On creative burnout
They say you can't run out of creativity. But what if you do?
Have you ever felt like you can’t take another photograph / write another word / draw another picture ever again?
As creatives, and especially when we earn a living through our creativity, whether it’s selling paintings, making movies, writing books, being hired to photograph weddings, or getting public funding to make our work, we are constantly under pressure to “ship” creativity, to produce on demand, to keep making things. More, better, faster, rinse and repeat.
Maya Angelou famously said in 1982, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have” and it has since become an Internet meme, guilting us into creative productivity (the point she was making, in context, was actually rather different, as she talked about everyone being capable of creativity given the right environment).
There is a multitude of books written that teach us how to maintain a creative practice, from the famous The Artists Way to The War of Art (which I do highly recommend - under the right circumstances!) to Seth Godin’s The Practice.
But I think there’s a massive difference between a temporary difficulty of a writer’s block or finding yourself in a creative gap (Ira Glass explains it best) which can be overcome with morning pages and the consistency of practice, and true creative burnout which leaves us empty, mentally paralysed and unable to, well… create anything at all.
And I don’t think we talk nearly enough about it.
Burnout refers to a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion typically caused by prolonged stress or excessive work demands. It can manifest as extreme or even debilitating fatigue, lack of motivation, and severely diminished productivity. It can affect anyone, whatever they do. At its worst, it can lead to more serious - and permanent - health problems, as prolonged burnout weakens the immune system, making you more susceptible to infections and illnesses (been there, done that, do not recommend).
Creative burnout, on the other hand - at least in my experience - still allows you to function reasonably well as a human being, but leaves you depleted of creative energy and inspiration. You may feel disconnected from your work or creative passion, unable to continue with a project you’ve spend months or years working on, or simply incapable of making any kind of creative work at all. It may not sound terribly bad, but because for many artists being creative is a huge part of who we are as human beings, this can leave us feeling utterly and completely broken or even depressed.
One of the worst creative burnouts happened to me in the Spring of 2020. The constant anxiety I felt as the world was rapidly shutting down, compounded by a difficult slow-motion breakdown of a decade-long relationship, meant that I found myself completely drained of any creative juice.
Same storm, different boats, and my boat was sinking.
While everyone around me seemed to be perfectly capable of documenting their difficult pandemic experiences through poignant photography and writing, I seriously questioned whether I would pick up my camera ever again. That was bad, because for over 10 years prior I lived and breathed photography. Being a photographer was my identity. Before, even when I was severely burnt out physically, I was still making photographs, wanted to make photographs even if I didn’t always have the physical strength to.
But this time it felt very different - and I won’t lie, it was a bit scary, especially when it went on for a while.
Oftentimes, the advice we are given to overcoming creative blocks is to push through them, make a plan, go through the motions, and come out on the other side victorious. Well, that wasn’t working for me - not to begin with, anyway.
In my case, recovering from creative burnout looked like doing nothing. Quite literally.
Doing nothing sounds easier than it actually is - well, for me at least. My AuDHD (autistic + ADHD) brain has workaholic tendencies and constantly guilts me into activity and productivity at every step of the way. Even when I appear to be resting, my brain is whirring at me like an overheated computer, telling me I’m a failure and I need to get back in the saddle, immediately, or I’ll miss out on EVERYTHING. Yes, it’s that dramatic, all the bloody time.
But fortunately (not quite the right word, but I’ll go with it) I’ve been through burnout before, and I knew there’s no use in trying to make my body or mind do what they can’t. I also knew (spoiler alert) that there’s light at the end of the tunnel - I just needed to be patient, let go of expectations or any sort of timeline for recovery, and just be.
So I did nothing. I engaged in mind-numbing activities such as re-watching Grey’s Anatomy for the umpteenth time, and crushing it at Candy Crush in between bursts of gardening sessions (I don’t like gardening or have any patience for it, but for once it didn’t feel like a chore and I found odd comfort in working with my hands instead of my brain), letting go of guilt or any vision of the end goal.
I disengaged online. There’s nothing more soul-crushing than watching everyone’s creativity flourish when yours is at all-time low. So I deleted Instagram off my phone, stopped participating in the multitude of amazing free photography classes that suddenly sprung up online during the first year of the pandemic, and I retreated into my cocoon.
Eventually, after a couple of months, I was able to pick up my camera again. I took it on my daily walks and photographed things I normally wouldn’t: dirt, water, motion blur of flowers. There was no reason to take the photographs, no one to show them to, no expectation for them to be good or serve any purpose, and that was incredibly freeing and allowed my creativity to reignite, as I was slowly, tentatively rebuilding my creative muscles.
I continued taking photographs like this for almost two years, even when I felt fully recovered from that particular episode of creative burnout. The culmination of this process is my body of work called Beauty Hunting which I’m self-publishing as a book later this year. I wasn’t trying to make it, it just kind of… happened.
I’m not saying this because I think every creative burnout experience should or will lead to a new body of work. Far from it - that kind of toxic creative productivity mindset is what I am trying to get away from! It’s really more of a reminder - to myself more than anything - that when we allow ourselves to rest, to not be “on” all the time, wonderful things can happen that would not have happened otherwise.
My experience is far from unique. While you can never insure yourself against world- and life-altering events that halt your creativity, burnout can creep up on you when you least expect it.
I asked my Instagram community if they’d ever experienced creative burnout, and ended up having some really interesting conversations in my DMs!
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Photographer and curator Vera Hadzhiyska said she experienced extreme creative burnout while working on a big publicly funded project. She had been working non-stop for several months, putting herself under pressure to do well, to stick to a timeline, when it hit. She said, “I didn't even want to think about the project. I didn't want to talk to people, photograph, do anything”.
Photographer @becca.el on Instagram shared this with me: “I am going through burn out right now. I hate everything I take. It all looks the same and I am cynical about that sameness. Why shoot that, it’s already been photographed? It’s all been done! Nothing is interesting anymore.”
Writer and photographerpointed out that burnout is a particularly common experience when you are neurodivergent: “I feel like I have been in and out of it for the past 30 years or so.”
And photographer Fardo Dopstra said she went through creative burnout when she only ever did client work, and overscheduled herself. She said, “I could not even pick up my camera to photograph something in my own life as I dreaded having to add it to the editing pile”.
Burnout can look and feel different for everyone, and so does recovery from it. If you feel burnout creeping in, here are a few things - in no particular order - you can do to recover from it (or better yet, prevent it from ever happening).
Stop what you’re doing - do something else.
For Vera, hitting creative burnout meant she had to stop working on her project completely: “I had to take a proper break away from thinking about the project for around four to five months and focused on my other interests - curating and Korean art and culture. I spent time doing some research in that area and even travelled to Korea. This felt rejuvenating as it was new and I didn't have pre-existing expectations or pressures I'd put on myself like I did with my project”.
Stopping working on something you really want to see through to completion is in no way easy. “It was really hard stepping away from it as I felt guilty taking a break, but I forced myself and that helped me bring back my inspiration and motivation”.
Establish better creative work boundaries.
As creatives, we do what we do because we love it so much, so it can be hard to say no to things, but sometimes it’s what it takes to avoid creative burnout.
For Fardo, taking on less client work, being more selective with the kinds of jobs she does take, outsourcing some of the soul-crushing tasks like editing, and - most importantly - doing more personal work helped get out of creative burnout: “I figured that in order to be a complete human being, I need to have my own life that serves me and my husband, and not just other people. That means weekends with no jobs planned. That means carving out an hour here and there to work on photos of my cat or my niece and nephew.”
Set yourself free from expectations of an end result.
Sometimes big creative projects can zap our creativity because they become too structured or too demanding. “I battle that fear of missing out - not towards other photographers but from myself”, says @becca.el .
But creative work is not the same as other work, and it can’t always follow traditional input/output formulas and schedules of production. While it’s not possible to avoid those when you do creative work for others, letting go of expectations, playing, and giving yourself freedom to do things without any particular goal or end result in mind when it comes to your personal creative work can be liberating - and just what you need to find your creative feet again.
That’s just what Vera Hadzhiyska did, starting to work with materials intuitively, letting the project unfold more naturally, and following her gut feeling to find her way back into it. That allowed her to create a new approach, one with fewer deadlines and expectations, so she can continue her important work long-term.
And know that this will likely happen again - and will pass.
I’ve come very close to having another creative burnout a few times since 2020. I know that it usually happens when I overwork and over-schedule myself, and don’t leave enough time for creative play and rest (no surprises there - hey, I’m still learning). But I can sense them coming on now, and try to take pre-emptive action, sticking an autoresponder on, deleting social media off my phone, and taking a couple of days off to read in bed, binge of Young Sheldon, or go to the seaside to breath in the salty air (that always seems to help).
I’m still working on finding that elusive balance between shipping creative work for clients, and making time to do important personal work that fuels my creativity. And I’m still figuring out how to not feel guilty about taking breaks, feel okay with moving at a slower pace than I’d like to, and how to not compare myself to others who seem to be forging ahead at a steady pace, sans any signs of burnouts.
It’s all work in progress, and I’m here for it.