Letter to a burnout


Dear Artist,

Certain thought circles are taking a new approach to the creative rut. Instead of blaming the usual villains of fear of failure and fear of success, feelings of unworthiness, lackadaisical motivation or a run-of-the mill shortage of ideas, the new culprit is the 2022 phenomenon of “burnout.” “Burnout,” currently poisoning everything from parenting, idealism, sports and work to surviving a never-ending global pandemic, is that state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged stress. And if staying alive was not enough, burnout is also exacerbated by a non-stop culture that glorifies productivity; or what the young people call, “hustling,” “grinding,” and “monetizing.”

Black Cloud, 2007 Paper Installation view at Phoenix Art Museum, 2017 by Carlos Amorales (b. 1970)

Black Cloud, 2007
Installation view at Phoenix Art Museum, 2017
by Carlos Amorales (b. 1970)

If you’re an artist, you may not even recognize this new, deadly problem as a form of creative rut. It may just feel like an awful way to live. Because Painter’s Block, often characterized by not painting, doesn’t look much like overworking, it’s not immediately apparent that its cause is burnout. A quick browse around the internet can shed some light on the theory: If overworking is accompanied by a lack of ideas, a would-be creative person is merely spinning emptily in the production of idea-bereft content. The energy expended, the stress, the interminable demand for work sends the artist hurtling towards burnout, while her idea-generating cerebral cortex languishes.

Bird Face, 2007 Oil on canvas 60.5 x 80.25 incjes by Carlos Amorales (b. 1970)

Bird Face, 2007
Oil on canvas
60.5 x 80.25 inches
by Carlos Amorales

If I’m sounding a little dramatic, consider Hustle and Float, digital anthropologist Rahaf Harfoush’s 2019 treatise on the existential rut. The antidote, she says, is in recognizing that creativity is a cycle for a reason. Artists were, in fact, never designed to apply an industrial model to work. In other words, if daydreaming – what neuroscientists call the default mode network – is the portal to accessing the brain processes that allow us to form new associations and therefore ideas, then continuous productivity is the antithesis of art-making. And if we’re all creative, as Harfoush insists we are, then none of us were ever designed for such a grind.



PS: “We have evolved into an unsustainable hybrid state, trying to be both productive and creative, when that might not be effective—or possible.” (Rahaf Harfoush, from Hustle and Float: Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive in a World Obsessed with Work)

Jungle de estrellas (Star jungle) 14, 2020 Collage. Painted cardboard cutouts glued on linen 15 7/10 × 11 4/5 inches by Carlos Amorales

Jungle de estrellas (Star jungle) 14, 2020
Collage. Painted cardboard cutouts glued on linen
15 7/10 × 11 4/5 inches
by Carlos Amorales

Esoterica: Creativity happens when the mind is given time to wander — artists need to stop and rest in order to restart the processes by which they advance their thoughts. Many creative people, influenced by a culture that fetishizes the two conflicting values of creativity and capitalism, feel guilty when they’re not producing. As a result, stopping to rest, or “float,” says Harfoush, can be difficult. Her two solutions are both obvious and deceptively simple. First, take a walk. If you haven’t got the inclination or ability to do this, stare at a blank wall for 15 minutes. This de-stimulation activity is akin to turning off a screen, silencing the stereo or TV, and temporarily removing the inputs we’ve all become accustomed to processing, all the time. If you do this, your hippocampus will come alive with its own programming. “The tree that is beside the running water, wrote Saint Teresa of Avila, “is fresher and gives more fruit.”

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“Poetry arrived in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where it came from, from winter or a river. I don’t know how or when…” (Pablo Neruda)



  1. Good one for today Sara. I sold 2 pieces last week, should be encouraging to paint, but with no promise of a show this year, so much work accumulating. A blank white wall, hmmmm! Worth a try.

  2. Such good reminders Sara! I often get asked if I paint everyday. The answer is no…. but I think about painting everyday, in a good way. In the way of leisurely considering possibilities. In the way of studying the work of a master or listening to an artist’s talk or participating in a zoom call with fellow artists or an art class on contemporary landscape painting. In the way of long walks in the woods and down by the sea. I manage the expectations of myself and others by not booking shows for work that is not yet completed and ready for released. I limit the number of commissions I commit to completing at any one time. I know my own inner creative process and how to tickle and nudge it awake and when to let it rest while focusing on something else. After so many years of doing this, I trust that the new ideas will come if in this way I plant them in creatively fertile soil. There is no need to push or rush my time at the easel. Yes, I have hard self-imposed commitments such as the newsletter that goes out to my art collectors and serious fans every second Friday. Yes, I must paint edges and put on hanging wires on (my least art favourite tasks). Yes, I must immediately packages and ship a painting that is sold and get the tracking number off to the buyer. Yes, I must compile the paper work to file my income tax and submit the provincial and federal taxes that I have collected on time, every time. Yes, the social media posts must go out with some regularity each week. All this must be done while I am being kind and gentle with myself at the easel. This part of me that paints and thinks about painting enjoys the luxury of freedom that comes from the other part of me keeping things organized and running the art business. These two parts do chat from time-to-time but my creative heart is the lead and my business head knows full well that there is no business if the whole of this human being is suffering from burnout. There are only between 30-40 good paintings in me (depending on the size) to complete each year. That is all. I am not a production machine. I am a creative being who has figured out the fine balance between thriving and working at the creative edge of what I have to offer. Each person has their own personal recipe for how this works for them. If I am undecided, or feeling unsure about whether or not to take something on, I ask a question that has become an old friend – will doing this or not matter ten years from now? There is usually surprising clarity in this question that allows for the occasional pyjama day in bed with a book as the rain pounds down on our tin roof and the mist rolls through the valley. This question creates a luxury of time and space that offers up freedom to just be and then be ready to do yet again. Thank you as always Sara for your thought letters. I am continually surprised when I have so much to say in reply. All the best of the weekend everyone!

  3. Unbelievable. I just had this discussion with my wife as I explained why it is hard to “move forward with my activities” when I am constantly interrupted or I have to think about making my next Zoom meeting. I am a born daydreamer; always have been and always will be. My best ideas come on walks and raking leaves. Everyone speaks of being “mindful” but the true goal is to be “mindless” to let the brain wander, explore, and create. We are constantly bombarded with messages. For crying out loud, even going to the urinal there is a ad on the “pee pad” at the bottom. Yes, “creatives” are meant to let their minds wander and as Maya Angelou said, “…we need a day away.” https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/8226394-a-day-away-we-often-think-that-our-affairs-great

  4. My problem is I have more ideas than time to deal with them. They flit through my head WHILE painting, while trying to go to sleep, when I dream, while I am cooking dinner. Many, probably which would be wonderful, are not acted upon because I was doing something else and later when my mind has a time to “rest” it is on to other ideas. I paint a lot, but not always every day. I decided about a year ago I needed a hobby. Now ideas are racing through my mind about how to expand that in addition to my painting. I am very thankful that I have never had “painter’s block.” My problem is toooooo many ideas!

    • Yes!!!! Too many fun ideas, not enough time!
      I have often found that a “change is as good as a rest” and that other creative activities inform and cross-pollinate each other.
      Yes, there is a need for downtime, too, as a break from too much “doing” in general. Long walks with the dogs work wonders, meditation, riding my bike, as well as the enforced time away in a non-creative day job has me more than excited to get back to my “real work”. But more often than needing these breaks, I find myself resentful that they take time away from getting to more of the ideas that flow through me like an ever-babbling stream!

  5. Sara, thank you for this. These are things I have been pondering for a long time but have only recently come to realize that I can allow myself to get off the roundabout without feeling guilty. Having mentored many over the years to put aside these shoulds and shouldn’ts, it has shown me how difficult it is to actually do that consistently (practice what we preach!) Old thinking habits get right into our cells. Knowledge can set us free! I believe we will see many benefits of this pandemic, one being that it is giving us an opportunity to see things in an alternative light and to become empowered differently. I’m off to do some forest-bathing. Creating health is another of our innate abilities.

  6. Oh, what a gift! Thank you for lifting me out a black hole in my creative universe and offering a path forward. Thank you for continuing the legacies of both your parents so ably, Sara.

  7. Thank you, Sara, and all the thoughtful artists who responded here. Instead of panic over not painting, I’ve learned to go outside, down into my studio, or curl up with art books that will inspire future work. Yesterday I had the pleasure of a Zoom session with artist Nancy Reyner about how to tell if your piece is finished. After that, two more Zoom sessions playing the Native American flute. Today is part business and part art studio day, the coldest day this winter in southwest Utah. Every day after I give gratitude for another precious bit of life, I put fear behind me. Your words eased any creeping fear further away.

  8. Thank you, thank you Sara. Having painted almost daily for the past 80 years, I now realize my lack of interest for a few months lately is just a. “Creative Rest”. Whew….not to worry now

    Barbara B.

  9. Yes. I totally agree with the need to intersperse creative bursts with rest. In fact the whole of life around us evolves on steps of rest and activity . ..like the rest of winter before the creativity of summer. Even our eyes blink to rest before looking out etc. Personally I like to practise Transcendental Meditation technique morning and evening, which gives me periods of exceptionally deep rest twice a day. I feel energised and motivated for my art practice after and don’t ever seem to run out of creative ideas

  10. I would have commented earlier but I’ve been staring at the wall waiting for the right words. :) Great newsletter. I am constantly pondering the conflicts in our personalities when it comes to feeling successful. I think your Dad had a quote on how amateurs wait for inspiration, professionals get in the studio and do it. I paint every night. I come from a nocturnal family who loved to create at night, best time of day for us. I don’t ever suffer from Painter’s Block, but I have spells of not loving what I am signing. I have spells of it feeling like work more than that springing sense of joy and accomplishment. Perhaps I should be staring at a wall in those down times. There is so much involved in how we feel when we pick up that brush to click into creative muse and just paint. The noises of life are so hard to quiet sometimes. For me they do, tho, classical music and the sound and smell of the act of painting, meditative in itself.

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/muskoka-beaver-pond-wpcf_300x239.jpgMuskoka Beaver Pond
oil on board
30 x 40 inches

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