Art requires mental and emotional labour. Artists often feel guilty they’re not really working because they’re not lifting, carrying, moving… producing. They’re just doing their ‘dumb’ hobbies for an audience. They’re trying to make work they’re proud of, but it doesn’t feel like… well. Work-work.
Which is probably why it hurts that much worse when you can’t, say, make a minimum word count for the day. Because it can feel like if it’s not really ‘work’, then it shouldn’t be so hard to do.
I spend a lot of the time I’m not working feeling too guilty about the fact that I’m not working to relax. But I get so burned out and exhausted from this mindset that, even when I force myself to work, I haven’t been getting very much done.
Mental and emotional work is still hard work. Teachers are exhausted on days with hard classes, scientists are exhausted by writing papers. It’s valid, it’s fine.
I’m led to believe that scientists also have deep spirals of depression wondering if they really know or do anything, in a similar way. I think it’s because we aren’t impressed by the things we know, because we know how we know them. So knowing things never feels legitimate.
But that form of mental effort leads to an interesting form of writer’s block: Emotional writer’s block.
This isn’t when you get stuck on writing anything in specific, but when you don’t have the emotional energy necessary to do art. This doesn’t affect all artists, or all projects. But when it does hit, you’re usually already in a bad position to deal with it: Emotional exhaustion affects your ability to be rational or put the situation into a better context.
What this means is, you don’t have the self-confidence or self-esteem to do the work. And when you find this is true, it attacks your self-esteem and your self-confidence, sending you deeper into a spiral as you try to seek personal validation through your work and it won’t come to you.
You shouldn’t seek emotional validation from your work when you’re emotionally exhausted in the same way you shouldn’t study when you’re tired, or you shouldn’t exercise a sore muscle.
More generally, if it’s a project you’re excited to do, it can make you feel like you don’t deserve to be the person working on it. That the project deserves a much better creator to do it justice. Which means working on it will make you spend the entire production time comparing yourself to hypothetical better creators in your head.
For writing specifically, a lot of this I feel comes down to one of the most important aspects of writing: You need to be able to sit down and put words on the page knowing they’re probably going to be bad. You just need to write bad things sometimes to get to the point you’re writing not-bad things.
When you reach emotional exhaustion, this becomes harder to do because you lose an important barrier: It becomes harder to distinguish between the work being bad, and you being bad at doing the work.
It starts becoming a lot more difficult to not take it personally.
My advice is simple: Commit to taking a break. No “I need to do X much work to earn Y much time off today”. Just take a day or three off and emotionally recover. See some friends and call family if that helps you, or curl up in a dark corner of your room with a good book if it doesn’t.
I’d say still do the work in this time, but only when you feel like it, and only on things you enjoy working on. The guilt-free microprojects and weird experimental stuff. Doodle, sketch, whatever. Remember why you like doing this, or why you used to like doing this.
Time off is great, but if you take time off when you start feeling burned out, it’s how you feel rusty when you come back to it. Or, worse, you associate doing the work with the feeling of burnout, and become too intimidated to try to get back into it in the first place.
So don’t do it as work. Do the same things as play, as fun for a little bit, so you stop associating it with the emotional exhaustion.
Recover. Sleep. Do whatever you want.
You have my permission.