On Creative Burn-out: When the Well is Dry
On Creative Burn-out: a final post

On Creative Burn-out & the Practice of Swaling


In Friday's post on artists' blocks and creative burn-out, I quoted the Canadian artist Jane Champagne as saying, ""Sometimes, if you just wait it out, and go on about your business without trying to force a solution, it comes - almost as if the old artist has to die before the new one can be born."

Australian artist Christina Cairns responded: "I especially like the Jane Champagne quote. It reminds me of the affinity between artist and Shaman, that a kind of death needs to take place for the new life to begin. And also of that need not just for solitude, but of 'fallow' time to allow the seeds of new ideas to emerge into the light in their own time."

This in turn reminded me of a JoMA article I wrote some years ago, called "The Dark of the Woods," which discussed the importance of journeys into darkness and despair in myths and shamanic traditions world-wide. Here's the opening passage:

"'In the mid-path of my life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood,' writes Dante, in The Divine Comedy, beginning a quest that will lead to transformation and redemption. A journey through the dark of the woods is a motif common to fairy tales: young heroes set off through the perilous forest in order to reach their destiny, or they find themselves abandoned there, cast off and left for dead. The road is long and treacherous, prowled by wolves, ghosts, and wizards -- but helpers also appear along the way, good fairies and animal guides, often cloaked in unlikely disguises. The hero's task is to tell friend from foe, and to keep walking steadily onward."

Dartmoor 2

"In older myths, the dark road leads downward into the Underworld, where Persephone is carried off by Hades, much against her will, and Ishtar descends of her own accord to beat at the gates of Hell. This road of darkness lies to the West, according to Native American myth, and each of us must travel it at some point in our lives. The western road is one of trials, ordeals, disasters and abrupt life changes -- yet a road to be honored, nevertheless, as the road on which wisdom is gained. James Hillman, whose theory of 'archetypal psychology' draws extensively on Greco-Roman myth, echoes this belief when he argues that darkness is vital at certain periods of life, questioning our modern tendency to equate mental health with happiness. It is in the Underworld, he reminds us, that seeds germinate and prepare for spring. Myths of descent and rebirth connect the soul's cycles to those of nature."

It's hard, however, to descend to the Underworld with equanimity. I have no fear of darkness per se, but what I hate is the feeling of emptiness that marks creative burn-out for me: a flatness, a lack of enthusiasm for paint or words or light or color or any of the daily, common things that usually fill my heart to bursting with beauty, wonder, and inspiration. It's a kind of death, living in that grey, muffled Underworld where I can see, but not touch, the bright world above. Each time I descend, I despair utterly, forgetting all that I know about myth, and life, and art. Forgetting that there's nothing to truly fear down here. The Underworld is not one's permanent destination; it's simply the mythic/shamanic/creative passageway to next part of the cycle, rebirth: the ascent to a new self, to a new stage of life, and to a new way of making art.

Going back to the "Dark of the Woods" article:  

"Rites-of-passage stories...were cherished in pre-literate societies not only for their entertainment value, but also as mythic tools to prepare young men and women for life's ordeals. A wealth of such stories can be found marking each major transition in the human life cycle: puberty, marriage, childbirth, menopause, death. Other rites-of-passage, less predictable but equally transformative, include times of sudden change and calamity such as illness and injury, the loss of one's home, the death of a loved one, etc. These are the times when we wake, like Dante, to find ourselves in a deep, dark wood -- an image that in Jungian psychology represents an inward journey. Rites-of-passage tales point to the hidden roads that lead out of the dark again -- and remind us that at the end of the journey we're not the same person as when we started. Ascending from the Netherworld (that grey landscape of illness, grief, depression, or despair), we are 'twice-born' in our return to life, carrying seeds -- new wisdom, ideas, creativity and fecundity of spirit."

Dartmoor 3

Yet it's hard not to panic when one finds oneself in an artistically fallow period; it's hard (at least for me) to accept, even to welcome, this part of the creative cycle. "I've lost my spark, my inspiration," I wailed recently to my friend and writing-buddy Wendy Froud. "I don't seem to even want to write anymore. What if I've lost the spark for good? I'll have to get a job at the hardware store...and I'll probably just suck at that too...." 

"Your muse will come back," Wendy assured me, laughing, "and she'll come sooner if you turn your back on her. Do something else. Take a walk. Read a book. This happens to me too; it happens to everyone. But I find if I do something else for a bit, inspiration comes back in no time."

"I've lost all my fire," I whined to my husband. "I've never felt this empty before."

"Sure you have," he reminded me patiently. "It happens whenever you're over-tired, or over-stressed, or when some new idea is gestating in the dark.  Listen to your body, listen to your spirit. They're both telling you that you need some time off. The fire will come back, it always does. And it will come back stronger than ever. "

He's right, of course; I have been through this before...and you'd think by now I would recognize the pattern. As Jane Champagne says: sometimes the old artist has to die before the new artist is born. And the "death" part takes as longs as it takes. It doesn't care about schedules and deadlines.

Plunging in

As younger writers or artists, with energy to spare, we often pushed ourselves to produce and produce and produce, living on caffeine and nerves and adrenaline...and that's fine, even fun, at a certain age, but not sustainable over a lifetime of work. Now, as a woman deep into her middle years, I know I must find a different rhythm -- one that is cyclical, seasonal, sustainable. To quote Christina Cairns again:

"Everything else in the natural world works in cycles of activity and inactivity, fallow and productive. Why should we humans think we are any different? And yet we push ourselves, or allow others (clients, deadlines, family and so on) to push us to keep going, not stop (or feel guilty if we dare to), and keep producing. No wonder the well gets empty, the creative flowering grows weaker and less beautiful. But it's not just in the arts, it's everywhere. I just noticed a headline yesterday, that Australian workers are working longer than ever hours, and yet are more inefficient than ever before...hmmmm, I wonder why?!"

Here in Devon, there's an old rural tradition of swaling: a controlled burning of overgrown heath land that clears out dead vegetation and allows for new growth. Perhaps creative burn-out can be viewed as an inner form of swaling, creating the space and enriching the soil where fresh ideas can germinate. A burn-off rather than a burn-out, clearing the ground for years of life and art still to come.

So here's a toast to creative burn-out and burn-off, and to the tender new growth that emerges from them. I'm emerging at last from my own fallow time (a period of weeks that has felt like years)...and Howard is right: the spark of inspiration is not only returning, it's coming back stronger than ever. But someday, I know, I'll return to the Underworld, or awake, like Dante, in the dark of the woods. And when I do, I'll try to remember not to panic. To remember that it's all part of the creative/mythic journey. And to move through it with just a little more grace.

Walking with grace

"Dark of the Woods: Rites of Passage Tales" was published in the "Healing & Transformation" issue of The Journal of Mythic Arts, Winter 2006;all rights reserved.


Thanks again for sharing your process and your insight with us, Terri. I will try and remember to refer to this post when either I, or someone I know, is going through the creative quiet-time again.

When I was studying to become a medical herbalist, I took some extra papers to gain a small certificate in sports nutrition, and in doing so I learned an interesting concept which comes to mind when I think about or experience burn out: when training to make your body stronger, faster, leaner, or to reach a certain goal, the body requires specified times of rest.

At night as we are asleep, our bodies calls forth the minerals and nutrients from the deep to strengthen, heal and facilitate growth of all those tissues that sustain us and makes us powerful -- our muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones. Just as we need the night and the sleep for this nocturnal regeneration and rejuvenation to occur, we need days off as well.

If two or three days of hard physical work is not broken up by a day or so of not doing anything physical at all, the body doesn't get better. The muscles do not grow larger. The bones do not get thicker. You don't make your goals. When you do not give your body the time it needs to repair your tissues -- time to make them larger, more durable and stronger then ever -- plateaus and burn-out are much more likely to occur.

I try and remember this to temper the inspiration, motivation and drive that I feel for my creative and work projects. If I feel my energy and my spirit wane, I have to let go of whatever important thing I am doing, so that I can go down and go deep into some rest, and have faith that whatever needs to get done, will still get done.

Thank you for this, Joel. It's a useful way of understand the need for "creative rest," and very wise advice.

I once endured four years without writing a song. I thought it had gone for good. It was awful. Then, one morning I woke up with a tune and the words of a chorus running round my head. By breakfast the song was finished. It was 'Playing at Gypsies' and it heralded the birth of Telling the Bees.

It will come back x

Four years??! You poor man. And here I was complaining because I was feeling flat for a few weeks....

Anais Nin once said: "When I don't write, I feel my world shrinking. I feel I am in a prison. I feel I lose my fire and my color. It should be a necessity, as the sea needs to heave, and I call it breathing."

It's such a relief to feel fire and color coming back. I feel like...myself...again. I'm breathing again.

I *love* your song 'Playing at Gypsies," by the way - and Telling the Bees was definitely worth a four-year gestation.

(If anyone reading this post hasn't yet heard Telling the Bees, which I highly recommend, go here for more info: http://www.tellingthebees.co.uk/ )

Terry thank you so much for talking about this important subject. It is in itself inspiring. Since you are in England and I am in the middle of the USA just digging into your blog every day is a soothing balm for me. You make a great teacher and steward. And of course there's Tilly who makes me smile and laugh out loud at work on more than one occasion. Blessings ever!

Each time I descend, I despair utterly, forgetting all that I know about myth, and life, and art.

But of course you do; the despair is part and parcel of the descent. Without the despair it would not be an underworld journey. :) Very glad to hear the light is returning, though!

thank you for taking us with you on the deep journey through the bleakness and bringing it up and back out into the light. This writing with pictures and quotes that you are doing for this blog and that you did for JOMA is such important work!

There are so many deaths-of-self that an artist must experience and yet when we feel we might be dying as an artist, we hold on tight and kick and fight. We are prepared to surrender so many things, but not our identification with ourselves as 'artist.' It's too close to the bone, too tangled up in the survival of our souls, perhaps.

The art of navigating the descent in such a way that it is not just a brutalising experience is an art itself that can not be over-valued. Skilled guides know the ledges and rock-falls on the slopes, even if it's only us that can make the journey.

What have I learned?

1. That those descents have their treasure. It's not always easy treasure to carry, but if we don't pick it up and use it, we end up having to go back for it another time.

2. Frequent voluntary descents into the underworld are better than infrequent, involuntary immersions.

3. That there's no substitute for going to the land for those rites of passage and immersions in the soul-deep underworld.

Beyond that, it's pretty much all still a mystery. Power to your journey, Terri, whether you're on the up-slope or the down!

after reading Margaret Atwood's poem "Girl Without Hands" from your link above to the JOMA Healing & Transformation issue I had to reread The Page by Margaret Atwood here's an excerpt
"4. If you decide to enter the page, take a knife and some matches, and something that will float. Take something you can hold onto, and a prism to split the light and a talisman that works, which should be hung on a chain around your neck; that's for getting back. It doesn't matter what kind of shoes, but your hands should be bare.You should never go into the page with gloves on. Such decisions, needless to say, should not be made lightly."
from Murder in the Dark Coach House Press 1983
these words always help when I'm trembling at the edge of the next unknown or floundering in the in-between

Okay, FINE, Terri Windling. You win. I WILL take a rest, and I WON'T hassle myself about it. Are you HAPPY now? HUMPH!

*stomps off to the bath*

this strikes absolutely true, brilliant even. i do wonder, though, why we (as a culture) can't accept it as part of the cycle. i work with e.d. kids, and we do not acknowledge, even to them, that the darkness is a part of their return to health and learning. and in denying the darkness we fool them and ourselves, and i fear, become more mentally ill.

I think that is really hitting the nail on the head, Velma. We do not accept that darkness is part of a normal cycle, so we hold it off as long as possible until it becomes overwhelming, and because our culture doesn't accept it, there are no elders to teach the way, no-one who can tell those descending that 'this is temporary, it will pass, you are not disappearing into the abyss forever, you are going on an important journey and you will discover important things that you can bring back and use.' And it leads to depression I think, a much longer and lonelier and scarier journey.

*Chuckle*...oh dear, I'm in danger of sounding like an 'expert'. I wish I was better at taking my own advice though, I still struggle with it each time the muse falters, or everything starts to look grey and pointless.

Thank you Terri for another important post, I too will bookmark this one to come back to when I'm going down into the dark cavern again. These ideas are ones I've been ruminating on for quite some time now, and I want to explore them further. A future blog post perhaps (I'm a bit overdue for one).

you are so right about depression being long, lonely and scary. having suffered with depressive illness for over four decades. for 30 years my only way of coping with depression, was to create. having had a mental breakdown 12 years ago, i was incapable of creating even the simplest of things for 10 years. my creative spirit was suffocated by the effects of that breakdown. for the last 2 years i have been slowly regaining my abilities. and i'm happy to say i've moved on, in totally different directions. have learned so much from those barely bearable years. i certainly thought my creative spirit was dead, that was the hardest thing of all to cope with. now, being creative is a constant struggle, but that struggle keeps me going. (fancy words are not my forte, but i certainly know it feels to be in that pit of despair.) ox

What an excellent post, and so very timely for me personally. I feel so much better having read it.

I go through these periods every dozen years or so where it all churns around in the depths and comes up something new artistically. I know I am in one of those times, that period of darkness, and I know that it will come back to me. Or I suppose that I will come back to me. But it's hard not to know, and it is good to hear that this is just how it is and it's all useful. I haven't seen my Muse in ages and it is so hard. It is especially good to hear someone say that the journey into the Dark isn't necessarily so dark, because that has been confusing me, I think; the blankness of it all.

A lot to think about; thank you so much.

Many thanks to *all* of you for joining the discussion. There is much food for thought here.

Oh my, yes. And that first one your list is one I had to learn the hard way...

Blessings to you and Rima, Tom. We must get together soon.

Fabulous quote; thank you!

Yep. Happy now. Your writing will be all the better for it, trust me.

(And Howard will laugh when he reads this comment and say: "So why do you always grumble when I tell *you* to leave the desk and get some rest?")

"And it leads to depression I think, a much longer and lonelier and scarier journey."

Christina, that line stopped me in my tracks because it's so darn true.

Perhaps you are more of an "expert" (in the sense of having knowledge to pass on to others walking the path) than you realize.

As for "practicing what you preach" ... well, hell, we all struggle with that one.

I look forward to your blog post on the subject. (Another Moveable Feast in the making...?) I think it was this post by Erzebet that inspired mine: http://www.erzaveria.com/2011/creative-blues/

And Deborah Biancotti is still adding new authors and posts to her excellent series on creative exhaustion: http://deborahb.livejournal.com/tag/burnout

I'm close to someone with a history of depression, and I've seen first-hand how much strength and courage it takes to climb back from a mental health breakdown. In this case, their creative gifts are coming back all the stronger for the journey, as though that is the jewel earned in reward for facing down such a fearsome dragon. May it be the same for you.

Thank you Terri for your willingness to write about the shyness of Muse. The more artists I know, the more I realize that it happens to everyone, no matter their tactics for avoiding the slow times. Have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert's TED video about creativity? It's brilliant and I visit it when I need a reminder. Just as I visit your blog. Keep the faith and hang in there!!!
Warmest regards, from Ohio.

Me too, "Playing at Gypsies" is one of my favorites. Interesting to hear how long a gestation period it had! Wow.

Been thinking this might turn into another Moveable Feast, much passion and wisdom-sharing sparkling here.

And Christina it seems we need the quotes, myths and stories to stand in as our elders until enough "initiated elders" hold space in our communities and circles once again.

Myths and stories, YES! I've just watched a great video called "Mythic Journeys" about the importance of myths, because they show the path. I've got a lot going round in my head inspired by all this, so a new moveable feast would be wonderful!

I think I got a little off topic, perhaps spread the net too wide...but my wandering thoughts on the subject are now up in the attic!

This post has really stayed with me, and has inspired a post of my own about my own artistic block:


Thank you for writing this.

Hah, I’m late again! But oh my, what a “feast” to return to!

My “fallow time” these last month’s took me so far away I truly thought my muse was lost forever, yet that elusive creature has finally tiptoed back & here I am reading words that warm my heart, the words of so many, a reminder that we are not alone in our muse-less state.

I too hate the “flatness” & feeling so disconnected when I’m in that underworld, I fight every step of the way, knowing even as I do that it will give my muse every excuse to go hide deeper & deeper in the forests of my mind. I should never have forgotten that there are seasons for everything and as you say Christina, the dark times are part of the cycle.

It’s so true what you say Terri, as we grow older it is about finding a new rhythm. I shall remember to come back to this feast of inspiration time & again when I need a reminder.

Thank you all, I am replete x

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