The Art of Not Trying: How to Tackle Creative Burnout Like a Little Witch
By Yael Tobón Uribe
The first days of the semester seem to be a very fresh start. On a personal note, I usually fill my agenda with assignments, sign up for extracurriculars, and create -occasionally unrealistic- expectations for myself.
It is common to go into classes, extracurriculars, New Year's resolutions, and more full of motivation- until that motivation turns into exhaustion and, ultimately, burnout. An additional source of pressure is that it is not only the beginning of the semester but also the start of the new year.
I have talked about burnout in the past because it has, unfortunately, been a constant in the last year. During this first week of school, my body shut down. On that first Wednesday, I felt dizzy, nauseous, tired, and VERY irritable. I didn’t give my body and mind a chance to rest during the holidays, so she is now reclaiming what she needs. I constantly focused on trying to eliminate the symptom (burnout) rather than taking a deeper look to find out what caused it in the first place.
After I was forced to slow down, I asked myself how I could create a sustainable routine that would help me prevent creative burnout. Back in 2019, the World Health Organization finally recognized burnout as an official medical condition. Some of its symptoms include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.
Having said this, I would like to focus on the beautiful movie Kiki’s Delivery Service, directed by the acclaimed Hayao Miyazaki. Kiki is a witch who, after trying to do too much, burns out and begins to lose her magical abilities. I, too, sometimes believe that I have lost my magic forever after attempting to do too much.
Kiki is excited to start a new lifestyle that allows her to do everything she once dreamt of. She often puts others' needs before her own, completes difficult deliveries, and quickly feels overwhelmed.
“Flying used to be fun until I started doing it for a living,” she says. Hit home, much?
She has taken on too much and turned her passion into dull task-work. This happens because her identity is just being a witch. If she can’t fly, she can’t be a witch — and if she can’t be a witch, then who is she? Kiki then visits her friend Ursula, with whom she has a heartfelt conversation about what is bothering her.
Ursula: You know, could be you’re working at it too hard. Maybe you should just take a break.
Kiki: Yeah, but still, if I can’t fly…
Ursula: Then stop trying. Take long walks. Look at the scenery. Doze off at noon. Don’t even think about flying. And then, pretty soon, you’ll be flying again.
Kiki: You think my problems will …
Ursula: Go away? That’s right. It’s going to be fine. I promise.
That idea of stepping back from one’s routine can seem terrifying, not only for artists but for those of us who have a hard time defining our identity outside work. I once read an anonymous quote that said “Sometimes creative people need to sit down and do nothing", and it felt like my mind tripped. How am I possibly going to sit down and do nothing? I have assignments to write, poems to read, short stories to write, and God knows how much more. Then I questioned myself. Why am I so scared of stepping back and taking some distance from my art? Is it because I feel empty without it?
Kiki is forced to remove her sense of self from what she does. The way she does this is by recharging her spirit. Burnout is not always caused by doing too much but also by doing too little of what nourishes our spirit. When she steps back from her life, she uses this time to help someone and relax.
Taking some time away from my art can be tricky, since my surroundings inspire me as much as my inner monologue. Sometimes, it's just a scene I saw on the street or a conversation between two strangers I overheard on the metro. Other times, it's a thought that came to my mind while eating an apple: Apples are my favorite fruit, even though many people don't like them. But when I'm tired, everything I do feels heavy. My body is begging me to keep my energy inside as much as possible.
Some things that refresh my soul are warm tea, going on walks (maybe not as much right now, though), baking, going to a café, laughing with my friends, hugging my mom, lying on the ground, looking at the sky, going on silent retreats, sleeping, etcetera. Those are the things I try to turn to when experiencing creative burnout instead of forcing myself to create.
Kiki ultimately realizes that the magic is within her and can only grow as much as she allows it to. Maybe it is true that artists experience an uncountable amount of rebirths. She shows us that if we stop having fun, the magic will slip away. And when we feel like we’ve lost our magic, we have to trust in ourselves, recharge, and find our inspiration.
Don’t give up, and you’ll be flying again in no time.
“Burn-out an ‘Occupational Phenomenon’: International Classification of Diseases.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 28 May 2019, https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases.
Miyazaki, H. (Director). (1989). Kiki's Delivery Service [Film]. Studio Ghibli.