When "Want To" Becomes "Have To"

We have surely all experienced lulls in motivation. If you’re an artist, maybe you’ve had spans of time where you just couldn’t bring yourself to get into the studio. I’ve been hearing the question a lot lately in creative circles, “how to you stay motivated to make art?”

It was Chuck Close that said “inspiration is for amateurs.” And lots of professional artists I’ve heard answer this question reply with what amounts to the same thing. The art is the motivation. Art gives them life. It drives them. Sometimes, art keeps us going when all else fails.

But other times, despite our efforts, we show up and there’s just no spark. Or worse, we just stop showing up. The routine of art as a career can sometimes drain the life out of an otherwise dreamy path.

I will never have a good answer for people who ask if they should do art as a career or keep it for themselves. On the one hand, being an artist gives you freedom to do most anything. On the other hand, it can be incredibly unreliable, emotionally draining, and highly competitive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve googled “am I depressed or burned out.” And it’s no joke. Burnout can creep up without much warning and has been linked to medical issues also associated with obesity and smoking.

Some of my own signals that tell me I’m burned out include avoiding communication, avoiding responsibility, having difficulty organizing thoughts or concentrating, and physical exhaustion without much activity.

So what do you do when the thing that you love – the thing that you’ve always dreamed of doing everyday — becomes the thing you have to do, or even the thing that fills you with dread as a daily obligation?

Take time for yourself

My acupuncturist friend Amy Kuretsky always says “self care isn’t just taking a bath.” She’s right! But sometimes it is that. What makes you feel like a human? Better yet, what makes you feel like a cute human? What quiets your mind and lets you lose track of time? Those little refreshes are so crucial to maintaining mental health.

Take a social media break

Did you know that social media has been strategically designed to be addictive? The artist Marlee Grace took this on in her zine how a photo and video-sharing social networking service gave me my best friends, true love, a beautiful career, and made me want to die. In it she explores the effects of social media on her own mental health and gives a refreshing insight into how we can do business as small business owners and freelancers and artists offline and still stay relevant.

Spend time outside

Take a walk! Go to the park! Stand quietly and look at birds! All of these things can serve as powerful tools for grounding and coming back to the present moment.

Loosen up

Maybe you just need to try a different tool or a way of working that’s less restricted. Try drawing with something that’s completely different from what you usually use. For me that’d probably be a giant paintbrush. Just the thought of that makes my jaw clench, and that’s probably the biggest signal that I should try it.

Invest in other interests

Sometimes when I find that I’m just not interested in what I’m working on, I just need to shift perspectives. This can come in the form of cooking a meal, working on a quilt, researching herbs, or just reading a book. Often I’ll gain some insight from that activity that I can then translate back into my art practice.

Hiatus/career shift

In extreme circumstances, it may be time to shift gears altogether. If you find yourself in this position, it may help to make a few lists. The first one is a list of all of your strengths. Then all your weaknesses. Next list all of your experience, including transferable skills that you can take wherever you go. Rather than making a complete 180, it’s good to remember where you’ve been and what you’ve already done. All of that is valuable. Growth isn’t linear. It’s expansive.

Burnout is scary. It can come with a lot of shame. And trust me, I’m writing this not as someone who has overcome these feelings, but as someone who works with them every single day. As creative people, we all have that childlike wonder inside of us. Sometimes it just gets bored from being an adult and needs to be reawakened.