Be Your Own Sous Chef (or: Screw You, Burnout)

Ever have that experience where you just finished a project and you sit down to start another piece and … there’s nothing in there? There are no characters playing around in the back of your mind. No images floating around in your heart. No worlds waiting for you play in. Or maybe there is some small thing, but when you go to write about it, you realize that it’s barely a wisp of a notion, and no matter how much you brain storm or free write, it refuses to develop into anything serious?

Yeah. That’s burnout.

Frida Kahlo Diary Pages

A page from Frida Kahlo’s sketchbook, which included preliminary sketches, doodles, tests of ink, and personal thoughts.

I’ve suffered from more than my fair share of burnouts. I tend to write in jags, whipping out three or four stories in a short period of time and then finding myself hollowed out and brain dead. I also get it when I’ve finished a serious rewrite–there’s nothing like working my butt off to solve a billion plot problems to leave me a blithering idiot. But I think I might have burnout licked these days–which is a good thing, since writing is now  my primary source of income.

Here’s the secret about burnout: you’re not broken. You’re not blocked. There’s nothing wrong with you. Burnout is what your brain gets when you’ve been really focused on one particular creative activity and when you get done, your brain is locked in that gear. You feel hollowed out and worthless, but you’re not. It’s just that your inner spotlight is set to one particular stretch of the mental stage, and now that you’ve finished that piece of work, there’s nothing on the stage anymore.

Most advice about getting your creativity stoked up after an experience like this talks about a process people call “filling the well.” The idea is that you’ve tapped out your ideas and that you need to rest and refill the pot of ideas brewing inside you. It’s a metaphor that makes sense because you feel hollow when you’re in this situation. The thought that resting and playing around with other forms of art and reading books you love can fix you? That’s a wonderfully comforting thought. But the problem with filling the well this way is that it can take a much longer time than you’d really like it to take. I need to get creative quickly if I’m going to make a living doing this!

Luckily, I found a trick to recover faster. See, when your brain is being creative, it’s taking the material of the world and your experience and running it through a kind of blender.

we start off with all these fresh ingredients, recognizable (a heart, a finger, an eyeball, a glass of wine) and we throw them in the art-blender. i only let things mix very slightly. i keep my blender on 2 or 3. you can recognize the component parts: in the final art-soup, the finger might be severed and mangled, but you can peer into your bowl and see that it’s a finger, floating there, all human and bloody and finger-y. neil puts his art-blender on 10. you wind up with a fantastic purée, but often you have no fucking idea where the experiences of his life wound up in the mix of his final product. if you see a finger, it’s not recognizable as a human one. and that’s part of what makes Neil Gaiman (capital N and G) work. and, i’d argue, my choice to dial my art-blender down from a 5 to a 2 or 3 over the past few years, as i write more and more “direct” songs…i don’t know, it may be part of what i’ve needed to do to survive as an artist (or more likely, as a human).

we do these things instinctively, i think.

Amanda Palmer, blog

But for most of us, we’re not running the blender all the time. And between smoothie orders, we spend a lot of time stocking up on ingredients and filling our pantry (or “filling the well”), but we’re not being our own sous-chefs. We’re not doing actively anything to get the ingredients ready for our smoothie, so when it’s time to cook, there’s an overwhelming sense of THERE’S NOTHING TO EAT! DISASTER! QUICK! SOMEBODY ORDER A PIZZA!

So if you’re like me, when you meet someone who’s always ready to whip up a delicious meal–or someone who’s always painting or writing or creating some wonderful thing–it’s awe-inspiring. But these people, whether they’re creative business-people like Martha Stewart or in-demand movie makers like Guillermo del Toro, aren’t inhuman creator-machines. They’re ready to go because they’re their own darn sous chef. They take time to actively engage with their experiences so they’re easily available for art.

Basically: They are working all the time. Just on stuff YOU CAN’T SEE. They’re making ingredients!

If you’ve ever taken an art class, your teacher probably told you that keeping a sketchbook would help your skills up and help you work out ideas before you ever need them. If you wrote a senior thesis in college, you probably spent a lot of time reading and making notes and processing texts before you finally found the perfect combination of ideas to use in your final product. You had to prepare your ingredients before you started cooking with them.

Del Toro Sketchbook & Cover of book

Cover and pages from CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, a book exploring Guillermo del Toro’s sketchbooks and collections. (From Mighty

Well, I’m finally keeping a notebook. I’m spending a little bit of time every day (or at least every few days!) working in my notebook. Not working on my particular current projects, but just thinking about images and texts and life experiences that I’m exploring right now. Instead of just reading a book and enjoying one of the characters, I’m jotting down what I liked or didn’t like about that person. I’m actively engaging my brain on a regular basis–and every time I get done working, I find I’ve come up with all kinds of new insight and engagement in the projects I have to work on. I feel inspired all the time!

I’m keeping my blender on the counter all the time, and I’m filling the fridge with lots of great ingredients that are ready to go in the blender. Just knowing that I’ve got material ready means I don’t have to ever feel worried about running out of material. And I don’t have to feel that horrible, hollow feeling of burnout (which can turn into a much darker feeling of depression if you’re not lucky).

So get out there and start thinking, and save your thoughts in a notebook. You might be amazed by how good it will make you feel.

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