It’s summer. The season of vacation. Time for time off.
I know it’s summer because the days are longer, if not really hotter in Seattle where I live. But would I know it’s summer because I actually took some time off? Took some vacation? Stopped working for awhile?
What a novel idea.
So this summer, I did. Two whole weeks. Wow! Unusual for me. Ok – Ten days. Well, really it was nine. You get the point. It’s so easy, and often feels so necessary, to just keep working. In the fight for personal time, I often lose the battle, struggling with feelings of trying to do too much, and yet not doing nearly enough. The recipe for burn-out.
For my vacation, I went to my home state of Colorado. It was on fire.
Talk about burning out.
My family lives in Ft. Collins – the urban center closest to the High Park Fire, which briefly held status as the most destructive fire in the history of the state.
Image of Burn Zone - High Park Fire
Hot, dry weather, winds, and stands of beetle-kill ponderosa pine had fed the firefor weeks by the time I arrived. Ft. Collins itself was ok – and when I was there, the winds had died and the smokiness abated. By the time I left, the fire was 100% contained.
Except in my imagination. I had seen the effects of the burning, but not the fire itself. What must it have been like to see the hillsides ablaze? All that heat and energy.
It got me thinking: like a forest fire, creativity runs hot. Creativity is energy-intensive. Creativity can be all consuming.
And it also demands renewal. We renew ourselves when we let go. When we accept the fact that we don’t have the answer, even though we needed it yesterday. We renew ourselves when we stop trying so hard to be creative, when we trust that, in letting go, we permit our creative thinking to descend down past our conscious awareness and control, where, in an underground world, new insights are seeded. If we can’t let go, we can’t renew. If we can’t stop working – even working “creatively” – we burn out.
Mulling this over as I was, two books came to mind. In the Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron recommends two regular practices for staying connected to your creativity: writing three pages of stream of consciousness journaling every morning; and taking yourself out on an “Artist’s Date” once a week to do something which inspires you. Regular creative practices such as these, done for their own sake, and not for any specific outcome, keep our creativity moist and replenished.
The second book is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey (may he rest in peace). The 7th Habit: Sharpening the Saw – Principles of Balanced Self-Renewal includes giving attention to ourselves physically, socially/emotionally and spiritually, as well as mentally. Covey is clear: if we don’t renew in these ways, nothing else – no great problem-solving, breakthrough thinking, innovative insight, or deft leadership – is possible, at least not over time, not in a sustained or sustainable fashion.
As a creativity professional, I’ve known these things for years. Yet how often do I follow my own best advice? Not that often. And how much am I willing to risk by not letting go? Acres and acres of my own personal ponderosa pine. Compulsive determination becomes it’s own version of beetle-kill, draining the juice out of ideas and possibilities, leaving them dried out and exposed, endangering the creative ecosystem.
On my last day in Colorado, I took a short drive through the outskirts of the burn zone. Thinking back on the images of both burned and living trees, and the mountain homes saved through heroism and chance, I offer the following creative conservation measures:
- Recognize the signs of impending burn-out. Does your creative thinking feel all dried out? Or pliant, flexible and alive?
- At the first sign of fire, sound the alarm. Don’t wait.
- Draw a line: be willing to sacrifice this much, but no more. Protect what you can.
- Be ready to evacuate: if the fire is that close, leave. Get some down time.
- Ask for help. Who’s on your Volunteer Fire Department? Your creativity is a natural community resource, and we’re all the worse off if it goes up in smoke.
- Acknowledge the loss. House burn down in this one? For god’s sake, don’t pretend that’s no big deal! Talking about your experience honors the loss and motivates the rest of us to take preventative measures.
And here are some tips for a healthy creative forest, with some inspiration from Julia Cameron and Steven Covey:
- Diversify yourself – take Artist’s Dates (Cameron); be engaged socially, read, write and study (Covey). A diverse forest is less susceptible to disease.
- Manage your resources – get exercise, manage stress, meditate (Covey).
- Know your own inner ecosystem – journal, free-associate (Cameron); visualize, clarify your personal values, and connect synergistically with others (Covey). The better you understand yourself, the better you’ll be able to care for your unique biodiversity.
- Practice good forest husbandry – keep your saws sharpened (Covey); hone your daily practices, such as Morning Pages (Cameron); be willing to clear out the deadwood inessentials (Covey).
And finally, remember that renewal is not only necessary for our sanity, but a natural process that follows even the worst of burn-outs. As destructive as the High Park Fire was, even before I left Colorado I heard report that, deep in the stands of charred ponderosa, oak seedlings are already peeking forth.