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Film Independent Mon 5.1.2017

This Is How We Do It: How To Avoid Creative Burnout

Each month in This Is How We Do It writer Cortney Matz mines her own frustrations to explore issues of productivity, coming away with (more or less) helpful thoughts on finishing that pesky screenplay, short film or whatever else may be vexing the artistic mind. Warning: this is not an advice column.


One of the scariest things I’ve ever experienced as a professional writer, one who depends on my creativity to make a living, is a loss of interest.

Sure, we all know being creative is work. We have to put the time in, whether we feel like doing whatever it is we do (writing, acting, directing, editing, etc.) or not. But what about when you keep putting in the time, only to feel completely lackluster and unengaged? That’s some frightening stuff. Worse still is when the creative instinct seems to flee altogether. Maybe you recognize the signs: fatigue, anxiety, apathy. Feeling overwhelmed and unfulfilled by the project you’re working on. Weight gain or loss is not uncommon either. Even depression.

Feeling creatively blocked. We’ve all been there (but hopefully not for long).

Bottom line, you just feel tired. And the thing you’ve loved with such passion, the thing that’s been the driving force for your productivity all this time, is now uninspired and disappointing. Have we lost it? Are we washed-up, has-beens?

Hardly. And I really mean that—I’m not just trying to get you to keep reading (but do keep reading.) 


Meet Zack Arnold, editor for indie films such as The Bannen Way and Blue as well as TV shows Burn Notice and Empire. Now, everyone bookmark his website: Fitness in Post.

Arnold started the site after crawling out of a hole of depression and workaholism as a professional film and TV editor working 12-hour days. It took years of trial-and-error to find habits that would fit his demanding schedule. He writes:

“I lived most of my life making very poor health choices and have driven myself into the ground more times than I can count. Unfortunately, the post-production industry does not provide the tools or resources to guide us out of the dark holes we dig for ourselves. This industry hands us the shovel. So I decided 10 years ago it was time to do the research myself and build my own personal health and wellness program. It’s been a long journey and I’ve failed a lot more than I’ve succeeded.”

The shovel we’re talking about is probably more ominous than the one depicted here.

The entertainment industry does indeed hand us the shovel, no matter which aspect of production each of us work in: development, pre-production, shooting, post-production, distribution, publicity. And when we’re flying on the wings of creative inspiration, too often we’re more than happy to dig like maniacs.

But here’s the secret: we can pause and take a rest now and then. Maybe take a sip of water. Chat with a fellow excavator. We are not slaves to the muse.


So! Here are some suggestions for heading off burnout (or coming back from it):

Accept that this is happening. Also, that it’s temporary. You’ve burnt the candle at both ends, and you’re going to need more candles. Especially in the case of a hard dash toward a deadline, once you’ve recovered from sleep deprivation and begun feeding yourself properly again, the sheer volume of everyday tasks that have been buried under overwork (laundry, housecleaning, yard work, filing, paying bills) will more than keep you occupied for a spell. If you invest in yourself and tend to the details of your life, you will eventually feel like creating again. No one can say how long it will take, but it won’t take as long as it seems like it’s taking.

Move more. But only gently, no need for CrossFit levels of activity just yet. Stand and stretch every hour or so. Walk to lunch instead of driving. Pace while taking phone calls. Move your neck and shoulders, stretch your legs. You were not designed to sit, stand, or lie in one position all day long.

Get enough rest. That includes sleep, lying on the floor in shavasana, meditation, deep breathing. We’re all constantly underestimating how much rest we need in order to live well. If you feel tired, it’s time to take a rest.

When in doubt, shavasana.

Watch movies. Pull out your old favorites—the films that made you want to do this in the first place. Creativity is as much about input as it is output. Absorb some films, books, theatre and art museums. Let other creative expressions sink into your psyche.

But just watch the movies. I’m not talking about analysis, dissection, criticism or anything that sounds like work. You don’t even have to enjoy them. Just watch.

Journal. Even if you don’t enjoy writing (in which case, try these alternatives), Find some way to externalize your feelings and thoughts about your project with as much honesty as you can find in your heart of hearts. It’s amazingly helpful for identifying whatever underlying attitudes are contributing to your creative burnout.

Now that you’ve taken care of yourself, all of these notebooks will be full soon!

In the words of Zack Arnold:

“What I’ve realized is that the post-production industry needs its own health and wellness program. There is no organization in our industry looking out for our well-being, we have to be our own advocates. And the only way to adequately do that is educating ourselves.”

So let’s notice the quality of our lives while we’re chasing our dreams and admit that pushing ourselves too hard is a dead end. Chances are, we have more control over our muses and inspiration than we may think.

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