On Burnout and the Slow Rebuilding

12/22/16

True story: I started my career as an artist ten years ago as eager a beaver as you can imagine. I was the textbook illustrator and artist at the beginning of her career (except for that I was already in my late 30’s when I began). I was building my client base, finding my voice, experimenting with mediums, building my portfolio and dreaming about where I wanted to go next. It was scary, yes (I made no money for the first three years), but I loved it. I was motivated in a way I had never been motivated to do anything in my life. It took me about four years to really get going, and then once I did, opportunities began happening for me very quickly.

Since 2010, I have written and/or illustrated 15 books (seven of those my own) and worked with over 65 illustration and licensing clients. I’ve also recorded nine classes, 21 podcasts and stood on stage and spoken at 27 different events. Just this past year alone I flew on 28 different airplanes. Amazing things have happened for me in the past six years. I’ve worked with fantastic clients and on dream projects. I do not take those things lightly. I am enormously grateful for every opportunity I’ve had. I feel extremely lucky.

But (and this is not the first time I’ve admitted this in the past six years), all of that work has, over time, also made me really tired and, as a result, I found myself earlier this year at an entirely new level of unmotivated, stressed, and cranky — a level unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I started by admitting this to my wife, employee and friends, and then, slowly, in fits and starts, here on the Internet to the people who follow my work.

To be clear, I don’t think my situation is special or unique. I know from talking about my struggle with scores of other creatives that many share it (you can listen to my conversation with artist Samantha Hahn here, in which we discuss this and related issues). Turns out, it’s very common for artists and writers to catch a wave of opportunity that is both wild and exhilarating but also dangerously unending. After a time, we want to jump off the wave and take a rest (or maybe just do something different for awhile), but the wave is going so fast we feel like we don’t have the chance, or, worse yet, we are scared to jump off for fear we will never be able to get back on.

Ironically, for me, the constant work, while good for my portfolio and pocketbook and growth of my career, began to do the worst possible thing: it began to kill my sense of creativity and excitement about making art. Worse than feeling tired or cranky or constantly stressed, this, to me, was the most frightening side effect. Over the past year, in particular, my work began to feel dull and monotonous. I began to worry I’d lost “it” all together — not just my will to make art, but my ability to innovate or make anything that mattered or that anyone would have any interest in looking at or consuming. I know this wasn’t reality, but it was how I felt. I began even to ask myself existential questions about the point of life all together.

I am sure by now (if you have gotten this far in this sad and woeful tale) you are looking for me to now transition to sharing a happy ending to this story — the next part wherein I make some solid changes in my life, learn a bunch of things, and am no longer tired or anxious and have regained a renewed sense of creativity.

The problem is life doesn’t always go that easily and changes don’t happen that quickly, at least not most of the time. I have made a lot of changes over the past four months —  to slow the fuck down, to take pressure off myself, and to regain a true sense of excitement and motivation about making art again. And I’m making progress in all three of these areas. But recovering from six years of bonkers might take me a long time, at least that’s what others who’ve been through it have told me.

Another true story: I used to be one of those super annoying people who, when asked by others, “What do you do when you get creatively blocked?” would say, “I don’t ever get creatively blocked!” And, until a couple of years ago, it was true; I was a font of unending energy for my work and for putting ideas onto paper and canvas. So part of my work now is not comparing my new reality to my old reality. My work is accepting what is, and taking the process of regaining energy for my work one day at a time.

I am taking an active (rather than passive) approach to recouping a sense of excitement and inspiration. I have begun diving into new subject matter and revisiting old subject matter. I even went back to using a medium (gouache paint) that I haven’t used in years. I am trying to pay deep attention to what I want to make and less and less attention to what I think my audience might want to see from me. I made the move to get a second, larger studio space in which I can experiment on large surfaces and get messy.

So the good news is that I am beginning to feel a sense of motivation and inspiration again. I’ve started several new bodies of work and I’ve jumped wholeheartedly back into my sketchbook (I even changed the orientation of my sketchbook from horizontal to vertical as a new way of looking at things). I am also being extremely judicious about accepting opportunities for collaborations and projects going forward, all in an effort to create space and energy for my own exploration and innovation.

Part of me feels like telling this story is self-indulgent. Who should really care about my burnout? And I don’t honestly think anyone should. But maybe it can be useful as a tale of warning for those of you seekers out there who aspire “to have it all” as an artist. Working toward success can come with a price. So at some point, you may end up here too. Perhaps that many of us end up here is unavoidable. Maybe it is a normal part of the process: pushing the boundaries until you implode, and then rebuilding.

One hopeful thing I have learned: it is possible to ride a wave, hop off, and hop back on. It’s also true that some waves die, but new waves always come along for us. So now my work is figuring out when to hop on a wave, and when to hop off. Similarly, which waves to ride and for how long. And when to just lie on the beach for awhile.

On that note, happy 2017. I hope to be back here writing more next year. And I’ve got lots of other fun things planned. See you then.

(Side note: the illustration above is from my upcoming book, A Glorious Freedom, out October 2017 from Chronicle Books. There it will accompany an essay by writer Caroline Paul about learning to surf at 50.)

CATEGORIES: Personal Essays
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