I have been noticing lately that the word, “work ethic” has been coming up a lot among writers, all of whom seem to be pursuing the vast pots of wealth seemingly just on the other side of a completed manuscript. No longer do you even need a contract to hit the big time—just look! Every week another superstar explodes out of obscurity onto the top of the e-book charts, then the New York Times. Every month, another Horatio Alger, another starlet, another Big E-Publishing story.

Watched pot by Brandon Christopher WarrenThere are also those writers (and I am one of them) who have made a lot of fast cash on books that were out of print for ages. The potential is gigantic for new work, building on that old work. Many of us still are writing for New York (again, I am one of them) and also trying to feed the “yawning maw of the Internet beast,” as one friend of mine put it.

A lot of opportunity. A lot of possibility.

A lot of pressure, and a lot of potential for burn out.

One of the things you learn by simply staying in the publishing game for a long time is that today’s sudden superstar may or may not be writing and/or publishing three years from now. In a decade, who will we remember? Who will we still be reading? I’m startled by the big money publishers are paying out to untested writers—how can they possibly know if that writer can follow up with a second, third, fourth book? I hardly blame an author for taking a great deal, but again—it’s a lot of pressure.

I’m also astonished by the schedule some of us are setting up for ourselves—doubling the word counts every day, adding to the number of books published each year. I get it—I am doing the same thing—but in the back of my brain, I keep hearing the foghorn warning of —

Burnout.

Working writers are under a lot of pressure these days to produce, keep producing, produce more—and also keep up with their blogs(s), Tweet, post to Facebook, maintain a mailing list and newsletter, and show up at any writer’s conference that asks, because you can’t miss a single sale.

It’s exhausting to even write it all down. It’s exhausting for the girls in the basement, or the muses, who cannot be whipped into producing and producing and producing without some consequences. A runner can’t keep running indefinitely; neither can a writer keep writing without some rest and refueling.

As creative professionals, we are charged with setting our own boundaries, knowing what works and what doesn’t and knowing how to protect the work. Remember the work? That thing that only we can do?

Yeah. That.

For a couple of months, I’ve been fighting off one bug after another, one minor health issue after another. I had bronchitis, then a cold, then allergies, and I’m usually the one who is robustly healthy when everyone else is falling sick. It’s true I have had a baby coming in here regularly, but it’s also true I don’t get sick, and I was falling to everything that came through.

After six weeks of this, I stepped back and took a week off of exercise and work and everything else, to see what I could see. Where was I out of balance?

Illuminating exercise. Mainly, I was letting a lot of minor, unimportant things get in the way of my work. I was working out too many days a week for one thing, in an effort to meet a societal standard of middle-aged fitness. I was coming home overly exhausted and unable to do a single other thing—many of which I missed, like puttering in the kitchen and spending afternoons at the movies or the bookstore. I haven’t been visiting my mother enough.

And the girls in the basement were as exhausted as I was, all of them staring with glassy eyes out the windows of our world, depleted and weary.

So I went back to the questions I pose to myself at such times—because I’ve had them before. What can I do to nurture myself? What can I do to nurture the work? What things do I love?

What does it take for me to create my best work? What kind of environment do I require? What time of day, how much time? How much rest do I need—not only each day, but between projects?

The cold hard fact of it is: I have more work to do than I used to. Even more than when I was first starting out and eagerly wrote several books a year. Even as I’ve hired two different people to help me with various aspects of the business end, even as I’ve farmed out almost everything I can think of, there is just more to do than there used to be. That’s a fact, and one might as well deal with reality head on.

What else? I wasn’t feeling the sense of fun and adventure quite as much. Writing was feeling like work, only work, not thrilling and playful and full of possibility—and isn’t that what all this new freedom is meant to be about? Enjoying the freedom to play in a lot of different camps if I so desire?

I also noticed that a lot of my time was getting eaten up by things I’d allowed to creep into my schedule. To keep my trainer, I had to agree to certain times of day—and that noon meeting was interfering pretty drastically with my work flow. If I dropped down to one day a week, the one day when it was later in the day, and then fill in with exercise I really liked and felt like a treat rather than something exhausting, like swimming or yoga, I could also go to the steam room and have a nice shower and it would feel like a carrot I could dangle in front of myself for the hours of work.

When I dropped those sessions, a tremendous amount of pressure fell away with it, revealing a simple truth: I need a lot of time to myself. Lots and lots and lots of it. I need to not have to talk to other people at all for many hours, every day. I need the freedom to write and nap and putter outside, and let the stories arrive. I need space to cook and listen to music, and most of all—read, read, read, read, read. I need a lot of reading time, and it feels like nothing, but it’s everything.

I also love to start the day with some minor art pursuit. Usually it’s my camera—shooting flowers or birds on the feeder or the kitchen. It puts me in a creative mood, and it underlines the luxury of having an artist’s life. I’m adding that back in.

I also really love the afternoon I spend with my granddaughter each week. I spring her from daycare and we spend the day playing, and it’s wildly fulfilling. I need to work in my garden, or in the winter, spend time with crafts. I go to the movies. I leaf through magazines. I make collages and dream up new plots.

By making time for these things, I am much more able to meet the increasing demands of my work load. I am also much more likely to actually have things to write about—details that have been gathered, ideas given space to grow and expand, and better energy to sit for long periods of time. By setting boundaries, I’m able to avoid burnout and illness, and write and enjoy the process much, much more.

What does it take for you to create your best work? What kind of environment do you require? What kind of time, what time of day? How much rest do you need? Have your boundaries gone soft over time? Where can you reclaim your space? 

About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.