by Nikki Smith

There was once a time when becoming a writer wasn’t a dream that kept me up at night, staring up at the ceiling full of hope. Now, the person I was eight short years ago feels like someone I met at a crowded party. I can sort of picture her face, but don’t quite remember her. 

For a while I was directionless, entering college with no real plan, but during my freshman year of college, it didn’t take long to find my place. Some friends worked on the school newspaper, and I thought it might be fun to join them. By the following semester, I had changed my major to journalism and made big plans to leave Mississippi to write for a newspaper with a national circulation. However, my plans and goals shifted again, and I ended up taking a job with a local newspaper, which led me to my current position with a paper in Jackson. 

Each week, my boss expects me to file ten stories from hard, in-depth news articles to long, descriptive feature stories. Day after day, I pour energy into telling stories that aren’t mine, often with words that aren’t quite mine either. My stories take form through interviews and quotes. Often I’m writing about the world around me through someone else’s lens. It’s easy to lose myself when part of being a journalist is keeping my voice out of a story while finding a unique way to tell it. 

In one work day, I go from meeting with a board of supervisors to covering a story on funding for a major road project to interviewing a woman who leads a prison ministry that helps women get back on their feet after release to prevent recidivism. A sense of pride overtakes me when I complete stories like that. Most mornings, I sip my coffee, excited for the day, knowing that I’m lucky to do this full time. But by the time I’ve put thousands of words on a page each week, I’m spent. When I get home, I sit in front of my laptop beckoning words to come, and more often than I’d like to admit, they don’t. 

Being a full-time writer is no doubt my dream, but it makes it difficult to find not only the time, but the creative energy to work on my own projects. The passion that keeps me up at night isn’t just covering the goings-on in this area, but telling my own stories and bringing ideas to life. I’m still new at this, but I’m learning how to foster creativity for those stories that bounce off the ceiling until the early morning hours and how to keep the dreaded burnout at bay. Everyone is different, but here’s what works for me:

Don’t force it.

Everyone knows the saying along the lines of: “If you wait until you feel like doing something, you’ll never do it.” While it is true that sometimes you need to push yourself when you don’t feel like writing, there’s also a time to step away to regroup. Sometimes you need a break to prevent burning out and negatively impacting your mental health. I find that when I force the words out, I end up changing everything I wrote during those sessions or scrapping it completely. While the irony of suggesting stepping back from your project while talking about how to balance a full-time writing job and a creative project effectively isn’t lost on me, I find that when I don’t force it between the end of the work day and bedtime, better ideas hit me. I also carry a notebook, and when that isn’t handy, I use the notes app on my phone to jot down ideas and work off those in my spare time. 

Take care of yourself.

Putting all of your creative energy into different things can be draining, both emotionally and physically. It is so important to take care of yourself in the midst of all that work. Some days I come home from work, quickly swallow dinner, and start writing or editing immediately. Before long, the light is gone from the sky and my eyes are burning from staring into a screen for hours. 

Then, it’s off to bed to get up and start over the following morning. Too many days of that routine will soon have me swearing off writing another word. I try to take time for other hobbies, interests, and self-care to prevent burnout. Breaking out my paint, my running shoes, or simply a face mask and a bath bomb can work wonders. Believe me, I know how silly it sounds, but it works for me. Taking time for myself and enjoying things that I love outside of writing leaves me feeling refreshed. 

Remember why you’re doing this. 

Writing is my escape, a way to heal, and a way to express myself. Much of my recent writing has helped me work through painful memories or revel in the joyful things that drive me. Figure out why you’re chasing the dream of being an author and write it down - seriously - and look at it every day. If your purpose doesn’t drive you, then I don’t know what else will.