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A New Way to Recover From Creative Burnout

The underappreciated — and often feminized — labor that undergirds everyday life is essential to true creativity

Illustration: Ruohan Wang

When I crossed the 100,000-word mark in a draft of my first book, I paused to briefly mosh in the kitchen while brewing more coffee.

I had 13 days left to go, and I was riding the kind of stress-high I hadn’t experienced since my days as a student. The wave of feeling cresting in that moment was just as I remembered it: a frenzied sense of smug purpose so familiar it was almost soothing.

As the deadline neared, I felt crazy, but in a good way. Anticipatory excitement, restlessness, and the powerful fear of fucking up combined to form a kind of natural Adderall. Working in those final days gave me the electric good-girl charge I used to get in high school, college, and graduate school, when the minutes bled into hours, when day became night became day again, as I sat surrounded by a dozen books lying open, spine-down and underlined.

As the texture of my days changed, morphing from ultra-productivity back into normalcy, I felt useless, unmoored, and lazy.

I spent entire days sitting upright in my bed, surrounded by a wide arc of dirtied dishes. Tupperware containers of varying sizes were sprinkled with salt and pretzel sediment. A spoon rested in a milky eighth-inch of melted ice cream. The bitten-off ends of snow peas clustered in a bowl like tiny beaks. Sometimes I wrote in a shabby vintage housedress and cotton leggings. The dress, faded and floral, looked like something a peasant might wear in an old Italian movie, and it somehow matched the aspect of mild, righteous suffering to which I was by then deeply committed. Working hard in that maniacal way felt noble and pure — dizzyingly so, especially when it came at the expense of other habits, like regular meals, fresh air, or sleep.

When I finally pressed send on the book manuscript, I burst into tears — the same loud, anarchic crying I’d done after giving birth. I enjoyed a couple days of relief and elation, and then began a free-fall into depression. I had expected to feel an emptiness after the emotional intensity of writing a memoir. But it was worse than that: As the texture of my days changed, morphing from ultra-productivity back into normalcy, I felt useless, unmoored, and lazy.

I attended to the household tasks I’d been putting off, cooked more elaborate meals, and actually got dressed in the mornings. My children had their mother back, but I was distracted. I felt incomplete.

I wondered whether this was common, and if so, whether there was a cure. Perhaps this was simply the aftermath of a creative sprint? I did feel like I’d been on a computer screen for the better part of a year. Was what I was experiencing akin to the kind of burnout tech people treat with expensive “digital detoxes”?

It turns out post-creation blues are a well-established phenomenon, especially for writers. A 1987 article in the New York Times on “postwritum depression” is a catalog of writers’ miseries and idiosyncrasies around finishing a piece of work. “Some men go a little crazy,” says Joyce Carol Oates in the piece. “They have love affairs, or they drink, because they have so much energy that’s left unchanneled. I have a writer friend who goes hunting and kills small creatures when he finishes a book.” Others describe the comedown in far gloomier terms, noting that the days feel awfully long once they return to the world of the mundane.

This cycle is typical for other creatives, too, or anyone who works on one long project at a time. The “wave of hopelessness” that chases a big achievement is called “arrival fallacy,” according to a recent New York Times piece. It’s the deluded idea that once we get the promotion, the movie deal, the nice house, the tenure, we’ll be happy.

Knowing all this made me feel less alone, but did nothing to lift my depression. I found deeper solace, however, in the artist and critic Jenny Odell’s new book, How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. In it, the Bay Area native writes about the “revolutionary potential of taking back our attention.” How to Do Nothing rings the warning bell about the attention we give away for free to the tech giants who increasingly shape (and surveil) our experience of our own realities. And it delivers a call to arms, an impassioned invitation to reclaim our attention and use it to deepen our attunement to ourselves, our communities, and to the natural world.

In Odell’s view, the space and the solitude between projects — or sentences, or social media posts — is an essential part of the process of being creative. She writes, “‘Nothing’ is neither a luxury nor a waste of time, but rather a necessary part of meaningful thought and speech.”

She draws our attention back to the kinds of underappreciated — and often feminized — labor that undergirds everyday life. The maintenance and care work we carry out, often without noticing, is essential to sustaining life and creativity, Odell writes. She cites the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, whose well-known 1970s performance pieces focused on under-recognized forms of repetitive labor. For one piece, Ukeles shook hands with 8,500 New York City sanitation workers. It took 11 months. She became a permanent artist in residence with the New York City Sanitation Department in 1977. In an interview, Ukeles talked about becoming a mother in the 1960s, saying, “I felt completely abandoned by my culture because it didn’t have a way to incorporate sustaining work.”

As Odell’s book challenged me to view the post-creative sprint period as an equally vital time, I actually started to feel better. I thought about the “sustaining work” I’d been doing since turning in my own book — weeding the garden, doing loads of laundry, pickling, mending, returning emails, getting that stain out of the tablecloth. And most importantly: talking and laughing and reading for longer than I had in months with my children.

That I somehow had seen this time as unproductive — because it wouldn’t pay the bills, or grow my personal brand — was revealed as just another crappy symptom of patriarchal capitalism. Odell illuminated this beautifully for me.

If I could see the work I do to maintain everyday life, for myself and my family, as an inseparable part of my creative flow, I could perhaps dissolve the (patriarchal, capitalist) boundary between “working” and “living.” Might both be part of a larger whole?

“Beyond self-care and the ability to (really) listen, the practice of doing nothing has something broader to offer us: an antidote to the rhetoric of growth.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, as I stretched out into this new way of thinking, my mind began to crackle with activity again. I set an open notebook on the kitchen counter and frequently stopped what I was doing to write down ideas, questions, edits I wanted to remember to make to my manuscript. Beside them were lists of chores, things we needed around the house, people I wanted to call. All sat comfortably on the same page.

In her book (and her Medium post that predated it), Odell describes the rose garden in Oakland, a remnant of the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s and a place where she practices the kind of slowness and deliberateness she advocates in her book. I too live in Oakland, and on a gray Thursday morning, I traced Odell’s footsteps to the garden. There I listened to the birdsong and looked at the vibrant blooms. The following day, I drove to a small strip of park at Oakland’s shipping port, and sat gazing at the water and the massive, multicolored stacks of shipping containers for an hour — pointlessly, it would have seemed, a few weeks prior.

It is hard to let go of the disciplined “good student” in me. I do thrive on the pressure of the ticking clock, that crazed, moshing, shut-in space of desperate, sometimes delusional “hard work.” But here’s the thing about the “nothing” of Odell’s book: It is not simply restorative, a way to gear up for the next big thing. It’s an intentional act of resistance. As she writes, “beyond self-care and the ability to (really) listen, the practice of doing nothing has something broader to offer us: an antidote to the rhetoric of growth.”

Resisting the “attention economy,” Odell argues, opens different pathways to inspiration. “If it’s attention (deciding what to pay attention to) that makes our reality, regaining control of it can also mean the discovery of new worlds and new ways of moving through them,” Odell writes, adding that “this process enriches not only our capacity to resist, but even more simply, our access to the one life we are given.”

Author of Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls: A Memoir of Women, Addiction, and Love. Work in NYT, New Republic, the Guardian, Jezebel, and more.

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