by Alex

“Honey, you’re overextended.”

I can’t tell you how many times I heard that from my mother when I was growing up.

She was right, of course, but I never listened to her, of course, because what could a parent know about a teenager’s needs and capacities?   I could do it all.   Of course, I might get sick and have to drop out of a play, or have dreams about climbing a ladder which started to disintegrate in my hands, but that happens to everyone, right?

Well, it’s taken a while, but I think I finally understand that my mother was right.   For whatever reason – and maybe it’s an occupational hazard, you tell me – my tendency is to overextend, to do too much, until I’m compromising my relationships, and at least my quality of life (I would say my health but my health has always been good enough to make me think I’m more okay than I probably am) in my obsessive doing.

And when you’ve been self-employed for basically all your life, there’s no federal agency that steps in and demands overtime and vacation pay.   There’s no one who turns out the lights in the office building at night, forcing at least a change of scenery.   You, the boss, can pretty much work you, the employee, into the ground, with no recompense or repercussions.

So last week, after pretty much killing myself to get my book revisions in, in between traveling to Romantic Times in Houston, back to LA for the LA Times Festival of Books, then straight on to Virginia for Malice Domestic, I stopped.


I don’t know how conscious a decision that was.   What happened was that my mind said – “Uh uh.  That’s it.”   And this time I actually listened, instead of doing what I usually do and barreling on ahead to the next few dozen things.

So I’ve been doing nothing.

Doing nothing is hard.  It’s been interesting.  It’s not as much of a joyous relief as you would think because you’re too tired to really enjoy it.

I’ve been sleeping a lot, so there are not as many hours in a day as you would think to do nothing.   There are things that got backed up over the last few months that simply had to get done – cats to the vet, two months of laundry, that kind of thing.  Obviously I’m writing this blog… obviously I’ve done other things like that, which are not doing nothing.  And I did make a stab at doing my taxes but realized that was NOT doing nothing, even though it was not writing, so I am not going back to them until I have another week off).

I joined a new gym with a staggering number of classes throughout the day, so I’ve been doing one or two of those every day (too much, really, but after all these months of sludge…)

I know some people would take this opportunity to travel but I HAVE been traveling.   I don’t want to travel.   I don’t want to do anything.

What I do most of the day is read, of course.   But even this is strangely exhausting – I guess reading is always going to be work, for a writer.   I have quiet, tentative thoughts about it, like – “Why don’t YOU base the next book on a true story…”  – you know, that kind of thing.   I try to allow myself to have the thought without grabbing a notebook and acting on it.

But even though I’ve started tp read dozens of books over the last week, I haven’t read much all the way through, and I haven’t been very happy with anything I have managed to read (that is until yesterday, Louise will like this – Barbara Kingsolver’s PRODIGAL SPRING).

It’s a very uneasy vacation, that has turned into a kind of experiment, along the lines of metaphysical directives like – “When you don’t know what to do, STOP”  and ”When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

Well, I’ve stopped.   And already I wonder how long I can keep all this up.

This afternoon I actually have a book signing that’s been on the books for months – it’s just not possible to go on complete hiatus, unfortunately.    And of course there’s an ulterior motive to all this – I want to stop for long enough to feel that surge toward the next book.

But this time I really did overextend myself, and I think I had to go down to as close to nothing as I could manage to figure out what I can cut out, or more gently, let go.   Because something’s got to give, or it’s going to be me.

So I know you all can relate… I’ve seen versions of your meltdowns and enforced vacations here on this very blog.   Do you have any advice on how to get the most out of doing nothing?    Or, hmm, am I already trying to overextend myself again?

22 thoughts on “Burnout

  1. billie

    Funny, Alex, b/c several of my friends are going through a similar ramping back mode right now. I announced on my own blog Thursday that I was taking the summer off except for random news/updates/etc. (and promptly posted a new post this morning, but that’s just so typical of me I figure folks expected it)

    I think your line “how to get the most out of doing nothing” says it all. 🙂

    You’re going to have to battle your own driven self to find the answer. For what it’s worth, I empathize and I also think you’ll find wonderful new treasure in doing that.

    What’s that Italian phrase – dolce far niente? – the sweet doing-nothing? Sounds like a good mantra for the summertime!

  2. J.D. Rhoades

    Hie thee to the coast, girl. There’s something about gazing out at the endless water, with the long slow eternal beat of the waves and the tide filling my ears, that always helps reboot my mind.

  3. Alex Sokoloff

    Dolce fa niente? I’ll take it.

    I know, Dusty, the beach seems like a no-brainer, literally, but I’ve been away from home for so long… I can’t stand the thought of MORE stuff piling up to sort through when I get back.

  4. pari

    Alex,After all of my activity in the first year with CLOVIS, I had the same kind of intense meltdown (the LATFOB to Malice was a killer). But, I couldn’t stop, not really, because I’ve got kids and a husband and they just don’t buy “Mommy is tired.” (I wish they would.)

    The way I do slow down is to force myself to turn off the computer and just sit outside or drive a few miles to the mountains (or Rio Grande River) and do what Dusty suggested — just look, feel the air and sunlight, and listen to the natural world.

    Though it takes effort to turn off, sitting outside reminds me that all of my busyness in my career is really, very small — inconsequential — in the midst of the greater scheme of things.

    Somehow I find that reminder consoling.

  5. Louise Ure

    I’m so glad Ms. Kingsolver gave you a bit of respite this week! (She’s signing here in Northern California this week. I get to have my own Kingsolver fix.)

    When I get to that stage of burnout, I have to do something totally unrelated to the business of writing/publishing/marketing books. For me it’s gardening (more accurately, the city-dwellers rooftop version of same), downloading new music, and trying some exotic new recipe. Books won’t do it for me. Nor travel.

    Have a good week off, Alex! You deserve it.

  6. Naomi


    I’m surprised that the flu bug hasn’t downed you by now. The bug got me and I’ve done only one-third what you’ve been able to accomplish this past month.

    You sound like one of those individuals with an amazing amount of energy who has to schedule in “play.” How about just walking around the neighborhood? Or seeing a bunch of matinees? Or going out with friends? What I try to do are things that do not involve written words at all–so physical activity (hiking), looking at artwork or gardens, eating good food or maybe music. I’m kind of hooked on stand-up comedy, too. Chris Rock, Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykes, etc.–they all have helped energize and refresh me.

  7. Alex Sokoloff

    Sitting by the Rio Grande sounds like EXACTLY what I need. The desert would be ideal… like having my head vacuumed.

    Louise, I have fits of gardening myself, but it’s a very metaphorical and thought-intensive process for me. Not ready for all those thoughts, yet.

    I have to do this signing, but then there’s a big arts fair in my neighborhood, today and tomorrow – so I’ll take a walk around THAT, Naomi. Healing, but expensive!

  8. Mary-Frances

    Hi Alex,I wish I had something intelligent to add to this discussion but I don’t because I’m in Alaska. How are the two related? Well it doesn’t get dark here right now until after midnight and it gets light again at around 4:30 a.m. So I am definitely not getting enough sleep. It’s funny I was thinking this morning that if a writer needed a place to write 18 hours a day–summer in Alaska would be perfect. When it’s light all the time you lose track of what time it is and just keep going.

    So Alex here’s what I can offer to the discussion–my favorite quote from author Brenda Ueland. Your post today made me think of it:

    “So you see, imagination needs moodling – long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.”

    Happy Moddling!

  9. Rae

    Boy, did your post resonate with me, Alex. My job has kept me working mini-mart hours (7-11 😉 lately, and it seems as I’ve been on planes as often as I’ve been on the ground. Finding time to slow down has been tough this year. Thank all the gods and little fishes for my friends….

    Regarding your question about getting the most out of doing nothing…I think the trick is to be kind to yourself, and to do what you want to do, not what you think you should be doing. We all have jam-packed lives these days, and I often wonder why….why do we schedule every nano-second of our day, when there’s so much pleasure to be had in just laying low and watching the world go by. Anyway, my advice is, don’t beat yourself up about relaxing, and relax the way you want to. It’ll be good for you 😉

  10. JT Ellison

    Amen, sister. So glad to see that you’re going to try an enforced break. It’s hard. I always feel guilty if I’m doing something that doesn’t involve book writing, blog writing, or doing assigned reading. Even watching a movie by myself without the hubby in attendance feels like playing hookey.

    Maybe we writers need to declare a vacation week from it all. An official stretch of seven days — no one post blogs, no one writes, reads, etc. If we all know everyone is taking the week off, maybe we could allow our minds and souls a real break.

    Enjoy your time, sweetie. You DESERVE it.

  11. B.G. Ritts

    To truly do nothing is difficult. But with a few minor activities added, something like putting up a hammock, taking a favorite beverage and hopping in, then watching the clouds lazing by can be very therapeutic. So too is walking through a public garden; dining out at a favorite restaurant; going to a house of worship during off hours and enjoying the silence, an aviary and soaking up the motion and noise, a zoo and watching just about any baby animal, a museum or library or any large public place and marveling at what society has created.

    Turn off the “I gotta do”s and switch to the “I’m gonna soak up the awe inspiring”s.

  12. Jeanne Ketterer

    Alex: I learned the hard way how important it is to take a day, a few, a week following hard work, emotionally draining things, etc. It’s not possible every time, but from bottom of my heart, it is very necessary. It’s like you have to ~schedule~ it in.

    If you can’t physically get away, doing something entirely different is a help. I learned how to play blues harp. More enthusiasm than talent, but hey I kill it blasting around the house.

    Artsplosure is a good idea — good well-filling.

    Farmer’s markets are good for this also — all that wonderful bright colorful produce. (And cheerful vendors at crack of dawn.)

    Here’s a place I go that reminds me why I love living here (okay, for this week, anyway, LOL). Get there on a quiet afternoon, good Carolina weather …


    Sometimes after conferences — or a few one right another — it’s good to set aside a few days you know you’ll need to recover — all this creative high energy experienced and you expect me to cook? laundry? LOL.

    Jeannenot always good at taking own advice …

  13. Jeanne Ketterer

    One more — catching a Durham Bulls game. A mid-week game. We had season tickets for a few years — an effort to get David to relax and distract from work. Heaven to sit in a not too crowded stadium, soft weather, beer … David’s totally fell asleep a number of times (not to say the games were ever boring, LOL). The tickets are cheap, stadium staff are nice, decent food (clean ladies rooms) … relatively inexpensive decompression.


  14. toni mcgee causey

    Okay, I have to razz you a bit. Joining a gym and taking classes pretty much excempts you from the ‘doing nothing’ category. I know, you’ve not been able to exercise, but this really did crack me up.

    As someone who’s been self-employed as well, both with writing for 20+ years (I freelanced non-fiction, then screenwriting, and now fiction) as well as a small construction company (which is like guerilla warfare to survive, there is no such thing as a vacation)… I empathize. There was a point when I went back to school (MFA) where I was working both jobs, had to finish writing projects on my own time for the classes, two kids and all of their activities and on the side, was running a big website among other things, and I didn’t know how to slow down. It felt like time wasted. I nearly drove myself into the ground.

    When we get like that, I think the real question we have to ask ourselves is, “What are we afraid of if we stop.” Stop completely. Not start new (small) projects, not join new groups or clubs or programs, not doing “just this little bit” of something that “doesn’t really count because it doesn’t take very long.” What are we afraid of if we stop? Is it that our career will stop, too? Are we afraid that we’ll be forgotten? That we’ll lose momentum? And I think, figuring out exactly why that matters (whatever the answer) is the key to letting go for a while.

    Just being in the moment, in the place and time and not as a part of a to-do list? Very hard. But rewarding, I’ve learned. I now carve out down-time with the same fervor I crammed stuff into a day. I had to call it ‘recharing your batteries so you can write’ time, so it feels productive, if a little decadent.

  15. Alex Sokoloff

    Yeah, I knew someone would bust me on the gym, but believe me, for me, no exercise = psychosis within a day or two.

    I absolutely KNEW that everyone here would have the same problem of too-muchness, though… it’s both a relief and troubling to have that confirmed. We all do too much and JT really nailed it – I feel GUILTY if I’m not doing something every second. How crazy is that?

    A universal week off sounds like heaven. Can you imagine if we all just did that and the Internet went silent?

    What are we doing to ourselves?

  16. billie

    Love what Toni said about what are we afraid of when/if we stop all the “activity.”

    Part of our move to the farm here was to explore “stopping.”

    The horses require a certain amount of work but mostly it’s mindless, zen-inducing stuff that exercises me physically but lets my mind go still and blank. And the riding does that too.

    I had to laugh earlier today – I went to a reading at McIntyre’s and greatly enjoyed their gardens on the way in and out of that – but on the way home from there I stopped and bought a bunch of herbs to plant in a bare spot in one flower bed. Immediately my mind went further with the herb garden plan – involving making a stone garden alongside it, etc. etc.

    Then, across from the terraced bed is what we call the brush pile – which had gotten huge and unsightly last fall but over the winter has reduced itself – and now there are five different wild things growing there plus a few sunflowers and peony volunteers. I have harped on about the brush pile for months – how it needed to be “taken care of” and now, left to its own devices, it’s offering quite a stunning show of flowers.

    I think we all need encouragement to just let things be, including ourselves, sometimes.

  17. Alex Sokoloff

    Billie, I LOVE that brush pile story. Isn’t that the truth?

    It so goes along with the Kingsolver I’m reading – Prodigal Spring. What a LUSH book… it’s completely about fertility and life cycles and sex and teeming life, which is all around right now. The thing is, with a Spring as lush as this one, who needs to do anything? Just sit and it’s all right there, overwhelming, really…

  18. Jeanne Ketterer

    Dusty, I’m with you on the old Durham ballpark. My father and I went to a good number of games there — old school baseball.

    But I feel safer at the new and parking’s better (getting old, LOL). I feel perfectly safe going on my own to evening games there — I’ve had stadium personnel escort me to my car and even one of the cops.

    There’ve been a number of plans for the old park. I sure hope they figure some way to save it …


  19. Jeanne Ketterer

    … wait a minute. That was a contradiction: should have prefaced with “as a concession to David, I’ve had stadium … “.

    Stepping away from the computer now …Jeanne

  20. simon

    I said I would back off this year, but I’m not getting the chance. I was running a triple digit fever until Friday (while on the road), so I took today off. 🙂

    2008, I am going to take it easy though. I promise. Seriously. I think. Just don’t quote me…


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