Posted by: Liz Massey | November 11, 2008

What do you do when the fire goes out?


Photo courtesy SXC.

One of the big draws of being creative is that it’s enjoyable. Hard work at times, yes, and becoming “fluent” in a discipline can take years of practice. But for many of us, regardless of whether we create for pay or strictly for fun, what we experience while we are creating is joy. That being the case, it’s only natural that if that feeling of joy stops and creating becomes a chore, feelings of dread often follow.

The good folks over at Lateral Action recently posted two terrific posts on how to survive creative burnout.

Post author Mark McGuiness leads readers through his take on the cycle of creative despair: obsession, perfectionism, hypersensitivity to criticism, control freaking, and the weight of expectations.

As Mark puts it:

“‘Work for work’s sake’ is the cardinal sin of the entrepreneur, to be avoided at all costs. For an artist, it’s taken for granted…. This single-minded dedication is admirable and necessary for creative work – up to a point.

“But there’s an imperceptible turning point, beyond which dedication spills over into obsession. And the work can suffer as much as the artist. You go beyond working hard, and start trying to force things, getting frustrated when it won’t turn out the way you want to.”

Pretty dark stuff. But while the dangers of creative burnout are real and can be quite serious (Mark mentions John Keats, Sylvia Plath and Joy Division singer Ian Curtis as examples of creative casualties), realizing these dangers exist also provides the opportunity to proactively plan a preventative regimen. Doing so can not only reduce the occurrence of or lessen the severity of burnout episodes, it can also provide a solid foundation upon which to build lasting, merit-worthy creative work.

Practices that can prevent or lessen creative burnout

1. Build a safety net of positive habits

Julia Cameron calls it building a “creative grid”; Twyla Tharp, the “creative habit.” Both women are referring to a highly individual mix of preparation rituals that can roll you into creative action more or less automatically. Examples of positive habits can include:

  • Walking/cycling/running/dancing
  • Journaling/stream-of-consciousness writing
  • Sketching or doodling
  • Meditation/prayer/spiritual reading

2. Learn to be content doing nothing.

Mark emphasizes the importance of not “forcing” ideas to come—and I agree. Learning to accept and utilize downtime is one of the greatest skills an artist can hone.

If you use the old Graham Wallace model (Preparation, Incubation, Intimation, Illumination, Verification) of idea-generation, you can always say during dry spells, “I’m incubating a couple of ideas right now,” and nap, read, or sit at the café with your friends until the creative flow returns.

Your mantra for using this practice? An old Spanish proverb: “How beautiful it is to do nothing, then rest afterwards.”

3. Do something for someone else.

Choose the subject and mode of your generosity carefully. Your act of kindness should not be directed toward someone you “owe” a creative deliverable (although being gracious never hurt anyone), and it may be sensible to explore giving via a medium in which you are not feeling the effects of burnout.

Baking cookies for strangers or crafting holiday ornaments for children in a group home can help lessen the self-obsession that burnout can bring on. It’s also a useful reminder that there is more to our lives—and our worth—than our creative work.

4. Don’t hesitate to get help if your creative burnout is intertwined with other life issues.

Creative success, as satisfying as it can be, can seem pretty hollow when you just lost someone close to you, when you’re grappling with chronic anxiety or severe depression, or when your relationship is on the rocks.

If psychotherapy doesn’t appeal to you, you can talk to clergy, your best friend, or members of a self-help or support group. Even the friendly folks at your local crisis hotline may be able to lend an ear.

Sorrow, trauma and fear have been the wellspring of many of humanity’s most deeply moving artworks, but it is much easier to harness the energy of those dark emotions if you are not actively being damaged by their impact on you.

5. Realize that this, too, shall pass.

One of the sagest comments on the original Lateral Action post was by John T. Unger, an artist, designer, blogger, writer and self-described “impossibility remediation specialist.” John has experienced and transcended burnout periods in several different disciplines, and had this to say:

“Most of the time when you’re burned out, the best you can do is stare into space… it isn’t going to get better until you’ve let some time go by and recovered your balance. Just like being sick.

“While you’re in that state of fear, nothing makes you feel any better until you manage to become conscious of it and see it as a cyclical event that will pass because it has come and gone before. Unfortunately, the only way to be aware of it as a cycle is to learn by going through it a couple times.”

I couldn’t agree more!

The questions to you

What have been your experiences of creative burnout? How did you get through them?

What factors do you think trigger your artistic burnouts?

Which of the practices listed above would be the hardest for you to put into practice? Why?


  1. Thank you for this timely article. I tend to throw myself into projects to the point of exhaustion, then feel awful when I can’t do anything more. Sometimes the right advice comes at the right time.

  2. […] It’s also worth noting that the practice of keeping a swipe file can be a daily creative habit that keeps one’s imagination supple, which can help prevent creative burn-out. […]

  3. […] What do you do when the fire goes out? […]

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