All Over the Map | October 2016

Rising from the Ashes

By Liz Massey, October 2016 Issue.

Every year, Echo pays tribute to the Valley’s rich arts community – and the role that LGBTQ people play in that community – through its annual arts issue. One reason, to be sure, is that queer folks have a long tradition of being artistic taste-makers.

Another reason may be that before we could be out, the arts were one of the few places where LGBTQ people could connect with the raw, honest emotional energy that is the sine qua non of good art, and one of the only places they could live out that sort of emotional honesty as part of their profession.

Being in contact with that sort of energy feels good. Being able to see the world as it is, and being able to tell stories about how to make it better, is the sort of energy that feeds both art and activism. It feels so good that when it’s gone, life can seem like a living hell, and we may spend a lot of money and time trying to get our creative or activist groove back.

It’s hard to talk about burnout. It’s the shadow side of achievement. Some people become fascinated by the tragic final acts of artists such as poet Sylvia Plath, novelist Virginia Woolf or musician Kurt Cobain. We also struggle to acknowledge the loss to our movement of the activists and “community pillars” who simply have to cease their involvement in the queer community. Because both types of burnout rob our world of the brilliance of so many, thinking about how to rectify this situation seems like an appropriate topic to broach in an issue focusing on the arts.

Very few people become burned out on their art or their activism overnight. Hillary Rettig, author of The Lifelong Activist, defines burnout as “the act of involuntarily leaving activism.” She differentiates burnout from a voluntary reduction or curtailment of advocacy work for the sake of changed life priorities. Likewise, when creative people burn out, it is often because doing one’s art has become a chore, and following the spark of inspiration has become impossible. In both cases, the person affected often experiences frustration, helplessness, emptiness, cynicism and anger.

Rettig identifies the primary culprit for activist burnout as “living a life in conflict with your values and needs,” and I would have to say as a creative person (who has been at various points in my life a writer, an editor, a musician, a videographer and a podcaster) I think this holds true for artists as well.

Rettig says that burnout is the result of a “failure to make a life for [oneself] that reflects who (one is) as an activist and as a complex, multi-dimensional human being.” In other words, those among us who burn out may not be doing too much, or the wrong things, but they are doing too much of the wrong things to support their unique mission in the world, which only they can figure out how to express and embody.

As noted earlier, the price of burnout can be high, both to the individual, as well as the community – especially the next generation, who will be deprived of their experience, insight and guidance. Luckily, this condition can be overcome. Wise artists and reform movement leaders can guide the way, and show us a few things that can move us energetically from a pile of ashes to a radiant and renewed Phoenix:

•Be honest.
Why do you create, whether it’s works of art or social change? Create a personal mission statement for yourself that answers that question to provide yourself with a chart for navigating through rough emotional seas.

•Learn the power of incubation.
Sometimes we need to let things simmer – ideas, strategies, network-building, etc. Doing nothing actually can be doing something important: that is, not rushing ideas or actions into the world before they are ready. This can be challenging if we’ve been raised to think of ourselves as a “human doing” and not a human being.

•Do things for others.
This isn’t an invitation to take care of others at the expense of one’s own needs. It’s a suggestion meant to take the focus off our individual pain and put it on being useful to others. Bake some cookies, sit with a friend who needs the company, play cards with an older adult. Reaching out can lessen the self-obsession that can go hand in hand with burnout, and demonstrate to ourselves that we are whole people who have worth beyond our labels as artists or activists.

•Get help if you need it.
Sometimes life just crushes us for a while. Grieving the death of a loved one, coming back from a financial setback, watching a friend spiral into addiction or danger … all these scenarios can plunge us into a place where making positive change is hard. It’s OK to find a counselor or a wise friend to talk to. Often, as the pain abates, ideas and energy creep back into our lives, like children stealing down the stairs on Christmas morning.

The only way to never risk burnout is to never follow the deep, sweet, intoxicating energy of creation – and that means, on many levels, never really living at all. As author Jon Acuff put it in his book Quitter: Closing the Gap Between Your Day Job and Your Dream Job, “Burn your dream bright. Pursue it with the best of who you are. But don’t confuse hustle with burnout. Hustle fills you up. Burnout empties you. Hustle renews your energy. Burnout drains it.”