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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.
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’.
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.
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.
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 and creative coach.