A Delicate Language
Frank Rudolph Paul (1884 – 1963)
October Birthday News
by Ursula Vernon
So I'm burned out.
Longtime readers of this column have probably heard this tune before, and indeed, it's a cyclical thing. I was burned out at some point last year -- well, actually a lot of stuff went down last year, so burnout was almost beside the point -- and the year before that, and the year before that.
Actually, I burn out a lot. The manifestations of this are generally a complete lack of any desire to make art for myself, and even less desire to make art for money for other people.
Pop quiz time! Is this A) because the Muse is a delicate flower that cannot be forced into blooming, or B) because I'm an idiot or C) sunspots or D) all of the above?
If you answered B, you're mostly right, although I can't quite rule out sunspots. The Muse -- whom I generally picture as a chunky blonde chick with blue jeans and a huge rack who hangs out on the couch and glares at me -- is not a particularly delicate flower in most cases.* She works under some remarkably harsh conditions. Pre-convention art-show, for example, I ask downright heroic things of her, and she generally comes through like a trooper.
Still, I tend to burn out at least once a year, generally around late summer, as I finish the con circuit and fall over dead. The theme of this month's issue is "Leaves" and that's actually kind of appropriate -- right around early fall, my creativity dries up and blows away. (I could possibly extend this metaphor and get all froofy about sinking in and deriving nourishment from your creative roots, but A) this is Wombat Droppings, not Starwombat's Guide To The Astral Fruitcake, and B) I couldn't think of any way to work bark in gracefully.) This year is even worse than usual, because I'm at the tail end of a book, and they came back and sprang twenty more illustrations on me, which they need in about three weeks. And I can do it -- the Muse rarely ever fails me in the pinch -- but it takes a toll, and the toll is that I stop thinking "what do I want to paint?" and start thinking "what do I want to punch?" (Or, rather more dangerously, "what do I want to eat?" I'm probably not the only person who gets deadline munchies, which, unchecked, reflect disastrously on the waistline.)
It took me years to realize that burnout is a normal part of the process. Sometimes the brain needs downtime. You drain the well down to the mucky bits, and it takes awhile for it to fill up again. The problem is that, if you're like me, and capable of spurts of hyper-productivity, you start feeling guilt-wracked when you're NOT being hyper-productive. "If I can paint eight paintings in a week some weeks, why am I not doing that EVERY WEEK? What kind of slacker am I?"
Realistically, this is like thinking that if a sprinter can do a four minute mile at the Olympics, he should also be doing a four minute mile to get the mail, take out the trash, pick up milk at the grocery store, and do the laundry. It can't be done. There are limits to human endurance, and there are limits to human creativity -- you can't do it every day, for eight hours a day, and not wind up looking like a leather shoe put in the microwave for two hours.
Well, like I said, it took me years to come to terms with the normalcy of this, and I still haven't quite come to terms with the guilt.
There's an interesting side-effect to this, though.
I find that some interesting art can come during burnout, or immediately after. Don't get me wrong -- a lot of times it's bland crap that you're hammering out by rote, just so that you feel as if you've done SOMETHING productive. But every now and then, you find something very unusual inhabiting your canvases, something totally unlike what you normally do.
I think it's because when you burn out, you burn out on what you normally do. At the moment, for example, I couldn't draw a cute animal if you held a gun to my head. I'’d probably close my eyes and say "Make it quick." But because you're so tired of the normal art, the art that you DO get excited about is the stuff that IS unusual, that's out of your usual line of work. I find myself enthralled by abstracts, by still-lifes of chicken bones with haloes, by…well, what is for me, very weird crap.
It may never sell. Your viewers may have no idea what to make of it. You may fail in the execution, or the conception, or you may never even have the nerve to get it on the page. But sometimes you find something amazing.
I can't say that particular silver lining is worth the whole burnout experience, but at least, sometimes, you have something to look forward to.
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