmotivated lately.

All I’ve really wanted to do is retreat into my genealogy hobby and shut out the rest of the world. Forgetting all my other responsibilities sounds good, as does sleeping for a week. I have projects I want to write, but apparently not enough to actually sit down and do them. I’ve been reading very little as well. I just feel exhausted inside and out.

Sounds a lot like burnout. Unfortunately, all of those symptoms are also signs of my anxiety. So which is it?

It could be anxiety. I have plenty of social and political stressors in my life right now—stressors I haven’t had before. My overall anxiety level has been higher than usual—I lay awake at night with crazy scenarios of catastrophe running through my head. Professionally, I am in that place where the last writing project is complete and I need to start a new one. That spot can be thrilling—but it can also be scary. Which project to pick? What if it doesn’t go well? A novel is a long-term commitment, I want to be sure I’m putting my time into the right project. I’m also querying, which in itself is not too stressful, but…what if someone actually wants to represent me? Wonderful, of course, but it would be a new chapter, a big change—and sometimes the fear of success is as paralyzing as the fear of failure.

It could be burnout. I haven’t had a real vacation in almost two years. What do you mean? I hear people saying. You’ve posted beach photos. You’ve been on vacation! I hear you. But that’s not the type of vacation I had in mind. A “real” vacation, for me, is when there’s nobody around. No husband, no child, no deadlines, no nothing. Just me. Now, I love my family, and I enjoy my work, but I am a classic textbook introvert. I need absolute solitude to truly recharge myself. My husband is wonderful and tries to get me some alone time on the weekends so I can relax, but it’s never quite enough (especially because I often spend it working, LOL). I am fast approaching the point where I have no social reserves left—and that saps energy from my creative well.

So which is it? I don’t know. The truest answer is, perhaps, both. I need to dig out of it, but am not quite sure how. I have joined a book club just to get myself reading (and reading outside my usual genres). The answer may be as simple as just making myself write. Just sit down and write something. Anything. Or maybe I need some outside accountability. After all, I submit my blogs on time.

I will slog through this morass as I have every other one, because I am nothing if not persistent. And I know all things come to an end, this slump included.

How do you re-motivate yourself when you hit a motivation desert?

Mental Health Break

I’ve had a rough couple of weeks. Last week I dealt with a stressful (but ultimately good) family situation, and this week I have been sick. So I have given myself the week off to rest, play with genealogy, and send out queries.

On Saturday it’s back to the grind, when I will be at Abington Library in Abington, PA, for their Local Author Expo! Come and visit us!

Secrets: The Spice of Story

I’ve been thinking about secrets this week. We all have secrets. We’ve all kept secrets in our lives both for ourselves or for others. We are aware that everyone has secrets they keep.

Most of our secrets are light. A surprise party. An embarrassing thing we did when young. Our real age.

But some people carry heavy secrets. Ones that can eat at you, especially if you carry them a long time. Abuse. Infidelity. A crime.

While they can create difficulties in real life, secrets are what make our stories compelling—and I see three distinct kinds of secrets in a work of fiction.

One secret is the author secret. These are things the author knows that the reader doesn’t. All those questions we are taught to raise, especially at the beginning of the story,  are hints at secrets the author is keeping. In a well-written book, all those secrets will be revealed in due time.

A second is the reader secret. These are things the reader knows that the characters don’t. We all know the tense feeling of knowing the killer is hiding in the closet while the characters are blissfully unaware. These reader secrets build suspense in the story and make the reader a part of the experience.

The third kind are character secrets. These are secrets characters keep from each other. These make the story rife with  misunderstandings and conflict. Juicy stuff! One character may think another is betraying her, when really he is protecting her from something she doesn’t know about. Readers keep reading to see how the secrets get revealed and what the consequences will be.

Secrets in stories create the tension and conflict that draw people into your story.

And in real life, enjoy the light secrets that can be delightful to keep, but if you are carrying a heavy secret…consider that it may be time to finally put it down. Let someone help you carry the weight.

Juxtaposition: Create unease and highlight themes

Sometimes, life gives us contradiction and juxtaposition: when two things that shouldn’t go together are placed next to each other, heightening the contrast. For example, I distinctly remember that 9/11 happened on an absolutely gorgeous fall day. Bright sun, blue skies—the type of day that makes you want to stay home from work. And yet at the same time, the world seemed dark and clouded with smoke and debris. That such evil could happen on a day of such beauty struck me then and strikes me now.

On a different note, in my area the first day of spring brought 6 inches of snow and a snow day for my child. Very atypical, therefore bringing a sense of disorientation and unease to many of us in the area. Sure, we all laughed about it and dealt with it, but many were screaming “No more!” and meaning it. We couldn’t take one more snowflake—and still had a couple more snowfalls to weather beyond that date.

I experienced another jarring juxtaposition this past Easter Sunday. On the day Christians celebrate Christ rising from the dead, I attended a funeral. And, yes, Christians believe God raises the dead to everlasting life in Heaven, but the fact remained that the family grieved for the loss of their loved one here on Earth. One could look at the resurrection of family ties between people who had not seen each other in decades as thematically appropriate, but a funeral on Easter is discordant nonetheless.

We can use this use of contradiction and juxtaposition to great effect in writing. The Harry Potter character Dolores Umbrage comes to mind. A sweet exterior hid the evil inside making her far more appalling than if she had been overtly evil. Contradictions and juxtapositions can foster a subtle sense of unease or highlight something you want your reader to understand.

So when you are trying to raise a certain emotion in your reader, see if you can use opposites to enhance the feeling. Instead of a storm while your character’s inner turmoil is reaching its peak, how about a calm sunny day?

The Middle-Aged Muse

My 8-year-old daughter simply erupts with creativity. Every day she is dashing off new songs, drawing another segment of one of her comic strips, or writing a story. Her Muse works overtime.

My Muse, lately, doesn’t like to get out of bed. It’s hard for me to remember a time when the ideas came in such a flood. Nowadays it feels like everything comes in fits and starts. Creativity used to flow effortlessly, more ideas than I could ever write. I had multiple stories going at a time, and I churned out words like breaths. Now I’m lucky if I can write a coherent chapter in a day.

That’s what happens as you get older. Life gets busier, with more time-consuming responsibilities. I have less time to write, and less energy when I have time. Since I had my daughter, exhaustion has become a constant companion, and words jumble into gibberish in my fuzzy brain.

It’s not so much that my Muse has deserted me—it’s that she’s never sure when I’m coming to work, so she’s not always ready when I arrive. It’s like trying to guess what time to have dinner when everyone’s schedule keeps changing. And then when I do show up and we finally get rolling, my alarm goes off and I have to run, leaving her behind just when things are getting exciting. No wonder my Muse is pouty and petulant. She’s also cranky from sleep deprivation. It’s hard being a middle-aged Muse.

But when I get a few quiet hours, perhaps while driving to a book event, I start hearing her whisper. Ideas bubble up from the spring that’s been all but paved over with mom-duty tasks. And after a conference or a writer’s group meeting, my Muse burns through my soul like she used to and my fingers itch to grab a pen or find a keyboard.

My old Muse is still there, waiting for me. I just need to arrange my life so I can meet her. We’re both a little slower, a little creakier, with a little extra we-love-chocolate weight, but we’re still ready to tackle the next project together.

I watch my daughter’s bright flame, and it fans the spark in me. Life tries hard to extinguish the creative spark in us, and I am grateful for this little real-life Muse that fills my days with drawings and music. She connects me and my Muse with our younger selves, and reminds us of the passion with which we used to grasp each day.

After the Spring Break, I intend to make a standing date with my Muse.

How about you? Have you found your creativity changing as you get older?

Spring Book Fair 2018: Snowmageddon!

My favorite time of year is Book Fair. Luckily it comes twice a year.

Tuesday was my first shift. I got my first taste of the plethora of books this year, including Madeline Finn and the Library Dog by author-acquaintance Lisa Papp. The Fair was buzzing–especially during the Grandparent Sock Hop in the evening–so I forgot to take pictures. I figured no big deal, I could get photos on Wednesday, in time for my usual Thursday morning post. Good plan, but then…

SNOWMAGEDDON!

No school Wednesday.

So today, I grabbed some shots. The Book Fair was very busy today, as we squeezed in all the classes that had missed yesterday. We’ll have a few more snow strays tomorrow, on the final day of the Fair.

Of course, as an author I love seeing kids so enthralled by books. The little kids hugging their books tight. The mid-elementary kids whose eyes shine as they bring their purchases to the register. And the too-cool-for-school middle schoolers, who pretend not to care but clutch their books with the same excitement as the littles. Stories cast their spell on all of them, and they leave enchanted until next time.

Even with the snow day, we expect a successful Book Fair. As in many schools, the Book Fair is the ONLY source of funds for new books. What’s more magical that a snowfall on the first day of spring? Stories.

Genealogy, Character, and Worldbuilding

It’s no secret that I love genealogy. I often say if I wasn’t a writer, I would have been a professional genealogist. The excitement of the chase and the thrill of finally finding that piece of evidence that proves a relationship would enthrall any mystery lover.

And it’s not just my family I enjoy researching. I will jump in and help anyone trying to solve a brick wall. Most genealogy buffs seem to share this insatiable urge to research, as evidenced by how willing people are to help others in many online groups.

Tonight I get to share some of the passion I have for genealogy with the South Jersey Writers Group. I’ll be talking about how my family history habit has crept into my writing, in the areas of character development and worldbuilding.

I’m a bit nervous about presenting,  but I am eager to share with this group. I’ve met some of these writers in other venues, and they are always warm and fun. I’m looking forward to a good discussion with them.

Do you have a hobby that invades your writing?

Power Outage 2018

So I didn’t get a chance to put up a blog post yesterday because we lost our power in the nor’easter. It didn’t start out too badly, and I hoped we would escape the worst of it.

It started coming down heavy after noon.

My husband came home from work around 3:30. He started cooking a pizza a little after 4. Power went out 3 minutes after he put it in the oven. (He left it in the hot oven for a couple of hours and eventually deemed it cooked enough and ate it!)

The heavy snow took its toll on the trees, including ours. We are lucky the branch landed behind my husband’s car, leaving only one small scratch on a brake light.

We played some games by lantern light, read a little while, then crawled into bed a bit early. After my daughter fell asleep (after insisting she could NEVER fall asleep without her fan running for white noise), I poured hot water in the fish tank to bring the water temp back up to normal. Then I went to bed.

Around 2:30 AM something started beeping, and I was the only one who woke up, so I traipsed around the cold house with a flashlight until I found the culprit–the CO/natural gas alarm in the washroom, whose battery was running out. Replaced the battery and climbed back into bed.

3 AM the power came back on! Got up again, went downstairs to turn off the lights that were on and plug in my phone to charge. Went to my daughter’s room to turn on her salt lamp and her fan. Happy to see the heater in the fish tank was running. Dug my daughter’s head out from under the blankets so she could breathe. Went back to bed.

It was a long, chilly night. I am grateful to the power crews that got things back online so quickly. The kids will go back to school tomorrow, and things can get back to normal.

And that’s why I don’t have some pithy writing-related post ready for today!

Anxiety spiral: Idling in “A” gear

I have had quite the unproductive week or so. I just haven’t seemed to be able to get anything done. Sometimes this happens when I get spring fever. Sometimes when I’m burnt out. This time, it was an anxiety spiral.

Anxiety spiral isn’t quite the right phrase, because it’s more like a loop or the infinity symbol—an endless cycle of scary thoughts that repeat in your head, stopping you from thinking of anything else. And that’s where I’ve been all week—paralyzed by my own brain. Oh, sure, I got up every morning, got my daughter to school, remembered to get her from school, got her to all her extracurricular activities, did an author panel, and attended a workshop and Writer’s Coffeehouse meeting, but the creative side of me had nothing. And I slept a lot while my daughter was at school. When I tried to write, no words came, no motivation, and I would end up scrolling aimlessly through Facebook, not even really reading anything.

The lack of productive creativity makes me crazy because then I get mad at myself for not using my time wisely. I always complain I don’t have enough time, yet there I was, day after day, literally wasting time. I got angry with myself, beat myself up. But I couldn’t shake it. My brain was numb.

Oddly enough, it took me some time to figure out that anxiety was behind my spectacular crash into creative oblivion. I guess that’s not really surprising, given my numb brain. But once I figured it out, I knew I had to do something to kick it to the curb. I had to basically WILL myself out of it, because it’s all about self-talk. I had been allowing the recurrent nightmares (and daymares) in my head free reign. Many times, if I allow my brain to reach the end of the nightmare journey, that frees it and that anxiety episode ends. This time, however, that trick had not worked, and had instead dragged me deeper and deeper into the malaise.

So, I had to consciously shut my brain up, change the channel. I do that by literally telling myself to stop when I notice the thoughts running down a familiar path. I also did it by stepping back from social media for a few days. Not only did that give me more time for other things, but it kept me from soaking up more disturbing thoughts and news and emotions. I didn’t do a complete break from social media, but I cut it back severely. I am going to try to keep it to a minimum for a while.

Did it work? Well, I think it’s working. I have been more productive, better able to focus. Not at full capacity, but I actually checked some things off my To-Do list, which makes me happy. So I think I am finally seeing the end of this particular anxiety spiral. Or loop. Or whatever.

If you have a similar demon that likes to hijack your brain, how do you shake it off?

Raritan Valley Community College author panel–and the anthology arrives!

Last night I spent a fun evening at Raritan Valley Community College library. A panel of 4 authors–Keith Fritz, Anthony Giordano, Mercedes Rochelle, and me–met with a group at the college library. We had at least 30 people in the audience to watch the author panel, maybe more!

The author panel had a good mix of genre and form–adult horror/dark fantasy, middle grade and YA sci-fi/fantasy, adult historical fiction, and a playwright. Discussion was lively, covering everything from our process, to our greatest challenges. The audience asked about self-publishing, writer’s block, and memoir writing. The group was engaged and attentive, and it was a pleasure to talk with them. Many came up afterward and chatted with us one-on-one.

Thank you so much to Carina Gonzalez, the Raritan outreach librarian who set up this author panel, and to all the people who came to see it. It’s always gratifying to share what I’ve learned with others just starting out. I remember how overwhelming it all seemed when I first began my journey, and I am happy if I could help give someone the advice they needed to better understand something they’re struggling with.

In other news, my copies of the Silver Pen Magazines 2017 Anthology arrived today! They landed on my doorstep after I had left for my author panel, so I couldn’t take them with me, but I am so happy they are here!

WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien