For the last week I needed about 8-9 more hours of sleep than usual. My body simply refused to function, and even encouraging emails stressed me out because I felt overwhelmed to have to open and read them.
Needless to say, I had no choice but to spend a lot of time in bed, and any other time in introspection about what led me to that kind of grogginess. For many (hopefully obvious) reasons, I knew it probably wasn’t mono. I also didn’t think I’d simply over-committed, because my workload hadn’t changed and still felt very doable when I was in the right frame of mind. By the end of the week, I think I’d gotten a grasp of what had happened.
When I decided first in college and then years down the road to pursue writing professionally, it was partially because I believed that a creative life would be the most transformative option for me – and it has been. Writing about myself and other people, thinking up new stories, and even writing copy for companies have all changed me for the better even more than during my stint in a profession devoted exclusively to “personal transformation.”
Art has a way of calling us into something better. Just like an Olympic athlete always fights to break the records, artists fight to bring themselves and the rest of the world into a new understanding or experience. Good art always pushes that boundary and calls its creator & audience into something more whole.
Playwright Terrence McNally (Ragtime, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Love! Valor! Compassion!) says, “The theater has the ability to make us better people – and by better, I mean more caring, more informed, more passionately committed human beings.”
Sadly I don’t think we often see that. Too often we see the arts as a biting, backstabbing profession where uninformed narcissists produce political propaganda at best and call their viewers into anger and division.
But the best work – whether comedy or drama, visual art or poetry – avoids those attitudes as much as possible and demands something better of itself and of everyone who comes across it. Creating it requires a certain global awareness, a compassion for people who have less, and an openness to stories better than our own.
Artists can be comedians, priests, and human rights activists all at the same time, but for the last few weeks I think I’d lost that sense of calling and purpose when at work. Writing had become a duty or a means to an end, rather than a privilege and an opportunity to express what the Creator in me wanted to say. Letting other motives get in the way produced worse art and, eventually, a worse person.
I realized I was burning out before the exhaustion hit. I could tell it was happening every time I refused to forgive or said something abnormally short and rude. Writing doesn’t make me perfect in that regard, but it used to help me see the world in a much more merciful way. That’s what I needed time to get back to. Time and many hours of sleep.
Later this week I hope to talk about at least one of the main ways I see artists, including myself, pulled away from becoming better through their work and thus less able to tell stories that could change the world. That’s if I rest enough in the meantime!
Until then, I’d love to know if anyone reading this has experienced burnout and, if so, what helped you recover?