I am not a game designer. I barely understand interior design. But one thing I can relate to is being a creative person who wants to make things. In my younger days, I would spend countless hours on a typewriter (you heard me) writing fantastical stories about my stuffed animals, free-hand drawing comic book covers and spinning yarns about the wildlife on Pluto. But that was at least two years ago. I’m much more mature now.
During my elementary school years, these things were my main focus in life. It was basically everything I did in my spare time. Granted, most of it was not good or comprehensible, but it mattered to me. And at that time, it felt like I had an inexhaustible energy to make those things.
My high school years were very similar. I was deeply into writing short stories, usually series, one of which was even published. This was a creative outlet that, frankly, gave my life purpose in a way few other things did. It mattered so much to me, that I sought out a job in journalism just so that writing was a component of my career. Granted, this was a very different kind of writing, but even a tangential association was good for me. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote…
Until I didn’t.
You see, somewhere in my 20s, a strange sensation came over me. It was as if I wanted to put words on a page, but no longer knew how to do it. I knew the story I wanted to write, but the task suddenly felt daunting and stressful. It was no longer a creative outlet, but a trial by fire. My whole mindset seemed to change on a dime. When you do a creative task because of the sheer enjoyment it brings, anything seems possible. When you feel like it is an obligation because this is who you are now, nothing seems acceptable. Before even sitting down to the keyboard, I had convinced myself that nothing I wrote was going to live up to the imaginary standards I had set for myself. The only times I could muster an essay or poem was under the resignation that it likely would be bad, in my own mind if nothing else. And so, I more or less stepped away from writing with any frequency. And like most skills, when you stop doing it, you get rusty.
Skipping ahead, I found a new medium: podcasts. This felt fresh and new, a world where you could produce basically anything in audio form and export it to the world. How wonderful to have an open, expressive format to play around in. And so, I dove in and had oh so many ideas on new projects to spearhead. The same basic thing happened when I started making videos. Once you understand the basic skill set, the possibilities seem endless. So much so, that I now have a backlog of projects I have yet to start. And that is where a very familiar feeling starts taking over. It’s the feeling of going from “anything is possible” to “nothing is acceptable”. You are no longer playing around with the format, you need to keep building upon it. And over time that feels like an insurmountable task beyond your abilities, even though you have already been doing the work.
There are many reasons why the creative part of your brain starts to break down. So, let’s talk about them.
First, you may have noticed that my 20-something self was experiencing “writer’s block”, a term attributed to Freudian psychiatrist Edmund Bergler through his 1950 paper “Does Writer’s Block Exist?” (his answer was, of course, therapy). Although I feel the term “mental block” makes more sense, since the basic function can apply to any sort of medium. This is the point where you hit an imaginary wall and can’t figure out how to get around it. Then you spend so much time focusing on getting around the wall that you forget why you were trying to go past it in the first place. Then you start wondering why you needed to spend so much time staring at that wall and will likely choose to walk away. The irony of all this is that the wall, as I mentioned, is imaginary. It is a construct of your brain, there to make you question what you can and cannot do. If you really wanted to, you could just set about your task as normal. No one is stopping you except yourself. Although, you will start to find that in life, yourself can be the biggest obstacle to overcome. I always felt that blocks like this have far more to do with problems like imposter syndrome or hyperactive self-critique. It’s not that you can’t write, but you are convinced you lack the aptitude to do it correctly. I’ll end this part on a quote from Terry Pratchett, “There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”
Second, there is the problem of creative burnout, which is similar but also quite different. You see, where a block makes you feel like you can’t do something well enough, burnout makes you feel like you can’t make things fast enough. Perhaps the demand to produce at a frequency your audience requires is causing you to throw everything at a wall. Perhaps you have to cut corners or make a worse thing just so you can get something out into the world. Maybe you have simply run out of ideas and your mental well has not filled back with thinking water, yet others are thirsty and insist on getting some of your creative cocktail. If a mental block is something you place on yourself, burnout is likely caused by others placing something on you. And you will likely want to please them, because why else would you make something if not to be absorbed by those very same people. This can lead to very long and strenuous hours trying to build something for others, rather than for yourself, which leads almost certainly to resentment. In the long run, replenishing your mental energy to keep making the things you truly want to make is better for everyone in the long run. For you, it eliminates resentment toward your medium and energizes you to create. For your audience, it provides them with the same quality and verve they wanted from you the whole time. The unspoken contract you need to have with those making things and using things is an understanding that patience shall be rewarded. I will defer to the Dalai Lama to explain it better, “In dealing with those who are undergoing great suffering, if you feel ‘burnout’ setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself. The point is to have a long-term perspective.”
Which transitions well into the third type of problem: exhaustion. This is less about the belief in yourself or obligations to others as it is about your drive to do the things you already wanted to do. In this scenario, you have all the ideas and the willingness to produce them, but perhaps lack the time, the energy, the drive or enthusiasm to make them. This ends up feeling like a betrayal to yourself, where you are not accomplishing things you very much wanted to and intended to from the start. Exhaustion will usually rear it’s ugly head when you put a whole bunch of irons in the fire. If you currently have a to-do list of 10 separate projects, you may have inadvertently put too much on your plate to handle. You see, it’s not that your creative well is dry or you don’t believe in yourself. It’s that the measure of tasks in front of you are so varied and numerous that you just want to lay down and sleep for a year. There are a couple ways you can handle this. The most obvious way is to avoid giving yourself 10 projects to work on simultaneously. In lieu of eliminating some of those, placing them in an order of operation can be useful as well. At least now you’ll have priorities to avoid the voice in your head screaming “EVERYTHING MUST BE DONE RIGHT NOW!” But the best, yet hardest, way to deal with exhaustion is to step away for a little while. Giving your brain a rest can restore your reasoning, rationale and drive, allowing you to get back at it and build something terrific. This can be difficult when you have already resigned yourself to doing 10 things and choose to do none of them right now. But it is also the best way because there is a freedom and relief from choosing that option. Just like physical labor, mental labor can not be done continuously without a respite. Your body, in every respect, is not able to sustain maximum output for long periods of time. Additionally, if you are constantly deep in the weeds, you can lose perspective. Seeing the forest from the trees is immensely helpful when you begin your work anew. Curtis Tyrone Jones probably said it best, “Just because you take breaks doesn’t mean you’re broken.”
In general, a creative pursuit can feel invigorating and give purpose to your life. But when it starts to feel daunting or hollow or endless, it’s a sign that adjustments need to be made. Maybe you need to step back from what you’re doing. Maybe you need something new to excite you. Or maybe, you just need to sit back, take a deep breath and enjoy the moment you are in. Creativity is a valuable skill and it needs to be treated as such, especially by the one who is using it.