Burn out and Afterlife: A Few Thoughts on Burn Out as a Part of Artist’s Experience

by Weronika Murek for ARTeria Foundation

Once upon a time I wrote an article about a burn out. My friend did a play about it and commissioned a piece for theatrical add-in as I was one of those who might come to mind when someone talks about being burned out. We used to spend a lot of time discussing it. First, there was a guilt. Because it is hard not to feel guilty when it becomes more and more obvious for us that the opportunity to work on something you love it a rare privilege. Then there was a darkness. Because one can get quite lonely when experiencing burn out and not being able to find people with whom one will be able to talk about it.

Having a job you love is a privilege, yet moaning on the job you love feels like even a bigger privilege.

It is indeed hard to talk about it.

Once I started, it got quite a push-back. Of course, everyone knows or at least can imagine how is it like to get tired whilst doing her or his own business and duties. Once your job is mundane and once you get stuck in a rut, the feeling of weariness is certainly looming over. But how about the job which is supposed to be interesting, gives you satisfaction and opportunity to be creative? It hardly ever gets boring. It usually speeds up your hear race but in a good way.

Nevertheless one day you might just woke up whilst being tired and not able to get up.

Each coin has two sides. The job which is supposed to be interesting, gets to be stressful. It gives satisfaction but when you fail, you fail twice as much as you might fail doing things you wouldn’t love or care for so much. It is supposed to give you opportunity for being creative but yet – it sometimes forces you to be creative. You might have to give and give and give – only to find out that that you ended up having nothing left.

There is certain difference between verbs „to give” and „to force to give”. To me – sometimes – this is where the world – as it was in Shakespearean sense of time – gets to be out of joint. Having said so: this is also a place when your lifetime passion turns into a proper professional job. So the distinguish and manage between „to give” and „to force to give” is a key for such situation.

Over the years I have tried some of those suggestions you might come across when doing your research on the burn out. A friend of mine could use a bit of spare time and meditation which seems to work fine for her. I have been trying to postpone my burn out by dividing it into multiple different activities. I have not only been on writing itself but working in the theatre and trying a bit of journalism. I got the feeling that I have to rely on many different resources because I got bored easily. But the truth is we do not always get to choose. And the truth is we do not always have a chance to postpone things to grasp another breath.

Sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

I usually share the gold quip provided by Hemingway himself. Famous for being a perfectionist, the famous writer once said that any first draft of anything is a shit. Literally it is what he said when asked how he dealt with the problem of being burn out. Hear me out: given his personal history, Hemingway might not be the best symbol for those who has been troubled with burn out, but that idea of him might stuck with us. Once you feel pressed and forced, you start to lose a juice. You feel you care so much about your job, you stuck within a vicious circle of perfectionism. There is nothing perfectionism likes less than something less than perfect. And then again: anything at the very beginning is pretty much a mess. What Hemingway does with his quip, is to give ourself a good relief once we had already plucked enough courage to carry on the job we have to do. The very moment you put first words in a line, trying to coin a paragraph, makes you vulnerable. You put some effort, yet the results are only to come and no one knows what would be the final result. Then it is important to cut yourself a slack. Yes, any first draft of whatever you might want to try would be a disaster. Live with it and move on. There are many other words, scenes, sounds and ideas to come.

Better said than done. Because sometimes burn out means that you are in the middle of nothing. You feel a sense being in the middle of nothing. The words elude you. There is no idea to come. You cannot thing about anything productive. You feel like there is hardly anything left inside you. I experienced it many times before and got to live up to the very thought that I might never be able to solve this problem. I did try to prepare something I would call „First Aid Kit” I could use when the time would be scarce and so would be the resources. Yet I still struggle with an idea of getting into this sort of feeling of being empty or numb.

What I call Burn Out First Aid Kit is the little collection of those things I know I can rely on when it comes to get some inspirations. There are many books and movies I like. Some of those I have seen more than two or three times. But when I mean my First Aid Kit, I mean very specific pieces. Those I know would give me a bit of inspiration or to send a message to my brain: this is it, we are in the working mode and we have to get on well with it. One of those book is written by Djuna Barnes. It is called The Nightweood. Let me be clear: The Nightwood is a masterpiece but it is hardly a book you can enjoy as a bedtime book nor to read it while commuting on metro. To be totally honest, The Nightwood is hardly a book you might want to enjoy in a one piece. It is one of those over complicated and utterly encrusted books with a marvelous language and quirky yet vintage imaginarium that you might want to enjoy little by little. It is not my favorite book but it is indeed the book that usually helps me to get myself going. It always brings me a little bit of excitement which makes the heart to get a proper beat and brain to get a proper rhythm.

For each of you it might be varied. It can be a song or movie – one scene. Something that we can use as the doors for focus. It often happens that once you crossed it, your mind starts to work in a bit different way.

Of course, one has to know himself or herself. Be watchful towards those habits that make all our daily routine. Are you a morning person? Which time serves you right? Once you know what are your customs, it helps you to manage your burn out time. It might not cure it but it helps to sort it. If you are struggling with a text, it is better not to get yourself down to work while being overeaten or too tired with other things – especially if you know you might not be most alerted once done with dinner. It’s also good to sort those duties in a proper order – from the most difficult to those which might be a tiny bit less challenging.

Once a friends of mine told me a story about their journey to the desert. They hired a guide. They crossed quite a bit of the land. They spent a night in the open air. They said that one of the best advices they got for the artistic path is indeed the advice they got for managing to find themselves out while being lost in the desert. In the forest, things tend to be easier: there are trees to recognize, path to follow, stones to mark the way. But in the desert you are quite alone under the sun and the moon. There is sand. What else? How one can mark its traces over the sand while the wind still blows and destroys everything?

Here it comes: whenever you feel like you got lost, try to get back to the very last place when you felt safe.

What does it mean to feel safe when it comes to burn out?

Of course, the answer may vary. For me it means to feel strong enough to carry on my project with trust and sense of agency. No panicking. No tearing one’s hair out in desperation. Staying calm. Trying to identify the source of pleasure and excitement in the job.

This is why it is always good to be connected to ourselves. It is one of those things that might come across as a cliche but there is a hidden truth in it. A friend of mine who has also dealt with the problem of burn out, started to write a letter to herself and try to use her „inside voice” as the monologue in which she would explain herself to herself. Why bother putting so much effort into preparing a letter while the only person who would ever read it, is a person who already knows what you are thinking?

It is because writing a letter helps to put our thoughts and feelings into a structure. Our inner monologue might be bursting with interesting things and pearls of wisdom, but sometimes we are so used to it, we do not hear it properly anymore. Or we are in a chaos, with all those things that are happening to us and all those little fires we might need to care for and those things we have already forgotten – there are so many things we have to deal with as human beings. Putting them in the order and transferring into the words may come in handy. It is difficult but worth to try it.

A friend of mine who started to write down those inner monologue as the letters to herself, she told me she sometimes felt he burn out was a result of frustration related with certain project. She would think she had failed. She knew she might need to improve herself but could not identify the areas. She would just constantly ask herself: what am I missing? What is so scarce?

She felt like then answer on what is she missing was the answer on what does she want. Which might sound like most obvious question on the world but there are not many of those who succeeded when answering it.

Challenging ourself is a challenge itself. Whenever we felt like we are stuck nowhere with our work, it’s good to give ourselves a go and try to get away from those things we already know about our project. Since our job is to find out those things we do not know and we have to figure out. It is Paul Arden who might come as handful. In one of his books he advice: whatever you think, think the opposite. And I try to do it anytime everything become so obvious or difficult, there is hardly anything more to be done. Because sometimes we are stuck to the ideas and we all our forces and efforts are in vain.

The Japanese have an ikigai as a philosophy of happiness. Ikigai itself is a lifestyle. It used to have its own hype when all the lifestyle market was flourishing and all you could find was a bunch of advices for a good life. I never really trusted it.

Recently I was commissioned to write a play about the pursuit of happiness in Germany. It was a story about the institute of happiness and different strategies for happiness. Even the stories of Grimm brothers were there. What we have learnt was also the core meaning of ikigai as it is. It is supposed to be a combination of doing what is your passion, your mission, your profession and your vocation. I always had some troubles distinguish between vocation and mission. I hardly even though about it as a part of my life as I was struggling to remain over the water. But then I had a thought about having the sense of connection to the world. Writing is a lonely job. You mostly spent your time at the desk and hardly ever get to see people response. You might read them, experience them later but most of the time it is like throwing coins into the dark well and trying to hear out the sound of it making any kind of impact. Thats why I liked theater. It is rewarding (or punishing) you on the stop. In the terms of ikigai I keep thinking about the feeling I had once I have been collaborating in theater doing play about the mental health care system in Poland. As a part of set design there were supposed to be some decoration made by Rural Housewives’ Club from the local area. They worked on it together with the teenagers from the LGTBQ community from the same town. For some of them that would be the only opportunity to meet face in face and recognize themselves as friends and fellows. It came with breaking a mental barrier – we usually expect older people from rural regions to be a bit of narrow-minded or biased. Then it turned out we were the only one to be biased. And the very picture of those two groups of people is one of my most treasured memories related to my work. Because it brought me a sense of ikigai and get closer to the real feeling of what is a mission and what is vocation. And at the very joint of it there is the sense of work you do. And it is more than just being perfect or acclaimed. It has some value for others not only as a result but also as an opportunity it creates within a community.

I might share with you all my experiences and ideas that I find useful but there is one thing to be stressed out: once you feel like you have no strength to carry on nor to get up in the morning, you might need to see a specialist and relay on the professional help. Because within a burn out there is a possibility of depression and such shall be treated with care.

Weronika Murek (born 1989) – writer, playwright and columnist. She graduated from the Faculty of Law and Administration of the University of Silesia, Faculdad de Derecho of the Universidad de Barcelona as well as the Creative Writing (SLA) postgraduate course at the Jagiellonian University. She is the author of a collection of short stories Uprawa roślin południowych metodą Miczurina (Czarne Publishing House 2015) which was nominated for the Polityka Passports, the Gdynia Literary Award for prose and the Conrad Award. The collection reached the final stage of the Nike Award and won the Witold Gombrowicz Award for the best book debut. It has been translated into French, Hungarian, Slovak and Serbian and the Norwegian translation is in progress. One of her stories was adapted to a short film Maria nie żyje/Maria is dead’ and a feature film Przejście/Passage (directed by D. Lamparska) that reached the final of the Golden Lions competition of the Gdynia Film Festival. In 2015, she received the Gdynia Literary Award for her drama Feinweinblein (translated into English, French, Georgian and Romanian) and the award for the best debut in the Staging of Contemporary Art Competition for Sztuka Mięsa (staged by the Silesian Theatre in Katowice and directed by R. Talarczyk). In 2017, a TV theatre play based on Feinweinblein was also produced in the Teatroteka series (directed by M. Bednarkiewicz). In 2019, her collection of plays with the same title was published (Czarne Publishing House). Since 2015, she has worked with Polish theatres, including the Studio Theatre, the New Theatre in Warsaw, the TR Warszawa, the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, the Słowacki Theatre in Kraków, the Jewish Theatre in Warsaw, the W. Siemaszkowa Theatre in Rzeszów, the H. Modrzejewska Theatre in Legnica and the Contemporary Theatre in Szczecin. She is a regular contributor to Dwumiesięcznik, the monthly magazine Pismo and the bi-monthly Książki. Magazyn do czytania.

Coverimage by pressfoto on Freepik