On Creative Burnout
There's nothing noble in working through burnout.
I had eight interviews in three days last week. Three, three, and two. The sight of my Trello board filled me with dread. I was exhausted just by looking at my schedule, but I trudged through and delivered eight pieces I’m proud of. I’m bad at taking the “slow down and work less” type of advice. Sometimes, I worry my only skill in life is the skill of overexertion. This means I am burnt out more often than not—I just don’t realize or name the beast. That said, I’m trying to be healthier with my craft habits, and with this newsletter to keep me accountable, I thought I would discuss the perils of working through creative burnout.
For one, when you’re burnt, any and all work you do will be lesser than if you were in a good mental place. The rested mind is more creative. That’s just science. Long ago, I did a piece on grinding mentality and the dangers of working while sleep deprived. One of the doctors I spoke with told me the following: “After one day of sleep deprivation, it was found that people have decreased verbal fluency. They have a decrease in originality and flexibility.”
The piece goes on to explain how sleep is crucial for rapping, and while that feels like a “duh” moment, we live in a society where burning out is noble. Let me tell you: There’s nothing noble about burning out—you’re not a better creative because you’re dead tired. You’re just dead tired.
I’ve fallen into this trap plenty of times. I constantly seek out ways to make myself feel special and feel like a real writer. So, it feels good to be exhausted, but that thinking is so horribly toxic. Working through burnout is physically uncomfortable. And though we’re socialized to believe making ourselves uncomfortable is the key to appearing productive, and appearing productive is the key to being valuable, all of that is fucking bullshit. You’re not a more pure artist because you’re grinding yourself to dust. Dust cannot produce art. Dust is dust. It seems obvious, but there’s so much guilt wrapped up in creatives setting boundaries and limits, stating the obvious feels revolutionary.
In October of 2019, I did an interview with Book Riot about creative burnout, where months prior, I was so burnt and so in denial of it, I was physically ill. “I knew I was creatively burnt out when the standard tasks of my job—editing, interviewing, pitching—were bringing me a deep sense of dread,” I said. “I felt like everything was suddenly insurmountable, and the process of writing itself was no longer making me happy. I was certain this could never happen to me because I like to view myself as a ‘machine’ that can work endlessly…But I’m only a person. And every person needs rest.”
The problem here is also obvious: No one is a “machine.” I still call myself a “machine,” or a “work horse,” and I still take pride in that—because I’m not perfect—but I’m trying every day to get away from that type of imaging and self-assessment. As a creative, I often like to think of myself as more than I am. Of course there’s ego involved in being an artist, but your ego should never get in the way of you being a person. I’ve long preached the value of the break, but I’m not so good at taking breaks. I’ll push myself through anything if it means I get to feel like I did more than the next person. Capitalist trick. I told you, there’s plenty of them.
That next person does not matter. Competition is a sham. Working through burnout only dulls your pen. The manic high of being exhausted and creating is not worth the crash. You’re much better off stepping away and working refreshed. A good writer is a comfortable and contented writer. A good writer knows and respects their own limits, and doesn’t worry about how their limits look up against the writers to their left and right. You live and die with yourself. Do right by yourself and your art will do right by you.