Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Dealing with creative burnout

I’ve been reading articles about creative burnout – what it is, how you can tell, what you can do about it. Most of them deal with short-term burnout. The kind you feel at the end of a big project, along the lines of, ‘Oh, thank god it’s over, that nearly killed me, I did great stuff but now the tank is dry.’

Some people never feel like their tank is dry. They keep coming up with new ideas, they look forward to every day, they find ways to deal with procrastination, they might have several projects going at once … does that sound like you? I think, if it does, you are also quite good at pacing yourself and staying organised. You don’t have last minute meltdowns when a deadline approaches, you take time out or you have other things in your life to balance out the intensive work periods.

Things I have read that are designed to help the feeling of burnout include: take a break and go away for a few days; put aside everything and read or watch movies; go to see things that will inspire you again, like museums and galleries and exhibitions; go to places like the beach or the mountains. All good for when you’re exhausted from a project and need to restore yourself.

But what if your creative burnout goes deeper than that? So that a nice weekend or week away doesn’t really do anything? What if you are at the point of asking (continually), ‘What is the point? Who cares if I write/make art/create these things? If I stopped tomorrow, nobody would even notice.’ This goes way beyond natural despondency. This is not solved by well-meaning people saying, ‘You should just focus on writing for the enjoyment and love of it, and forget about the audience/publishing part of it.’

There is a very good book for this deep depression about your art, your writing. It’s ‘The Van Gogh Blues’ by Eric Maisel. Maisel writes a lot about creativity and fear and depression, and has some insightful things to say about it, along with a wide range of case studies that he shares. If nothing else, the book can show you you’re not alone. He talks about working out for yourself what matters – why you create, why you have stopped, how you feel and how to work through what matters and then move back to your work.

All the same, he’s not really talking about burnout. I think true creative burnout comes from years and years of working creatively, working at staying inspired (yes, often it does require work, the work of feeding the heart and mind), constantly coming up with ideas and creating art/stories/books, revising, re-envisioning, starting over, working with great ideas that fizzle out, presenting your work to an audience, marketing what you do and have created, talking about it, showing it, gathering new ideas, journaling about your ideas and process.

And then you get to the point of ‘so what’. 

It’s not even that you have run out of ideas, it’s more that you lack the impetus to take the ideas into something tangible. You have a list of projects you could be working on, but will anyone want them? Will anyone care? The effort of pushing through procrastination, fear and inertia is beyond you. Life around you seems to hold even more problems than before, but you can’t deal with them or brush them off by creating, in the way you used to. And other writers, who are still writing and feeling excited about their work, seem to be speaking another language now.

Yes, a lot of this is depression, there’s no denying it. If you are depressed, either because of the burnout or you felt that way anyway and the burnout makes it worse, knowing that doesn’t help to solve it. Because at its heart, deep creative burnout has no easy fix. In a world of instant gratification, instant supply of happy pills if you really want them, instant supply of excuses and reasons when you need them – nothing will fix it except time.

Like grief. There is no time limit or time recommendation on grief either. It just is, and you slog your way through it and come out the other end somehow, and some people don’t.

So what are my suggestions for deep creative burnout? First of all, recognise it. Sit alone for a whole day, or at least a few hours (completely alone with no phone or internet) and try to reach right inside yourself and work out how you really feel, and perhaps why. You could talk to a psychologist or counsellor, but it would need to be someone who ‘gets’ it. Try Maisel’s books, or other books on the topic. See if you can find someone else who has suffered from it and talk to them. 

Then try all those simple fixes (things that have re-inspired you before) and keep at them. Do lots of them on a regular basis, as your ‘therapy’. Recognise and accept that this is going to take a while. Be kind to yourself. Read a lot – read things you might never have tried before. Write or create in ways you have never tried before. Do a course in something completely different and new, like motor mechanics or art history or philosophy. Do activities with people who have nothing to do with writing or art. Listen to music that makes you feel great. Do ALL of these things.

Only write what you feel inspired to write. Don’t try to write ‘seriously’ (as in writing in awareness of audience and/or publication). Have an ideas book to capture things in, but don’t feel obliged to use it unless you really want to. Journal if you want to.

Hopefully at some point you will find yourself writing again and feeling no pressure, and looking forward to the writing. You will have a project that excites you, that makes you feel again like it’s all worthwhile. But I also hope that by then, you will have turned the corner of ‘why am I bothering’ and found your ‘destination’ – your reason for creating. Whatever that is. It has to be your reason, I think it has to relight that little fire inside you, and give you back the joy and inspiration.

It’s a long, hard road back to the little, warming fire again, when all you’ve had for months is ashes. Good luck. I’ll see you somewhere along the way.