Thursday, May 31, 2018

Writing inspiration: overcoming burnout and the Orson Welles syndrome

Figure 1. Orson Welles, wunderkind.
At a conference recently, I talked to a few people about their careers and about the wall of writing burnout I hit recently, asking them if they had experienced the same.

How bad was the burnout? Think of trying to get a balky toddler to eat a lima bean-spinach-kale casserole: that's how I was approaching writing. Those lima beans weren't going to taste any better cold--that is, after the deadline--but my brain toddler, unlike any real toddler, has to eat them anyway and get that writing done.

The people I talked to said that they were looking about three years ahead instead of to the next deadline. One was looking to get a book finished in that time. Ze had hoped to be finished by now, but life happened. A second, one of my collaborators on the big project, is shaping zir career around that for the next 5 years. A third is looking at gradually tapering off scholarship in preparation for a phased retirement. When I protested "but you're so productive! Don't you want to write another book?" ze said that there was no economic incentive and that ze would rather spend the time rock climbing.

Although they have different perspectives, they all had the same advice for me: be selective, because if you agree to do too much, you'll always be behind. Write about what you really want to write about. And take a break once in a while. If this sounds familiar, like advice that you and I and everyone else has given on their blogs, it is, yet it had some more force coming from people I'd known a long time.

It's probably unfair, but I'm thinking of Orson Welles, the genius writer-director-producer-actor who made radio history with his "War of the Worlds" broadcast in 1938 (inventing fake news?) and cinema history with Citizen Kane. He followed that, sometimes acting instead of directing, with The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger (which he thought was formulaic but that I liked), Touch of Evil, and a host of other movies, some of which, like The Other Side of the Wind, he worked on for years.

The knock on Welles, dating from The Magnificent Ambersons, was that he didn't want to finish things, which apparently wasn't true. He did spend most of his career after Hollywood trying to get financing to fund the projects that he loved, like the Don Quixote film that remained unfinished at his death.

But what many may remember him for is the talk show circuit and his magic tricks, or the Paul Masson commercials where he solemnly intones "We will sell no wine before its time." He tried to do too much, often for financial reasons, and ended up not doing what he wanted to do (Orson Welles syndrome, TM Undine).

Now, Welles was a genius and could keep more balls in the air than most of us, yet you wonder what he might have done if he hadn't had to squander time and attention in making money with commercials, voice-over work, meetings with investors, etc. Would he have made more and greater movies? Would he have been able to make movies without resorting to that awful dubbing that makes some of those late movies (for me) unwatchable?

The thing is, most academics actually have that opportunity if we have jobs--to focus our attention and to choose projects--without having to take on too many side projects to keep the projects we love going. My conclusion is to try to take my colleagues' advice and assess what I really want to do next.

2 comments:

gwinne said...

That "what I really want to do next" comment is both so right and so tricky. It's become really difficult for me to unravel my desires from my career aspirations. Like, the book project I am now prioritizing this summer is certainly something I want to do....but it wouldn't be at the top of my list except for it's the book I "should" do if I want to be promoted....

Undine said...

gwinne--It'd be great if the "want" and "should" would seamlessly combine, but yes, it's tricky. Good luck!