It’s a bitter irony, courtesy of capitalism: writers working as writers to support the writing we are too spent to do.
Hemingway—because of course my twenty-three-year-old self turned to Hemingway—has a famous quote about creative burnout: “I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.” Fair enough, Ernest. But I wasn’t the one emptying my well. I was being drained. Work was draining me.
When I hung out with friends from college, we’d discuss how our jobs were going. Mostly fine, I said, though something weird was happening. I was totally unable to write for myself anymore. “And,” I rushed to clarify, “I don’t just mean I can’t write good stuff. I mean, good or bad. Literally nothing.”
I felt ashamed of my admission, but their responses surprised me. Many of them were experiencing the same thing. Former English majors with their own creative aspirations, they too held down jobs that demanded they write all day—marketers, PR consultants, fundraisers, grant writers, tutors, journalists—leaving them listless when it came to personal writing projects. A bitter irony, courtesy of capitalism: writers working as writers to support the writing they were too spent to do.
It began to feel like my thesis advisor had set me on an awful course. Wouldn’t it have been better, I thought, to take a job that involved no writing at all? I began to envy—even fantasize about—different kinds of labor. Alexander Chee had scribbled the outline for a novel on a restaurant check while waiting tables; perhaps my creativity might thrive in a similar work environment? And yet I knew my fantasy was just that: fantasy. Even if writing is a particularly taxing gig for a writer, it’s not like other forms of employment aren’t. In fact, as jobs go, writing is cushy—sure, it’s mentally straining, but you’re still just sitting at a desk, after all.
I also worried about another possibility: What if I quit the agency but still couldn’t write? I’d be giving up a good job and have nothing to show for it. Even worse, I’d no longer have an excuse. Blank pages, and only myself to blame.
I started to wonder if I shouldn’t just embrace being a Creative Writer and forget becoming a creative writer entirely. For one thing, it promised more financial stability than the literary world ever could. And the work itself had its rewards; it was exciting to write something and envision it showing up in a TV commercial or printed on the side of a crosstown bus. I might never publish anything of my own, but at least I’d see my words out in the world. That was still something, wasn’t it?
I was nearly coming around to the idea, until one day I had an important meeting at work. I’d been toiling for weeks on something I’d written for a client, and now it was time to share it. I felt nervous, just as I’d been in my college writing workshops. Still, I swallowed my fear and delivered a decent presentation. Then the client responded. He hated my work. Terrible, he said. That was the exact word he used, terrible.
I started to wonder if I shouldn’t just embrace being a Creative Writer and forget becoming a creative writer entirely.
Humiliated, I sank low in my conference room chair. And yet, as I sat there, a strange realization came over me. I didn’t actually feel humiliated. I was performing humiliation, yes, because that’s what the situation required. But his comments hadn’t actually hurt me. If I’d received that feedback on my own creative writing, it would’ve torn me to shreds. But I had no personal stake in what I’d produced, outside of the time I’d put in. The words were mine, but they weren’t me.
I felt powerful in the moment, nearly invulnerable. But hadn’t I always loved writing specifically because it heightened vulnerability? If my failures in the job didn’t hurt, then my successes likely wouldn’t bring me joy either. Being creative only mattered if I had reason to care.
I’m now more than a decade out from that job. I’ve primarily worked as a teacher and editor since quitting the agency, and I’ve found more success carving out time for my own creative work. Partly it’s a numbers game: There are suddenly more hours in the day when they’re not client-billable. But it’s also that, in my experience, teaching and editing lead to less creative burnout than copywriting. They all require creativity as part of the job, but they don’t commoditize it in the same way.
Many of my friends still work as professional writers in various forms, and a good number have successfully managed to find a balance. They use strategies to establish a clear dichotomy: If they write on a laptop at work, they write creatively in a notebook at home; if they write sitting at a desk at work, they write creatively while lying in bed. The premise makes sense: Treat the practices as distinct. Draw your water from two different wells.
If you find yourself struggling with a similar kind of creative burnout, I hope these strategies might prove helpful. But even more importantly, I hope you’re forgiving of yourself. It’s hard enough to be one writer, let alone two.
I have no idea if such strategies would’ve helped me. Maybe, maybe not. But either way, I’m now grateful that my thesis advisor offered me the advice she did. When I ultimately arrived at my MFA, I was no better prepared than my classmates for having had the job; I was still nervous in every writing workshop, bracing for the sting of negative feedback. But when I felt that sting, I was thankful. It meant I cared. I just needed to roll up my sleeves and get to work.
Ben Purkert is the author of the forthcoming novel The Men Can't Be Saved (Overlook, 2023). His poetry collection For the Love of Endings (Four Way Books, 2018) was named one of Adroit's Best Poetry Books of the Year. His writing appears in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Nation, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. The founding editor of Guernica's Back Draft interview series, he teaches at Rutgers. You can read more of his work at benpurkert.com or on Twitter (@BenPurkert).