A big step for my burnout book

I'm so close to sending off a draft of my burnout book, I'm teaching an online class I'd love you to take, and I have some book recommendations.

I’m very, very close to sending a complete draft of my burnout book to the publisher, University of California Press. Next to me is a stack of printed-out chapters, which I am currently marking up. It’s starting to feel like a book. It was just a year ago that I signed the contract for this project. I hoped I would be able to write the manuscript in 12 months; it seemed ambitious. In writing, there may be some benefit to setting goals that seem like a stretch. One thing it does is make you feel like you really need to lean on generous friends and readers to help keep you on track.

The book’s title on my contract is Drained: Why the Burnout Epidemic Keeps Us from Flourishing and How Compassion Can Cure It, but I have been calling it Burnout Culture in my head, to reflect the way I’m looking at burnout as a pervasive cultural phenomenon. (In all likelihood, its actual title will be something different altogether.)

To address all the ways our culture causes us to burn out at work, I had to do a bunch of different kinds of writing, often well outside my comfort zone of armchair pontificating. There is history and science writing in the book, philosophy and cultural analysis, immersive reporting and memoir. The book is, in a sense, my answer to the question, Why did I burn out and quit my dream job as a tenured college professor? If I hadn’t burned out, I of course would not have written it, but I also could never have written a book like this if I had remained in academia. I never would have developed the skills I needed to write it, and I would not have felt like I was allowed to.

We’re probably still a year away from publication, so don’t get too excited just yet. But it feels good to know that the heaviest lifting is done.


I will be teaching an online class in spiritual nonfiction beginning in June through Writing Workshops Dallas. More info is here. Here’s a description:

Writing nonfiction about spirituality, whether your own or other people’s, is so rewarding because it is so challenging. It demands that the writer tell the truth about something elusive and often invisible that nevertheless motivates consequential human actions. But like other nonfiction genres, it rests on a foundation of characters, scenes, and the archives of memory, interviews, objects, and written texts. Whether you are religious or spiritual or neither, this class will help you meet the challenge and write more incisive, more inspiring, and more beautiful essays about religious lives.

Each week, we will analyze classic and contemporary spiritual nonfiction from St. Augustine to Meghan O’Gieblyn, to see how the best writers in this genre deal with self-representation, conflict, structure, and other elements of narrative nonfiction. We will also discuss works of craft and criticism to guide the process of writing your own essays. And, most important, we will practice workshop norms of respectful dialog and critique, with the aim of making everyone’s work better through revision. You will have the opportunity to workshop and get instructor feedback on two pieces, up to 4,000 words each. This class is open to beginning students and more experienced writers alike.

It would be wonderful to have you in this class! Again, info and registration is here. If you have questions, please just reply to this message.


I want to tell you about three new, and quite different, books by friends of mine.

The first one is by someone who’s more than just a friend: Love and Depth in the American Novel, by my wife, Ashley C. Barnes. It’s a work of literary criticism that focuses on the love story in later nineteenth-century American fiction, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Henry James. But it’s also about falling in love with literature, and with other people, through attention to the world around them. If that interests you, you can order the book at the publisher’s website (and get 30% off with code 10READ). Here’s an essay Ashley wrote a few years ago on a topic related to the book: sentimentality and the movie 12 Years a Slave. Ashley is truly brilliant, and I have seen her working on this book over many years and from coast to coast. I’m really proud of her!

Next is The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, by my friend and fellow Dallas nonfiction writer, A. Kendra Greene. I promise you have never read a book like this one, which is a series of essays on tiny, idiosyncratic museums in Iceland. (There are 265 museums in Iceland, a country of just 330,000 people.) For a sense of what Kendra is up to, you might read her essay on the Icelandic Phallological Museum that did not make it into the book. The essay, “Upright Members in Good Standing,” is about collecting specimens of penises, and getting rid of one. Kendra is an uncommonly good reader of her own work; she read the audio version of The Museum of Whales You Will Never See. She’s also an accomplished artist, and she did the illustrations. So maybe get both the print and audio versions?

And finally, my friend Elizabeth Barbour, who is a life coach in the Houston area, has just released a short e-book, Smart Self-Care for Busy Women, which is especially relevant at this moment of mass quarantine, when (if you are a busy woman) you perhaps still have to do your regular job while also doing a job you never signed up for: full-time teacher to your children. Elizabeth has a terrific knack for getting across her insights through brief, well-crafted anecdotes. Check her book out!

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Jon