writer burnout

(This post first appeared on Substack: Writing Magick with Maggie Sunseri. Click to subscribe.)

In the summer of 2020, I was about to start my senior of college. In autumn 2019, I had such a great time studying abroad in the UK that I nearly transferred and finished out my education there. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a great equivalent to my degree, and I would’ve had to basically start over. I was on a full-ride scholarship back home, and I was already a junior, so I begrudgingly said goodbye to my friends abroad and promised them I’d be back as soon as I could. I wasn’t the biggest fan of my college back home, but since I was stuck with her for another year and a half, I thought I’d make the best of it. Three months into Making the Best of It, we were sent home. (If Making the Best of It meant partying just as hard but with less public crying.)

It was for the best that I hadn’t transferred. And while I can’t say it was ideal that Covid arrived to our world, I will say it was for the best that I was sent home. Being home allowed me to face myself for the first time in three years. It allowed me the space to nurture my renewed interest in all the things I used to care about, before I went off to college and let my life revolve around alcohol, questionable men, and general debauchery. At that point, I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d read a book for fun. Or had written anything worth reading.

My final three semesters were my favorite, and I spent them all at home. I actually read and enjoyed what was assigned to me, I took really cool classes, and I was able to get back into fitness, health, witchery, and writing. I still had a few active addictions phasing in and out, and my mental health was still a rollercoaster because of it, but I was finally in the best place possible to begin the long and arduous healing journey.

Like I’ve mentioned in my oldest posts, I’ve known since I first learned how to read that I was always meant to be an author. There was never any doubt, and I never once let anyone come close to convincing me of a different reality. There were times I lost sight of my path, but it was always there, just waiting for me to jump back on.

The first books I read for fun in college that weren’t nonfiction were the Fifty Shades series. This was that summer of 2020, when new seeds were being planted in every area of my life to help me become who I was always born to be. Seems a little silly to be writing those two sentences back to back, but Fifty Shades was actually critical to pushing me back onto the author path. It was my first time reading them, and I thought to myself: Why these books?? And I’m not asking that to throw shade at E.L. James, (who apparently was at an author party I attended this summer, and I had no idea at the time—wish I’d said hello!), but merely to ask what every new author wonders about books like Fifty Shades, Twilight, The Hunger Games, etc..

Why did these books make it when so many others don’t?

There are a great many pessimistic answers to this question, but at the time, I saw it as a question of endless opportunity. And I still do. I loved the fearlessness that E.L. James had to write unabashed BDSM erotica, but I knew that contemporary romance and erotica-levels of graphic sex weren’t my current jam. I started asking myself questions like, Where are the kinky folk in fantasy books? Why can’t we have a book that’s both sexy and spiritual? Where are the books for witchy people like me, who want to see our own authentic spirituality represented in books about magick?

At the time, I didn’t know that there was in fact a whole genre of smutty fantasy books out there. I actually had no idea what genre I was even writing when I wrote Books 1-3 of The Lost Witches of Aradia, which I know breaks the cardinal rule of indie authorship, which is to write to-market and know your audience. I didn’t even realize that the sex in my books would only be considered a 3/5 on the spice scale!

I think it all turned out okay because I was my audience, and I knew there were many more of me out there. The hard part to this day is finding these readers and showing them my books. To my knowledge none of the books in my genre have the exact formula of elements that I was seeking back in 2020, which meant my gut feeling that I was going to fill a desired niche was right on the money. The fans I’m attracting are romance readers who enjoy a range of spice levels, are witchy, spiritual, or are otherwise open-minded, and who appreciate that my books have a lot going on between the words on the page. They are also SWEETIES and I absolutely love them. They are the exact type of people I dreamed of attracting with these books in the first place.

So let’s go back to the start. I decided from the beginning that I was going to write three books and then sit on them until I’d learned the business and was prepared to launch my career for real this time. I’d written two YA dystopian novels when I was in high school, but I didn’t have the bandwidth to actually promote and market them at the time. I knew this time would have to be different, because I was graduating soon, and if I ever wanted to be who I was born to be, then this was it. This was my opportunity. I’d been running from myself for years now, denying my purpose and killing my body and soul in the process. Now I had this wide open field of possibility before me—a time when I was living with my lovely, supportive parents, had no responsibilities except to finish school, and was forced home because of a global pandemic. I knew what I wanted, and I wanted it so badly that I would’ve done anything to get there.

On July 16th, 2020, I started writing Untitled Witch Book #1, later known as The Discovered. The first draft of this book was an absolute train wreck—nothing twelve rewrites and twenty-seven rounds of edits couldn’t fix—but it was completed September 2020 while I juggled senior year and writing. As the semester progressed, my writing became harder to maintain. I ended up writing most of Book 2 by January, and then I shelved the project until summer 2021. I was hit with a roadblock just after graduation when I decided it was time to get sober from kratom, a green powder with mild opiate and stimulant effects (that is surprisingly still legal,) which left me with a gnarly case of mostly psychological withdrawals. I had been using kratom daily for nearly two years at that point, save my semester abroad when I was drinking nearly daily instead. Kratom provided a reliable numb, slightly euphoric feeling that seemed to mitigate my struggles with depression, trauma, and anxiety. Until, of course, it didn’t, but I just couldn’t stop. When I quit Kratom on May 27th 2021, the depression and anhedonia, or loss of pleasure, was beyond intense. My opioid and dopamine receptors had been duped for so long that they no longer knew how to function on their own. All of my creativity dried up. And all of my hope did too.

But then, I started to feel my emotions again, and they were in a full range of color now instead of a dull green sludge. I hadn’t even realized it, but kratom had done its numbing so well that I no longer heard music the same. Now that I was sober and raw and terrified, music was back to its full splendor. It was beautiful and intense and vivid, just as it was meant to sound. After a month of horrible lows, I was able to convince myself that my brain was not broken and I needed to have faith that I would one day feel normal again. I started to write again, and I finished that last quarter of Book 2 on July 5th. I started on Book 3 shortly after. I completed it on August 25th 2021, one month exactly before I would finally give up my longest-standing and most volatile love, alcohol. At this point I was aware that I had a problem, and I had been trying for a year to quit. I was racking up a month here and two weeks there, then a long week of drinking every day, then ninety days off and on it went. I was drinking less than ever before in terms of the number of days out a calendar month, but the addiction had progressed to the point where I couldn’t have a single drop without bingeing. No longer was there a deluded hope of one day being a “normal drinker.” I knew that it was either continue on down this path until I was the stereotypical every morning, day, and night alcoholic, or stop, once and for all.

As my addiction crested, so did my belief in something bigger than myself, a grander plan and purpose that I was destined to claim. Two forking paths split before me: carry out this plan I’d been so dutifully manifesting for over a year, become the best version of myself possible for my family and friends, future partner and children, for everyone out there who would one day come in contact with me and my writing, or slip further into the void and chase meaningless, short-term pleasure until I inevitable blew my whole life up. I drew the same tarot cards as I had just before I’d quit kratom: The Devil, representing my shackles to the material, vice, and illusion, and denial of a greater spiritual responsibility, and The Fool, Number 0 in the Major Arcana and the maker of all great leaps of faith. The Fool is step one on any journey. Progressing forward requires a leap, and to answer the call of the soul means knowing that something will be there below to catch you.

I jumped. My one year sober anniversary is this upcoming September 25th, 2022.

Now that I was sober and had three books under my sleeve, it was time to teach myself the business and marketing side of being an author. The belief that a good book will magically sell itself was still ingrained in me, and I knew that was not a belief that mirrored reality. I took two courses on publishing and ads, I listened to endless podcasts, read books, studied other people’s careers, joined Facebook groups, and I weighed all the varied advice and expertise against my own instincts and intuition. I had a harrowing first editor experience that I’ll eventually unpack in a future post, but I also ended up snagging slots with an incredible cover artist that November, exactly when I needed them. It was very lucky indeed they weren’t fully booked. I asked them to do four covers for me, as I was already planning Book 4 before I’d even begun to write it. I’d finally settled on titles, The Lost Witches of Aradia serving as an homage to folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland’s Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches. In this text, published in 1899, he describes a goddess named Aradia, daughter of the Roman goddess Diana and a sun god named Lucifer, who serves as a messianic figure who came to Earth to teach witchcraft to Italian peasants so that they could subvert their feudal oppressors and the Roman Catholic Church.

Everything finally seemed to be coming together. My books were edited, my covers and titles were perfectly aligned with the spirit of the series, and I had nothing but hope for the future. My preorders were set for January 4th, February 4th, and March 4th, and I continued to learn as much as I could about how to make my launches as successful as possible with a nonexistent prior audience.

From start to finish, I had been working on this long-term vision for eighteen months before it ever saw the light of day. In those eighteen months I kicked two addictions, unpacked my trauma, wrote three books, finished college, and did everything in my power to create a better life internally and externally for myself. The trials I went through, the truths I was forced to face, the lessons I learned, the spells I cast and the creative entities I birthed into existence—they all coalesced into a hero’s journey of its own. My characters and I will be forever bonded. I’ve felt their pain in my own heart. When they receive wisdom, I receive it too. They taught me how to live again and what to live for. This series followed me along on my path in ways I don’t have the full capacity to understand. The story somehow came from me and from something higher than me both at once. I wrote my way out of my addictions before I had actually broken those binds in real life. My characters held on to my hope for me when I could no longer feel it in my own bones.

We read and write stories because they are a way for us to understand our own minds and our own journeys. It is my greatest hope that I buried some powerful magick in these books, strong enough to help others just as they have helped me.

Writing saved my life. I chose the forking path that led me to this point because I knew that it was the only way I would ever be successful. I took the leap because denial of my soul’s purpose was no longer an option; it was slowly killing me. Baring my soul for the world to see three months into sobriety was a ballsy move now that I look back on it, but it was time for these books to see the light of day.

I’m now nine months into my indie author career launch. How did I do? In Pt. 2, I’m going to unpack all the milestones, doubts, disappointments, and big wins I’ve had thus far. Because of money talk and the inherent vulnerability of discussing this past year with everyone, it will be for paid subscribers only. Getting access to all paywalled posts is only $5 a month or $50 dollars a year, and your support would mean the world to me! As an indie gal, I don’t have the weight of a trad publisher at my back. I’ve done all facets (aside from editing and covers) of this career all on my own. Subscribing lets me know that the hours of unpaid labor I put into these articles are worth it. I love working on this newsletter, but I also need to be able to support myself. If you prefer, you could also leave a one-time-only tip.

(This post first appeared on Substack: Writing Magick with Maggie Sunseri. Click to subscribe, like, or leave a comment.)

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