Personal Life

Burn Out and the Grad School Grind

Grad school has begun again. Well, technically it began last week, but today marks my second week of classes. As much as I love my MFA program and the people in it, I hate the stress that comes with going to school. It sets me on edge and raises my anxiety, which means more headaches, stomach problems, and overall fatigue.

Back to school time can be very trying for people with anxiety. New people, new schedules, homework, deadlines, readings. It’s a difficult balancing act without having to add psyching yourself up to deal with people. Usually, I end up listening to music that pumps me up on my way to the university. It helps immensely, especially if you have another playlist that calms you that you can listen to on the way home. That transition time can allow you to decompress and not lash out at relatives when you arrive home. I still do it once in a while when a class has been particularly stressful, but it’s a lot less frequent than when I just went through the motions.

During this time of year, it’s very easy to get lost in the muddle of assignments and readings, but you need to remember to take time out for you. Your body is a reservoir that needs refilling, and if you get too low from stress and work, you will have a meltdown that will take time to recover from. It’s like a car battery. If you run a car for a while, then turn it off, and come back a few hours or a day later, the battery automatically refills itself, but if you leave a car on for three days straight, the battery will die, and it will take multiple jolts from another car to restart it. That’s what happens after a meltdown or if you let it get to low and you burn out.

Take time for you. Finish your assignments, get your readings done, create a schedule, but take time to do the things you enjoy. Don’t get buried in your work, or you will be burnt out by midterms. I know the reaction, I was there as an undergrad, “Take time for me? Are you crazy? Do you see the pile of crap I have to do? When am I supposed to fit that in?”

You can, trust me. When you have a lot of classes and assignments, you would be amazed how much a whiteboard calendar can help in terms of organization. Make lists of what you have to get done for the day or week. As you do them, cross them off, but leave time for you at least a few days a week. Go for a cup of coffee with a friend or take a trip to the mall. Get out of your normal space and do something you love. If you don’t like going out, read something you want to read, watch a few episodes (few- not a whole night’s worth unless you finished your work) of a show you enjoy. Do something that will make you happy and decompress.

It’s much easier to refill a half-full bucket than an empty one. Know your limits, know what you need to accomplish, and know that you matter. You aren’t a machine, despite what others may think.


Feeding the Beast

This summer has been two months of experimentation regarding my writing and what I need in order to be productive. What I have found is that to continue to be productive creatively, you need to feed that creative beast.

Writing is an incredibly solitary activity. You sit in front of your computer or notebook for hours, constructing a world of your own. While it’s rewarding and you wouldn’t have it any other way, it’s hard to do day after day. Burning out is a constant threat, which leads to productivity problems, lack of motivation, and overall blah-ness. It sounded scientific up until that point, didn’t it? It’s true though. As much as we would like to pretend that writers and artists are limitless fonts of creativity, it’s very possible for the well to run dry, and it does, much to our dismay.

Typically my summers consist of me living a mole-like existence where I don’t leave my house unless I have to attend a university function or go to work. This year, I decided to try to get out more and actually do some fun things to boost my creativity. Here are some things I have found that feed that creative beast:

  1. Read! No seriously, read a book, one you actually want to read. Most writers are fairly avid readers, and I’ve noticed that when I am reading a book or series I enjoy, the words tend to flow more than they would if I was slogging through a book for grad school.birthday books3
  2. Color. Or draw or paint. Do something creative that is not your current project. For my birthday, I received one of those adult coloring books and a new box of colored pencils. It’s wonderful. While you’re utilizing someone else’s design, you’re choosing the colors and figuring out how you want it to work. The repetitive nature of coloring also tends to reduce stress and help you reach that zen-like state that is conducive to creative work.
  3. Get out of the house. Seriously, step away from your computer and go outside. It’s easy to fall into the trap where you sit for 10 hours at a clip staring at Microsoft Word wondering why the muses are being so cruel. Part of you says, “I can’t leave the house! What if I get my mojo back while I’m out?” More than likely, you’ll be enjoying what you’re doing out in the world, but bring a notebook just in case or use the notepad feature on your phone to jot down your idea on the fly. Go to the mall, go to the bookstore, go to the park. My favorite right now is going to the beach or to the water. Water is an incredibly grounding force. If you can, get to the water (lake, ocean, bay, whatever) and take off your shoe and socks. Let your feet soak in the water. I find the ebb and flow of the tide to be an incredibly grounding force. This summer I went on a 3 hour boat tour, and it was wonderful. I brought my notebook, but I was so busy enjoying the water that I didn’t even reach for it. When I got home, it was writing time.

    A little pic from the Jersey Shore.
  4. Watch a little TV. When I say this, I don’t mean an 8 hour binge of Orange is the New Black on Netflix. I mean, sit down and watch something you truly enjoy. Put away your laptop for an hour or two and just enjoy the show. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Project Runway or Poldark, just sit and watch for a little while. I tend to not advocate Netflix because the autostart the next show, and 1 episode turns into 10 in the blink of an eye.

Remember that your creativity is like a being all of its own. It needs to be nurtured and fed, and when you work it for weeks on end, it needs time to rest or recuperate. My suggestion is to do at least one of these things each day. Read before bed or during your lunch break, get out of the house on days off is possible. Take time to enjoy your work and feed your inner creative being with things that inspire you.