I’m an advocate for making creativity a joyful, exploratory part of everyday life. I believe “the arts” don’t only belong in the studio or on the stage, but in our day-to-day. However, there are times as an artist that creativity doesn’t feel so joyful. It’s hard, uncomfortable, and the muse just isn’t speaking. This is called creative burnout.
Is it just me, or does it seem that the times you desperately want-or need- to create are the times you’re experiencing creative burnout? You try to create, but you just can’t find the inspiration. Jack London wisely said, “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club”. How exactly does one do that? Below are five “clubs” I use to root out inspiration.
Julia Cameron prescribes a once weekly artist date. An artist date is an event or activity designed to explore something that interests you. It can be obviously art related or not. You could see a play or a movie you’re longed to see, or sit down to listen to a record without doing anything else. Think of it as “courting the muse”. As a mother of a 10-month-old, I am unable to do this every week, but I try to take myself on artist dates somewhat regularly, even if in my case, that means doing something with the baby. Do what works for you. They don’t have to be expensive or elaborate. My first artist date back in the day was buying myself a 100 pack of Crayola crayons and going to town on big sheets of white paper. It was silly and fun and made me feel more free as an artist, which is something I desperately need as a recovering perfectionist! This artist date also doesn’t have to directly collaborate with your artistic discipline. Speaking of which…
Athletes practice cross training: the intentional practice of training in a discipline other than their main sport. Asking their bodies to do an action they’re not used to makes their muscles stronger and more flexible. It also helps prevent injury and burnout.
The threat of creative burnout as an artist is very real. It is extremely easy in this competitive world to lose the sense of joy and curiosity that led you to create in the first place.
Intentionally trying something new as an artist can put you in the place of a kid with crayons. Suddenly you’re not trying to “achieve” as an artist, you are simply creating, and seeing what happens.
Cross training not only helps you become a happier artist in the long term, it can help you solve artistic problems in the short term. Here’s an example:
When I was in high school, I was accepted into the now-defunct Presidential Scholars Regional ARTS program. I participated in the Musical Theater category, and my teachers assigned me a new musical number to work on during the week: “The Miller’s Son” by Steven Sondheim. This song tells a story that I as a 17-year-old couldn’t truly understand. At that point in my life I simply did not have the perspective to “get” that song and perform it authentically. I struggled. My teachers were frustrated with me. I tried to muscle my way through, but simply could not tell a “real” story with that song.
Finally, one night I locked myself in my room with a recording of the song and crayons. I just colored and drew as I listened, got up and “performed” by myself, sat down and colored again. I did this for hours. I wish I could tell you specifically what happened, but I can’t. Art is elusive like that. All I know is, I reached a new understanding of that song. The next day I shocked my teachers, and shocked myself. Because I had broken out of just desperately trying to “get it right” and had “played”, my brain made this breakthrough. Cross training is valuable as an artist because it enables you to get out of your head and enjoy creating.
Writer/director Joss Whedon credits this practice with the creation of his cult-hit TV show Firefly. Whedon had just finished reading The Killer Angels and immediately felt the need to tell its story…. but on the Millennium Falcon. Whedon explains, “if I only watched sci-fi I only would have had the Millennium Falcon part, which has already been done…” Because he made a practice of “filling the tanks” with a variety of sources, he could put two unlikely ideas together to create an original, beloved story.
Not sure where to start? Trade books with a friend. Or try the library. You can try your hand at CD’s, DVD’s, and books with absolutely no investment other than your time.
Have fun with this! The goal of course is to challenge you, but don’t interpret that to mean you must go out and find the dullest, most “improving” book or film. Follow where your fancy leads you, and feel the joy seeping back into your creative practice.
I am blessed to live blocks from the Mississippi River. One of my very favorite things to do is to take a long walk by the river with a favorite person and just talk. Something about the confluence of nature, intentional time, and the person I hold dear just brings me so much joy.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be by the river, and it doesn’t have to be a walk. Find a way to spend intentional time with someone you admire. This should be a voice conversation, not email or text. The point here is to get into a conversational groove This person who “inspires you” doesn’t have to be an artist. You don’t have to talk about art. Just making the time to have a “real” conversation with someone means you are inviting a new perspective to consider, a new book recommendation, a new story from their life. Filling up that bucket gives you protection from creative burnout.
There are moments in life that you must push yourself. Speak tough love to yourself. Then there are times you need to show yourself grace, and admit you need a break. Both are valid, both are valuable.
The problem is, in our culture right now, we really err on the side of tough love. We like pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We like feeling like we can do it all. The thing is, when we only show ourselves tough love, never nurturing love, we start treating ourselves like machines, not like human beings. Produce, produce, produce, we say! And we get frustrated with ourselves when we don’t perform the way we want to.
If you are not performing the way you believe you should, it could be because, rather than not working hard enough, you’re experiencing burnout. You have nothing more to give.
If you are mentally and physically drained, you do not have the extra brain space to create. Your brain is maxed out with every day functions. Next time you get frustrated with yourself for not performing the way you want to, realize your brain is doing the best it can. Reward it, nurture it, be kind to it. And then see the work it can really do when it’s feeling taken care of.
Creative burnout can happen to anyone, no matter your art form. Next time it slinks up on you, don’t despair. You have five “clubs” in your toolbox ready to go after that inspiration and take it down. Which one are you going to try first?