The Antidote To Creative Burnout

I'll give it to you straight:

Your art is for you.

Which might sound strange at first since art, by definition, must be shared. 

If it isn't shared, it isn't art. It could be the most amazing, creative expression of genius, yet if it doesn't go out where someone can experience it, it can't be called art. 

Art is something you create or do that touches another and makes some sort of difference in their life. It is risky and personal. It isn't a copy. It isn't sterile. It shows your human side. 

When I was twelve, I used to write songs in the shower. In a house with fourteen people, the shower was the only place I felt I could sing out loud in private. I could hear the entire band in my mind, and the running water masked my voice so only I could hear it. I could sing really loud and with lots of feeling and expression and feel totally secure.

 Yes, I was very cool back then. 

Yes, I was very cool back then. 

The songs I came up with were going to put me in the spotlight. The fame was going to happen. I could feel it. 

Darn it. Twenty-four years later and I'm still embarrassed to write about this! I can only imagine what everyone who could hear me thought of it. Did they laugh? Did they snicker? Did they even notice the earnest voice of a young adolescent getting ready to break into the contemporary Christian music scene? 

None of those songs were art. They were play. They were practice. They were expression. They were my ticket to fame. But they never went out from me. 

They stayed hidden. 

Which I'm happy about because, looking back, they were awful. 

There is a difference between art, craft, and expression.

Craft is making something using skill and ingenuity. Expression is letting something out of you. Art is using expression and craft together with a recipient in mind. 

The person you make art for may be someone you know, but it might also be someone you have only a vague sense of. When you send your art out from yourself, you are sending that person a message. You are telling them that they are cared for, that they are not alone. 

And when they receive your art, a connection is made. And that connection is for them, but it is also for you. Just knowing the connection will happen satisfies something in you. 

Have you ever told someone about what you do as an artist, and all of a sudden they are brainstorming ways you could fit into their plans and help their organization? And what they're asking you to do has nothing to do with what you are excited about, but you still listen and nod your head and maybe even go along with it because it means you would get to practice your art.

Problem is, they just want you to further their agenda.

Your art comes from your desire to touch someone's life, to connect with them. One of the fastest ways to shut down an artist is to tell them what they have to create, how they have to create it, when it must be finished, and who they have to create it for. A craftsman can do that job, but not an artist.

If you talk with someone who has been in the game for awhile, they tend to become wary very quickly if you mention an idea you or someone else has for their art. Once bitten and all that. And yet...

we artists put ourselves in the same compromising positions.

Life requires money. Money requires work. The dream is to get paid to do what we love.

A commission. A contract. A promise.

Then reality sets in, and the promise feels more like a compromise. Client expectations are involved. What if they don't like the finished work? What if I put my heart and soul into this and they just don't feel it? My mind fills up with distractions and pretty soon I lose focus and feel like I'm working with someone staring over my shoulder.  

Wedding photography can be seen as an art, but it can also be seen as a craft. Some days, I find myself staring at a computer with literally thousands of pictures on it to sort and edit. Part of me dreads sitting down at my desk because I have to get it done, I was paid to do this and I'm on a deadline, and creativity isn't welling up inside of me at the moment. I'm not feeling like an artist. 

Then I remember that the couple asked me to do the work. They wanted to see themselves through my eyes. They asked me to make the tens of thousands of artistic decisions such photography requires. And I, of all the people in the world, get to tell their story back to them through a set of photographs; the story of the day they promised themselves to each other.

I am reminded of how much I care for them and what I want for them. And I dive into the work, knowing that I'm making something for this couple that will better their lives through remembering.

Here's the thing:

Art can't be forced.

It springs up from deep inside. It can't be pumped out of you. When you or anyone else tries to force it, the well runs dry. You can't make art solely from a spec sheet, because art comes from your soul and your could care less about spec sheets.

It's true that art is only art if it goes out to others, yet it is also true that art only works - only comes into being - when it satisfies something within you. And that's why I insist that your art is for you.

So if you find yourself feeling ill at the idea of making something, and you notice you're resisting the thought of getting back into a creative zone, take a look at how things have been for you lately and then ask yourself these questions:

 

Who am I?

What do I care about? 

Who do I care about? 

What do I want to do for them?

 

The answers to these questions will guide you back to the reality of what you want to create and why.

Hit the reset button.

Quiet the outside voices by filling yourself with purpose. 

Take the next step. The joyful step.

Your art is for you. 

If you liked or disagreed with or were helped by something in this post, send me a quick email at jeremy@thelifelongartist.com and tell me about it!

And if the above definition of art seems a little wonky to you, blame Seth Godin, not me. 

p.s. Want to sign up for my newsletter? Every few weeks I share some (hopefully) helpful thoughts about being on the artist's journey. Exclusive content you won't find on the blog.

If you're up for something like that, leave your first name and email address below...