Keeping It Real – How to avoid writer’s burn out

Hi, I’m the new guy trying to fill Ashley Lister’s shoes each Thursday on “Oh Get A Grip”.

Under the name Mike Kimera, I write fiction about sex and lust and the things they do to us. Under my real name, I make my living as a management consultant.

So, does that make Mike Kimera real or fake?

I chose the name “Kimera” thinking that it would be obvious that it was not a real name (Kimera = Chimera – how smart am I?). I wanted to be honest about being fake. I didn’t realise that in the US, Kimera is a real name so the only one who knew I was fake was me.

That happens to me a lot.

I’ve been writing as Mike Kimera for ten years or so now. Over that time he has become real to me. There are things he would write and things he would not. He is a construct, a cyber-life, but he is, in his way, as real as the person who turns up at clients and helps them build strategies.

What does any of this have to do with burn out?

I created Mike Kimera as a way of avoiding burn out.

I have the kind of job where talented people think that they can solve any problem if they work hard enough and long enough. It’s the kind of job where people push themselves until they break. Then, one day, they can’t cope: they are overwhelmed, hollow, hopeless, useless to themselves and others.

We all know this. We’ve all seen it. We just know it won’t happen to us because… well it just won’t.

I realised that, to avoid burn out, I needed to have something else in my life. Something that allowed me to exist beyond work. Something that set me free.

At first, that was all there was to it. But freedom, unfettered, boundless, ruleless, targetless freedom is not something I have a talent for.

I’m obsessed with patterns and structures and relationships. I couldn’t just be Mike Kimera, I had to have a rationale for being Mike Kimera.

I arrived at the understanding that I didn’t want to be free; I wanted to be real.

I wanted a space where I could say all those things that the other me would self-censor out of existence.

I discovered that what interested me about sex and lust is that they can tell us who we are. The insights we have about what we want, what we lust after, what we yearn for, and the things we are willing to do, and the things we refuse to do, to get them define something real at the heart of our identity.

I discovered that what I found compelling about writing is how all consuming it is. There is just you, your imagination and the blank screen… until you write the first sentence. Then there is you and the story and the fight to get the story on the page. When I’m writing, there is nothing else. It is what Csikszentmihalyi meant by a “flow” experience: intrinsically motivating, a source of happiness.

And then, one day, you lose it.

Writer’s Burn Out.

I don’t mean being too tired to write or having no ability to write. I’m talking about losing the will to write because writing no longer makes you happy.

When this happens to me I realise that I’ve started to treat writing the way I treat my job: something that I’m good at and do as well as I can but which doesn’t really mean anything to me.

I’ve stopped being real.

The real part is the source of the joy. No real, no joy. Simple.

So how do you get the real back?I’m going to offer two things.

The first is from the management consultant me. Don’t panic, I’m from the keep-them-entertained-and-they’ll-pay-more school of consultancy.

The second is a short piece of text that I wrote when I was feeling burnt out and needed solace.

So here’s the first part.

In management consultant land, one of the currently fashionable ideas is “authenticity” (a hard sell in the business world -“Authenticity? Yeah, I can see that’s important. If we can fake that, everything else will be easier). To make money from an idea like that, you need a quadrant diagram. I’ve adapted the one that Pine and Gilmore came up with back in 2007.

Here’s the deal.

As a writer you have two opportunities to be real. The first is to be true to yourself: what you believe in, what you want the writing to achieve, what turns you on, what means something to you. The second is to be true to the expectations you set with your readers about the kind of story this is, about the kind of writer you are, about the kind of reader you expect them to be.

The diagram shows these two opportunities to be real as a quadrant.

Fake Fake: the bottom left-hand corner is always the worst place to be on a quadrant diagram. Here what you’re writing is something your readers won’t believe and something that you don’t believe in.
My advice: stop writing, you’re wasting everyone’s time

Real Fake:This is where the reader accepts the reality of what you’re writing. You get fan mail saying how great it is. BUT you think it’s phoney, pulp fiction churned out to a formula.
My advice, if you need to pay the bills and there’s a good market, go for it but don’t expect joy; that’s why pay is called compensation.

Fake Real: you’ve written your heart out. You’ve described the essence of the human condition, your own prose leaves you in tears but no one else gets it. To them is seems contrived, over-written, unrealistic, inaccessible. Perhaps “Finnegan’s Wake” is in this quadrant or perhaps Joyce was just taking the piss.
My advice: if it gives you joy, if it helps you to see the world more clearly, write it anyway BUT challenge yourself. Blake said “Truth can never be told so as to be understood and not be believed.” Maybe you have to work on how you tell your truth.

Real Real: the top right-hand corner is the source of maximum joy: you are writing what you feel in your heart, what you know in your bones. You are pushing yourself to do the difficult thing and write naked in front of your audience, AND they’re right there with you. Your story stays on their skin like the sweat of a lover after sex, it touches something inside them that goes beyond words, they use your words to express their truth.
My advice: If this isn’t what you’re trying for when you sit at the keyboard, you’re really missing out on something. When this works, even a little, there is no greater high.

O.K. , seminar over. Here’s the piece of text that I promised. Enjoy. I hope to see you next week.


(c) Mike Kimera 2010

When the wounds of the day
And the sleep-debt of the week
Tap in to my bone-deep well of sadness,
Fierce anger ignites
Bringing momentary warmth and light
At the cost of a mouthful of ashes

Afterwards, in the cooling dark
Rocking slowly back and forth
I wrap myself in a thin blanket of regret,
Mourning the delight life once brought me

Finally, in the still quiet of my exhausted mind,
Words, unbidden but welcome, flicker into being
Little fireflies of hope dancing in the dark
Dispelling gloom with evocations of past happiness
And the promise that joy will rise with the sun