The Dark Side of Creativity: Burnout

This post is part of the Creative Rock Stars series.

Moon

Photo by computerhotline

Who wouldn’t want to be a creative rock star?

After all, rock stars astound their audience, they get paid to do what they love, they are worshipped by adoring fans, they can be who they want to be and work with other cool creative dudes. Some of them have so much money, fame and influence, they can put them to good use and give something back to the world around them.

But the rock star life can get pretty ugly. The job itself is demanding enough – composing new material to order, recording it in marathon studio sessions and promoting it on punishing tours. Dealing with eccentric colleagues, brutal management and hysterical fans would try the patience of a saint – and most rock stars are not saints. And it’s all played out in the glare of a media who would like nothing more to fill the front pages than your grisly, spectacular demise.

No wonder some of them wonder why they got into the business in the first place. The original spark of creative inspiration was extinguished long ago. All that’s left is a treadmill of writing, recording, touring, parties, arguments, drink, drugs and despair.

For me, film of the year in 2007 was Control. Having been a fan of Joy Division’s music for over 20 years I wasn’t exactly expecting a feelgood movie, but I was blown away by the devastating power of the story it told. It’s easy to romanticise artists who die young, like John Keats, Sylvia Plath, Jim Morrison or Joy Division’s singer Ian Curtis. But Anton Corbijn’s film shows the human tragedy behind the rock ‘n’ roll myth. As the film develops, the band’s growing fame and artistic success only serve to exacerbate Curtis’ personal problems. On the verge of a US tour to promote their second album, he fails to share the excitement of the rest of the band:

Unknown Pleasures [Joy Division's first album] was it. I was happy. I never meant it to grow like this. When I’m up there singing they don’t know how much I give, how it affects me.

In this case a number of factors contributed to the artist’s downfall – including epilepsy, depression and his tortured love life. But maybe we should also factor in the nature of creativity itself. Ian Curtis is not the only artist who has listened to the voice of the Muse, only for it to turn into a Siren song of death and destruction.

Now you may not be battling as many demons as Ian Curtis. And your work may not have the same existential intensity as Joy Division’s music. But if you take your creativity remotely seriously, you can probably recognise a tendency to one or more of the following symptoms of creative burnout. Tick too many of the boxes on this list and it could be time to take a break – for the sake of your health and well-being as well as for the quality of your work.

Obsession

For Tim Ferriss, ‘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. We’ve already looked at the role of intrinsic motivation and creativity – basically, we fall in love with our art and pursue it because it fascinates us. There are many amusing stories of creative types wandering around in a trance or locked away in their rooms, so taken up with their work that they forget to eat, shower or stay in touch with the world around them. One of my favourites is the author Steven Pressfield’s account of spending weeks writing in his little house with no TV or newspapers, only to be surprised when he overheard a neighbour talking about the resignation of the President.

I had missed Watergate completely.

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. If you’re wise, you take the proliferation of typos and mistakes as a hint that it’s time to take a break, recharge and return later on with a clearer head. Otherwise you keep banging your head against that brick wall. The artist has become a workaholic.

But this kind of obsession isn’t just about overwork – it can get to the point where your creative vision consumes all your attention and everyday life fades out of your awareness. The consequences depend on the nature of your vision. If you’re obsessed with the structure of the universe as Einstein was, then the worst that can happen may be a reputation for comic eccentricity – putting your coat on with the coat hanger still inside it, and so on. But for an artist whose imagination runs on darker themes, there’s a danger of turning away from life, and in the words of John Keats, falling ‘half in love with easeful death’.

Perfectionism

Robert Smith spoke for legions of creatives when he sang ‘It’s Never Enough’. However much we achieve, however pleased we are with our latest work, whatever praise or awards we win, we are never satisfied. And this is as it should be. Perfection may be elusive, but the vision of it spurs us on to greater efforts. It stops us resting on our laurels and settling for mediocrity. The same goes for the example of the great masters in any creative field. I may be pleased with a poem I write, especially if it’s accepted for publication. But I only have to open a volume of Shakespeare or Dante or Eliot to be reminded of how much I have to learn.

But like dedication, perfectionism has a dark side. Martha Graham’s ‘divine dissatisfaction’ degenerates into pedantic nitpicking and grumpiness. Your inner critic berates you from morning to night, reminding you of your failures, your mistakes your shortcomings, castigating you for daring to think yourself worthy of creative achievement. As with obsession, you can have too much of a good thing – instead of raising your standards, self-criticism stops you in your tracks.

Hypersensitivity

Why are creative people so sensitive to criticism of their work? Because our work is not just something we do, it’s an expression of who we are. As Gustave Flaubert put it:

A book is essentially organic, part of ourselves. We tear a length of gut from our bellies and serve it up.

So when the critics get their knives out, it feels like a direct personal attack. When nobody comes to the show it feels as if your innermost soul has been rejected. And again, this is as it should be – up to a point. If you didn’t care enough to put your heart and soul into your work, there would be no reason for anyone else to care about it. But if you really want to improve, you have to learn to let go of the work, to stand back and appraise it coldly, to see whether it measures up to the standards you aspire to. And you have to be able to listen to others’ feedback and see whether you can learn from it. Otherwise you set yourself up for a world of pain each time you present your work to an audience.

Control Freakery

You can probably see where the control freak comes in. If you’re obsessed by your work, driven to achieve perfection and regard any flaws in the work as stains on your inner soul, is it not the most natural thing in the world to want to control every aspect of the process? How could you trust anyone else to do it as well as you? As the old saying goes, if you want a job done properly you have to do it yourself. All the jobs.

And of course you can guess how it ends. The control freak can only spin so many plates before he misses one and it smashes – then another and another. If he doesn’t get help it won’t be long before he finds himself standing in the wreckage of his shattered dream.

The Weight of Expectation

Success may breed success – but it also breeds expectations, in other people as well as yourself. I’ve written before about ‘difficult second album syndrome’ – the quotation from Control above is a classic example of this. When recording Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division were free to concentrate on their music. But by the time they made Closer they had a passionate following and increasing pressure to deliver on their touring and recording commitments. One of the most telling scenes in the film is of a gig shortly after Curtis has made a suicide attempt. He’s clearly in no mood to go on stage, but with an angry crowd yelling for the band, the manager Rob Gretton is torn between making sure the singer is okay and trying to prevent a riot:

You all right Ian? You ready to go on?

When he does get out on stage, it’s clear that the baying crowd have absolutely no concern for Curtis the person, only what he can deliver for them. It’s like a pack of dogs trying to get at a fox. When he fails to deliver, fleeing the stage, they tear the place apart.

====================

The individual symptoms of creative burnout are bad enough – but notice how they’re all linked together, mutually reinforcing. Perfectionism naturally leads to obsession. When the work falls short of expectations, the words of the inner critic are all the more painful because we are hypersensitive to criticism. Fear of criticism and desperate perfectionism are what drive the control freak to take on more and more responsibility. And the more responsibility you claim, the more promises you make, the more things you forget, the more mistakes you make. Which brings that weight of expectation crashing down with a vengeance.

There are no simple solutions to creative burnout, but rest assured these are issues we’ll return to on Lateral Action. The first and most important step is to be aware of the symptoms, and to take them as a cue to slow down, maybe even take a break altogether, and take care of yourself.

It’s also important to talk to people around you, and get help and support when you need it. Creative burnout can be a very lonely place – but it’s amazing what a difference it can make when you realise that others have been through similar experiences and learned valuable lessons from them.

Over to you

Have you experienced any of the symptoms of creative burnout?

How did you overcome them?

Who or what was most helpful to you?

How do you structure your work habits to safeguard against burnout?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet, creative coach and co-founder of Lateral Action. Subscribe today to get free updates by email or RSS.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. I recognise the hypersensitivity and control freakery symptoms in some of the people we work with. Even people who don’t consider themselves ‘creative’ feel highly invested in their business, so much so it can be hard for them to take the next step and get out there and launch it.

    It’s a struggle for them to ‘divorce’ criticism of their product or service from criticism of themselves

    Great post, thanks very much!
    Jayne

  2. Wow, this one really struck a personal chord. I think every creative person has gone through “the burnout factor” at least once or twice. Usually takes me a solid week or two away from the craft. Then something happens to make me fall in love with it all over again. ;)

    Btw – you might want to do an article analyzing Axl Rose and his never-ending “Chinese Democracy” project. From what I’ve read, his 14+ years in the making album (finally due for release 23NOV08) is the ultimate exercise in hypersensitivity, perfectionism, and the unwillingness to settle for anything less than perfection. Some people speculate that he’s tried to create the “best rock album of all time.”

    Here are some links:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/06/arts/music/06leed.html

    ^^ NY Times, “The Most Expensive Album Never Made”

    http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1595991/20080930/guns_n_roses.jhtml

    ^^ MTV, “Chinese Democracy Was Never Meant to be Heard”

  3. Lisa Cruz says:

    Letting go of perfectionism has been an on-going process for me. I try to do the best I can do each minute of the day and beyond that I have no control. I am learning how to lose control.

    As for creativity burnout – I know when my “bucket” is empty. When thoughts aren’t swirling around in my head, when there’s nothing but a blank slate and coming up with ideas is painful, that is my burnout.

    Because of that I have learned the importance of taking time off. The goal is to not wait until the bucket is empty but to be proactive about taking time off frequently before it happens.

    The best thing about getting older is you figure these things out, finally!

  4. I dropped a bowl yesterday…it smashed into many pieces…my son said, “Wow, Mom, that was one of our favorite bowls…”

    Your words got me thinking…I am in the midst of an obsession, creative/meaning building. The words you used, so man spinning plates, one is bound to drop, has actually/literally happened.

    I need to step back…take a broader look at this obsession that is running my days.
    Thanks,
    Susan

  5. This is a big focus for my work and my life — I help people with creative burnout because I have struggled with it so much. For me, creative burnout is often, but not always, a natural cycle gone awry. We usually need to rest between projects, ideas, bouts of thinking and creating yet we rarely do – or not at least, without beating ourselves up for being human and needing to rest.

    Also what can create/ prolong creative burnout for me is:
    Not taking time to learn new things
    Getting caught in the hurry up cycle
    Not taking care of my creative self i.e. regular spiritual practice, creativity for the sake of being creative not productive

    All of which have a time element to them!

    And this is all exacerbated by the need to earn a living which i have as a creative person for 18+ years.

    Which can feel like another time element as in fill the bank account already, baby needs new shoes.

    Hmmm… time and creative burnout seem related, for me, at least.

    Good post! Thanks for getting me thinking about another angle on one of my fav subjects.

  6. Thanks for the great comments guys.

    Jay — brilliant example, thanks for the references. I may use Axl Rose in another post (if Brian doesn’t beat me to it!) and will definitely credit you if so.

    Lisa –

    The goal is to not wait until the bucket is empty but to be proactive about taking time off frequently before it happens.

    Absolutely, if easier said than done sometimes!

    Susan — for some reason I tend to break classes rather than crockery, but I recognise the situation. :-)

  7. Jennifer:

    For me, creative burnout is often, but not always, a natural cycle gone awry. We usually need to rest between projects, ideas, bouts of thinking and creating yet we rarely do – or not at least, without beating ourselves up for being human and needing to rest.

    Yes, one of the tricky things about creativity is that sometimes working harder doesn’t work — we need to take time out, which doesn’t sit easily with our inner boss.

  8. Mark, I’ve been thinking about a “Chinese Democracy” post all morning. Unless CD actually does turn out to be the greatest rock record ever, Axl will have given us a perfect case study in the evils of perfectionism.

  9. Well let’s just hope it’s a turkey. :-)

  10. Yeah, I’ve definitely had all these symptoms at one time or another, and learning to deal with them effectively took a long time.

    There’s one more symptom that I think you missed, which is that when you reach the stage of creative burnout, there’s a fear that you may never get back to a state of healthy creative production, or maybe even *any* creative production… I’ll give a couple examples of that fear, and then show how overcoming the fear helped me to overcome all of the other symptoms as well.

    My first first creative career was as a poet and writer. For about 15 years, that was my main gig. I had some moderate success critically if not financially. Every now and then, I’d reach a wall and stop writing. The words just seized up and I would begin to fear that they weren’t going to come back again. Ever. I’d start looking at the most recent piece I had written and wondering whether it was in fact the last piece I’d ever write. It’s difficult to describe just how terrifying this can be if your whole life is wrapped up in identifying with the work… It’s like being erased. It felt like a degenerative disease where I retained just enough awareness to watch as my consciousness melted away.

    There were a number of specific things I could do (diving into the work of other writers I admired, revisiting my unfinished work and notes, or taking a sudden turn to new subject matter) to try to get the juices flowing again— I think most creative people have got some system that works for them sooner or later. But, 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.

    The same cycle has happened to me as a visual artist, as a blogger, as a coder, as a designer… basically in any creative endeavor I’ve taken seriously. When I switched to visual art from poetry, I was just as terrified the first time or two that I realized I hadn’t made any art for a while. And then I remembered having the same experience with writing and recognized the cycle for what it is. Having seen it before made me less afraid of it, and knowing that I had experienced it in more than one creative discipline helped me to realize that if I was finished with what I had to say in one medium, I could always try bringing the creative process to yet another medium.

    How does this relate to the other symptoms above? Essentially, if you can make down time a part of your creative process and recognize it as a naturally occurring break, it will help you to keep the other obsessive behaviors in check. When your creative mind feels blocked, it’s probably time to take a rest, step back and reassess your work to date, look for new ideas or challenges, pay some attention to the relationships or obligations you may have ignored while in the white heat of working, etc. Try to see it it as a good thing, as a cycle, as a balance, as a safety measure. Hell, as a vacation even.

    Trying to force it isn’t gonna do you any good. Put your stuff away and ignore it for a bit. Do other stuff. If you’re really wired for creative work you will eventually get bored and start some small project just to amuse yourself, and before you know, the project has grown huge, become something cool and inspiring, and generated ideas for yet more projects. There you go, you’re back!

    • …Good to read this following a tail spin of creative burn out which is still “scorching” my insides..

      . I’m also a poet and after 15 years writing a series of poems – I linked them in a narrative, inspired by Dante after three years studying his text – Then in a burst of God knows what – I staged a theatre production of the odyssey with musicians and an actor …I don’t know where the energy came from but in the space of six months- I produced a book of the poems, produced and directed this vision . The response was overwhelming and I thought that was what was wrong with me…

      I felt completely flattened and heading into a depression of sorts – bouts of grief depleted my energies and the next thing I knew – I felt nothing for my work …the passion that had defined my life for so long just disappeared …it was like a romance that suddenly hit a wall and felt over …

      I didn’t recognise myself and It frightened me and yet something about it felt slightly familiar – I’d been here before but it just less pronounced and I’d forgotten what it was like …what it was like to feel “burn out”…

      Reading this has been reassuring …I’m not forcing the next step however demanding it feels ( others want details of the next show ) . I cleaned windows yesterday and it was great !. I’m back to cooking which I love and doing very little besides …I’m not back but I’m not lost either …I’m finding my way …

      • Vladimir says:

        As many sites as I’ve created… I gotta tell you, the internet finally is helping me with something serious. It has been an absolute nightmare. I got burned out right in the middle of building an agency. I hate how this appears in the exact time that everyone is counting on me to pull off the creative. I am beyond terrified that it will never come back. I almost feel like my shoulders and back are tingling the same way my head used to when i was feeling every shade of color and impact of composition. Now… i take the photoshop colors from one extreme to another and nothing… .nothing singing in my head or shifting gears of emotion. It’s plain horrible. I can’t wait for it to come back… otherwise I’m gonna go manufacture pencils for a living. Is it just clogged? Is there a plunger? Is it possible to design one?

  11. oh John, thank you for that! I’m still very shaking and doubting as I come out of my own will I ever create and who am if I don’t phase. It’s actually stoking my newest project which is about fear! Who knew fear and I were going become such a good friends?

    Where are you on the web? Love to follow you, know your work. Thanks for making my day warmer and less fearful.

  12. I think I relate most to the “weight of expectation.” I have some mental habits that I’ve noticed lately, which are not that helpful. It’s like a habit of overwhelm. Controlling the creativity, however, as in “safeguards I have in place” so that I don’t end up in burnout, is not that helpful either.

    Creativity is so organic, so seeming chaotic, that organizing systems have always failed me. The best thing I’ve done so far is accept that I have a certain amount of chaos inherent in my creations, and be very aware when I do complete something I’m happy with. Remind myself that I do this. I forget. I’m a published author, and I even forget that.

    Today, my birthday, I fly to London and on to Paris, a beautiful gift to renew and recalibrate. I look forward to more time with you and all the innovators here.

    Isn’t it fantastic to be working and playing in the fields of online communication? The expansiveness is heady, and one more factor in creative chaos.
    Kudos to you all,
    Suzanna

  13. Consider this shared on Facebook and emailed. Thank you for this. I’ve been trying to articulate it forever but couldn’t find the words. I know, totally cheesy. But, thanks.

  14. Oh do I love your blog!

    Even when you point out all my nasty side – have you been watching me through that ‘Rear Window’ again??

    I furtively agree to put my hand up to all of the dark side in me! LOL

    In my old ‘professional singing days’ I was truly handicapped by these – most especially the perfectionism gene – it is a great way to sabotage oneself I found out!

    These days I am into the writing and creating and have found a way to kick the saboteurs and come up singing for joy!
    The dark side has become my friend – it is such a great spawning ground for the other bits – wondrous creativity and the sheer joy of accomplishment.

    Embrace your dark side folks – it holds lots of goodies!

    Melody

  15. Fantastic analogy and breakdown (no pun intended) and so very true. Perfection and obsession there is a fine line and often they both lead down the path of ruin.

    I guess it really is important to stop and smell the roses.

  16. Hey, luisishere from Twitter here…

    You’ve written an excellent and thoughtful article, and I think a lot of people could benefit from reading this.

    One thing (other than fear, which was already mentioned (and a big part of my creative burnout sessions) is environment. You touched up on it, but I think it requires more attention.

    For the creative person who’s working in a place that does not nurture creativity is a big contribution to creative burn out. When there is a constant barrage of negativity, whether it’s towards you, your work, or between others on a daily basis, it can be emotionally draining. Then it plays with your self worth. Negative self-talk kicks in, and you’re stuck in a cycle between anger, fear, and apathy.

    Some people have the strength to fight it. Others may not know how. Then obsession, perfectionism, expectations all play their part. The ‘fun’ factor was thrown out the window long ago.

    Also, great Steven Pressfield quote. That book should be required reading for all art students and english majors.

    Thank you for this article.

  17. Had to read this post again, it’s that good.

    The Ian Curtis example of going on stage reminded me of a similar rock and roll tale:

    That’ll keep you going for the show, come on, it’s time to go.

    It’s no wonder that comfortably numb becomes attractive when others force you to carry on when you’re done with it.

  18. Wow, phenomenal comments, thanks everyone.

    John — you’re absolutely right. It’s so easy to panic when the inspiration dries up or doesn’t strike for a while. If we’d just relax and go with it, we’d probably discover it’s part of a larger cyclical pattern — but it takes experience and patience to find that out.

    Jennifer, Melody — whether fear and darkness are going to be our constant companions on the journey, I guess we may as well make friends with them. :-)

    Suzanna — happy birthday!

    Luis — Good to see you here. Yes, environment and especially the people around you have a huge influence, so we need to choose our colleagues wisely! I’ll be touching on that a little in tomorrow’s post.

  19. ‘Creative burnout can be a very lonely place – but it’s amazing what a difference it can make when you realise that others have been through similar experiences and learned valuable lessons from them.’

    This quote and the comments following are what sums up my experience having ventured into following blogs, facebook, writing blogs.

    I wrote in my own blog about losing your creativity in an environment that doesn’t quite get you or what you’re about (in the small Caribbean islands, this is often the case) Luis, I hear you! and Mark, thanks for the encouraging words.

    My (few) readers are probably getting a bit familiar with the blog name Lateral Action, but what’s said in this post is said so well – so frankly, and the shared experience lifts you up on fresh breezes. Gotta send my few here for a read again!

  20. Finola — that pretty well matches my experience of the blogging community, a wonderful source of support and inspiration. Some good stuff on your blog, keep up the good work!

  21. I’m a media student and currently having assignment due next week. It made me frustrated because I was being expected (or most likely I expect myself) to come up with a creative writing. And reading this post made me realise that most of the points you were talking about is true, especially the “Weigh of Expectations”

    Gonna kick out some of the weigh and take a deep breath to relax.

    Wish me luck for my finals!

    Thanks, Mark! This is such a great post that I should never forget.

    Cheers,
    Patsy

  22. Wow! How timely. Just in the midst of my own little self-doubt party today and consumed with fear about finding another idea. I wondered if I had been granted a finite amount of creativity that I had run through too quickly. Then it started to flow again.

    It is pretty tough when you feel out of control – that you are the slave and the idea is the master but that is half the fun I think.

    Thanks for giving words to this in such an eloquent way. It helps to know that others wrestle with similar demons.

  23. Patsy – hope I’m not too late to wish you good luck! Relax and focus on the work and you should be fine.

    Geni – I think we all wrestle with the demons, it makes it easier once you realise it’s a normal part of the process…

  24. Kendall Geiger says:

    the blessing of creativity is something nobody can take from you once inherited the power is in he or she hands they can bless other people . I’m a mental health individual who has been treated like I’m not a human being two cities I will share the blessing of creativity with

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