Have you ever experienced creative burnout? Maybe you’re feeling it right now. Once burnout sets in, it can last for weeks, months… even years. Feeling burnt out can make us feel like failures, like we’re not living up to our potential, like we’re not living up to our own high standards.
There’s no shame in feeling burnt out—and I don’t think I know any creative person who hasn’t gone through it.
Speaking personally, my creative inspiration doesn’t come to me in a steady, uninterrupted flow. I go through bursts of writing output, periods when new ideas fly out of me at high velocity… and then I stall out and go through periods when I feel totally lost, feeling my way through darkness, unable to get my feet under me. I just can’t seem to get going, and I question what I want to do with my life.
I suspect this is all pretty normal. I suspect that creative people who don’t show evidence of this waxing and waning teeter-totter may just be better at hiding it than I am.
So what do you do? Is there a way to get back up to speed more quickly?
(Before I answer that question and talk about what seems to work for me, let me detour for a moment to make an important point: there’s a difference between what I describe as creative burnout and what others experience as depression. If you suffer from depression, I encourage you to get the professional and spiritual help you need. While there may be things I can do to escape burnout, clinical depression is an entirely different matter and will often feel legitimately inescapable. Please access a support system.)
A few years ago, a professional mentor of mine gave me some helpful advice about how to deal with creative burnout, and it’s changed the ebb and flow of my life for the better. The advice went something like this: “When you’re feeling lost, when you’re in the proverbial weeds, return to your first influences.”
What does that mean?
It means, put simply, to remember the things that first inspired you to create art, to tell stories, and to go back to re-immerse yourself in those things.
These first influences are highly individual and will be different for everyone, but let me let my geek flag fly for a quick second. I’m an unabashed nerd! My first influence is… Star Trek. Something about that show’s optimistic, the-world-is-getting-better-all-the-time worldview resonated with me as a ten-year-old, and it still captures my imagination to this day. When I’m burnt out, taking a tour through Star Trek for a week or two helps to relieve my creative anxieties and reconnect me to what fired up my creativity in the first place.
It’s kind of like those old, steam engine trains from the early 1900s; it was someone’s job to constantly shovel coal into the engine to keep the train moving, otherwise, without fuel, the engine would stall.
Our creative engines operate in the same way. After a burst of inspiration, the engine will fire on all cylinders for a time, but before too long you’ll need to heave a shovelful of coal into the flames.
What’s your creative fuel? What are the first influences you need to return to in order for your engine to roar back to life?
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.