I am running through a forest, searching for a path or a clearing or some sign that will signal my journey is nearing its end. But the trees don’t stop. So neither do I.
This is the best way I’ve come up with to describe creative burnout.
A lot of people think burnout is an automatic, forced shutdown — that you push your body and mind so hard for so long that you simply stop functioning. And for some people, this can happen at varying degrees of severity. It’s dangerous, unpleasant, and probably more widespread among creators than we know.
But even more dangerous, even more prevalent and unfavorable, is the more common “running through the forest” analogy. You can also compare it to running on a treadmill or hamster wheel. Burnout happens when you’re so worn down by your routines and rituals and work that you go on complete autopilot. You go through the motions, expecting there to be an end to it all, but an end often doesn’t come. Not until you or someone else forces an ending.
We could consider an “automatic shutdown” as the extreme consequence of burnout. The reason straight to autopilot burnout is so dangerous is that you often don’t realize the damage you’re doing to your body and mind. You keep running through the forest. Your body begs you to stop, your mind tells you to rest, but you’re so convinced that the edge of the trees is just up ahead that you do not stop.
This is physically exhausting. But what about the emotional impact of realizing you may never find the edge of the forest? Why don’t we talk about THAT?
I wish I could tell you I’ve only visited the forest a few times in my life. But the truth is that I’ve been lost inside it off and on for the past eight years.
Every time I find my way out I think, “You’re never going back there. Remember how this feels.” But I always go back.
Why do I keep returning to the place that tortures me? Because I can’t say no to new ideas. I’m too stubborn to leave things on the shelf. I’m worried that if I let things sit too long, they will disappear.
All excuses, true. This is a mindset that can be changed, or at the very least tamed. I’m not saying this is anyone or anything’s fault but my own. But I do want you to understand that as much as burnout affects creators physically and mentally, there is a third side effect that is also a trigger, creating a vicious cycle that will repeat itself for as long as you allow it to.
There was one stretch of time I was convinced the forest would keep me prisoner forever. It lured me in with false promises and kept me there with fear.
I chased every idea, every opportunity, every spark of inspiration that revealed itself to me. I figured that as long as I kept going after these things, eventually I would catch up. Eventually I would run out of ideas and opportunities and inspiration and I could finally, for a day, rest.
This is the classic cause of burnout among creators — sprinting toward a finish line that doesn’t actually exist until you go completely on autopilot and barely even register you’re still running.
What hurts much more than the constant, alternating push and pull to create is the emotional turmoil that overwhelms you when you realize you can’t keep up with your own mind’s demands.
Maybe this is just a “me” problem. Maybe I’m just broken and none of the advice I give to other writers about balance or sacrifice or productivity actually works for me personally.
But maybe I’m not the only one. Maybe this is just one of those things we don’t talk about. Because we’re afraid to? Because we’re ashamed? Because we’re embarrassed to admit that we’re not the unstoppable, sleep-deprived, “art before all else” creators everyone expects us to be?
Because we’re scared to admit we’re scared?
The truth is that over our lifetimes each of us will come in contact with more ideas than we can handle. Not necessarily all at once (though this can also happen, and often causes even more stress and frustration) but over years. Decades. All that time spent trying to tell every story we feel we have been called to tell.
There simply isn’t enough time. And you might think there could be, if all you did every day was write and create and do the absolute bare minimum to take care of yourself. But while this strategy might work just fine for some people, it’s not realistic for the majority of aspiring writers. Most of us have families. Day jobs. Other obligations. Many of us face roadblocks out of our control: Strained relationships, family members in need of our support, mental health struggles, unexpected Life Happenings.
This is why we have to live with the frustration that so often accompanies knowing we’ll never do everything.
We can do our best, we can do as much as our worlds allow. But we can’t do it all. We’re pretty amazing human beings, but we are, in the most basic definition, only human. We have limits, no matter how much we might love to believe these limits don’t apply to us.
I can’t speak for you, obviously. But I know I personally may never accept the fact that I have too many ideas, too many things I want to do. Too many passions, too many dreams and goals and hopes. I don’t have it in me to do it all. That, at least, finally, I can admit. I am terrified that my best ideas will fall between projects that once seemed to have so much potential. I’m worried that at the end of it all I will still say, “I wish I could have told that story.” Or, “I wish I could have made that thing.” Or: “I wish I’d used my time to make my words count.”
How do you prioritize ideas when every one of them matters to you?
The simple answer is that you don’t. You either choose one at random and run with it or you gather as many in your arms as you can and start sprinting, hoping and praying you will be able to return someday to the ones you were forced to leave behind.
Maybe you’re not as heartbroken as I am thinking of everything you might have to let go of. Maybe I’m just being overdramatic. It wouldn’t be the first time.
But if you’re struggling to handle the emotional weight of trying to survive the writing life in a world not designed with our kind in mind, know you’re not alone. At the very least, one person is right there with you, feeling the exact pain you are feeling.
I can’t promise it gets better. But it does give you plenty to think about, in those moments you start to wonder if working this hard is even worth the effort.
I’d like to believe it is. I’d like to have faith that even if we don’t write every story we hope to in this life, we’ll at least write one that will inspire someone else to tell the stories we had to leave behind.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.