Creative Fatigue: The dangers of the productivity warrior narrative
We’re here. The year is 2021. New Years Resolutions? Who needs them- Dry January has quickly become sodden. Attempts to get outside more, go to the gym, or just generally maintain routine have been thwarted in their baby steps by a mad man in what, to me, is clearly a blonde wig in disarray- and the general anxiety of the UK has skyrocketed once more.
The January feeling of ‘New Year New me’ feels blatantly absent in the face of Lockdown 3.0, and- to be frank- most days it’s difficult to get out of bed in the morning.
I don’t know about you, reader, but I. Am. Tired.
And not just physically, emotionally, mentally tired- I am, devastatingly, creatively fatigued.
Ideas, imagination- working on creative projects is something that I live by, that I obsess over and that brings me an ultimate sense of joy and accomplishment- particularly in the Theatre industry. However, notably, as the year has gone on, it has felt increasingly difficult to engage as passionately and creatively with this world of art as I once have: when everything you love is being cancelled or postponed, or everything you’d spent so long working on is suddenly shifted onto zoom, it can be difficult to maintain that feeling of joy and hopefulness around being creative.
Not only that, but I’m finding it increasingly tiring and difficult to consume and experience Art.
When you feel the sadness and discomfort of the world around you, in the grand scheme of things being creative just doesn’t feel like so much of a priority anymore. Once an avid reader, turning the page of a new book suddenly feels exhausting. Once a lover of theatre, watching shows online seems somehow sad. Once a fingers-in-all-pies freelancer, the motivation to believe in yourself after all your pies have burnt to a crisp can feel…
Creativity- for myself, and I’m sure for many reading this- is an integral part of our identities- whether it be cultural, professional or personal, we will have all grown up creating, playing and using our imaginations, and for the Creative sector in particular this year, the fact that creativity has become a battle is disheartening to say the least.
However, I came across something recently; In the dregs of the empty New Year, in the same Christmas pyjamas I’d been wearing for the last 3 days, eating Pringles in bed, isolating with my family who tested positive for Covid, and binging my misery on back to back episodes of Ru Paul’s Drag Race and The L Word- I heard a quote that made me sit up (literally and figuratively), that I would like to share with you:
‘What Art Does is to Coax us away from the mechanical and towards the miraculous. The so-called uselessness of art is a clue to its transforming power. Art is not part of the machine. Art asks us to think differently, see differently, hear differently, and ultimately to act differently, which is why art has moral force.’ – Jeanette Winterson
Maybe it was because I heard Jeanette Winterson’s name (big fan), or maybe it was the mention of art as something so profound and valuable in the face of a year filled with Rishi Sunak’s denigration of the creative sector, or maybe it was because it fell into my lap, from the unexpected, joyously easy context of a binge-worthy series I’ve watched a hundred times over- but I truly felt awakened by it.
I was reminded of that creative hunger, that curiosity, that ‘transforming power’. The want to create, the memory of feeling immersed in something passionate and thoughtful and new…And I realised that what I have come to associate creativity with over the last year- and by default, Art- is something entirely different from this definition.
‘Art is not part of the machine’- What has come to pass over the last few months in the public is that Art is not seen as viable in our society. Artists are devalued and work is considered non-essential – but if Art is such an inherent part of our identity, our politics, our culture and our self-expression, how can we view it otherwise?
Something that has occurred to me recently on Social Media is the fact that I see my peers (myself included) sharing creative jobs they have gained with phrases such as ‘I’m so lucky’ attached to them. ‘I’m so lucky to be making art’, ‘I’m so lucky to have been cast as x in y’. This isn’t a criticism of those statements or those people- it does feel lucky to get a job in the arts, particularly these days, but I think that there is something intrinsically wrong with feeling ‘lucky’, or waiting for permission or approval from gatekeepers before you can make art, or feel like an artist. It isn’t luck- it’s hard graft- and to undermine ourselves feeds into the capitalist narrative of ‘Can you call yourself an Artist if you’re not making any money?’
The answer is yes. Yes you can. Once again, as Jeanette (hero) says- Art is not a part of the machine.
Don’t get me wrong, Artists deserve to be paid for their work. I’m not promoting the unhealthy narrative of the ‘starving artist’ by any means, I’m more just wondering when we began to measure our creativity and our artistry by how much we make from it. If our creativity is part of our identity, and we measure it by what we make, we’re essentially sticking a giant price tag on ourselves and undermining our own self-worth- and thinking about Art from a Capitalist perspective is one sure fire way to achieve Creative Fatigue.
‘The so called uselessness of Art is a clue to its transforming power’- This brings me to the Productivity Warriors. You know the type- we’ve probably all been one at one time or another, subconsciously at least: slogan loving, banana bread boasting Social Media heathens. The ‘If you don’t achieve something in Lockdown, when will you achieve anything’ club.
Living through a Global Pandemic is achievement enough. It is enough. You are enough. This mindless, radical assertion of the idea that if we are not constantly working, constantly doing, constantly busy and looking to the next project we are somehow failing is a key contributor to burnout. We are unfortunate that we live in a society where it feels unforgiveable to stop, take stock or recharge- but inevitably, if we don’t prioritise our need to rest, we will remain creatively fatigued.
Creativity is an output- The actual act of creating, of feeling creative, requires energy- and that’s something that a lot of us are lacking at the moment, regardless of any other external pressures. Applying this productivity narrative to creativity implies that Art is something more akin to a chore as opposed to an expression or feeling.
Art must be felt and lived and experienced- and we can’t put ourselves in a creative mindset if our creativity is stemming from a place of pressure (unless you’re one of those leave-it-til-the-day-before last minute loving nuts- props to you). In short- it’s okay to take a beat. It’s okay to stop working for a little while and to rest. It’s okay, even, to wallow a little- sometimes we have to let ourselves breathe a bit before we can take in the inspiration we need to work creatively again. We physically cannot apply to every opportunity we see in the Twitterverse, or watch our emails for 24 hours a day. We are always going to miss things- we are only human.
Who owns your Art?
Art has a moral force- I work in the arts because I believe in the power of Art, and the importance of the connectivity and lessons we can learn from it, but I think that there is a lot to be said for small, yet powerful, personal acts of morality within our own creativity.
Creativity is a gift that we give to ourselves, because it is how we honour ourselves and the world around us. It’s how we marry imagination with reality, thought with action, learning with experience. I wonder if, certainly my own, creative fatigue then is a result of the expectation and pressure I apply to the generosity of that gift. I wonder whether my creative fatigue stems from not honouring myself or others around me by really listening and responding to what is needed in that moment: we can’t express, connect or create if we are burnt out. And we certainly shouldn’t punish ourselves for not being able to constantly give, all the time.
I think that this also relates to a sense of autonomy around our own creativity. When our creativity feels forced- by external pressures or by our own hand- the action of creating becomes not something given, but something taken- which results in a feeling of a lack of autonomy and control. If you are being creative as an act of generosity, that implies you are ready to give. If you have nothing left to give you are only taking from yourself.
When I think of the often asked question What is it for? Or What is it saying? This is what I think of. When you create for the wrong reasons, with the wrong people, or from the wrong place, you lose your autonomy over your creativity and your genuine feelings about your work, and these questions become difficult to answer.
‘What Art Does is to Coax us away from the mechanical and towards the miraculous’-
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I think Creative Fatigue, for me at least, is a result of letting your relationship to Art sit in the mechanical realm. The realm of 7 day working weeks, emails, zoom fatigue, skipping meals to meet deadlines, creating out of competition, or from a place of Instagram-inferiority-complex, prioritising productivity over process and ultimately going through the motions to achieve performative creativity. Which, in the face of the last year, has been a realm which I think most of us have felt stuck within due to the restrictions of the world at the moment.
It is hard to be creative when you are limited. It is hard to be creative when you can’t see people. It is hard to be creative when your access to everything, and the way you’ve always worked, is thrown into flux and cut off from you- and it is especially hard to be creative when you are so very, very tired.
But I think, from my experience of this year, what I’ve come to understand is that our creative fatigue comes from, quite simply, a place of exhaustion. If we feel exhausted, if we feel sad, if we feel frustrated at the world- we don’t have the energy required to create, because the act of creating in the face of exhaustion becomes a chore- something mechanical, rather than a liberty – something miraculous.
Ultimately, I think, the key is to be kinder to ourselves, and to reframe being creative as a kind of gift giving.
To finish up on a lighter note, I’m including a list of some ways that I have been trying to replenish creativity within myself that I would like to share with you:
1. Tune in to what you need – When our bodies are under a lot of stress and pressure we burn out- the world is hard at the moment without us making it harder for ourselves. Take a nap. Have the lie in you need. Binge your favourite series on Netflix. Eat the chocolate. Be kind to yourself.
2. Immerse yourself in the realm of the miraculous – to make art, we need to feel inspired. Take yourself out of the mechanical context. Walk in nature if you can. Talk to a loved one. Listen to some Music. Pray. Try a new recipe. Play more. Ultimately, let your creativity build up naturally through watching for those miraculous moments within the everyday- feed your imagination and let the ordinary become numinous.
3. Create from a safe space – Form a group of friends, create a collective of like-minded people, make each other feel held as you create, collaborate & connect, or create an environment for yourself where you feel free to express yourself and you’re ready.
4. Make room for new ideas – declutter, organise, don’t overload yourself with ‘productive tasks’, remove unnecessary items from your desk. It will help your frame of mind.
5. Know your worth – Know that your ideas and opinions matter. Claim autonomy. Take up space. Reward yourself along the way. Treat yourself with kindness so that imposter syndrome doesn’t sneak in.
Ultimately, it’s a difficult time right now. Make peace with yourself, and go watch some Ru Paul- you never know when you might be inspired…
Becky is a writer, actor, singer & illustrator from Liverpool. Follow her here @BeckyDowning
Illustration by Becky Downing