Saturday, June 24, 2023

Writing through Burnout: Pursuing creative work when life feels overwhelming

I sit on the kitchen floor and place the baby nearby with toys. The toddler is napping in bed, and the two other children play quietly in the living room. I open a new document on my computer, proudly typing out the words: DRAFT 2. This is it--I am finally beginning a full rewrite of my book.  

My already-scattered thoughts started to drift away as my baby bangs on a tambourine and waves her arms. She gazes at me in anguish. It's okay, I can still do this, I think to myself. I pull her into my lap and wrap my arms around her, my fingers reaching for the keyboard. Slowly, the sentences start to form on the page, but progress is slow. The baby begins to grow even crankier, and I rush her to the bedroom, hopeful that she'll nap. I return to my spot in the kitchen and sigh, relieved that I finally have a chance to write in peace and quiet. 

I begin to type frantically. 

My other children appear. 

"Go back to rest time!" I insist. 

After several minutes of guiding them away (only for them to quickly return), I finally declare: "Okay, give me ten minutes of silence, and then you can be done with rest time." 

My children prance away to play, and I type as fast as I can, trying hard to fling words onto the page as I seize the rapidly disappearing minutes. Feelings of frustration begin to bubble within me, but alongside this, a strong conviction rises up: 

This is work that I can do--that I need to do!--in spite of any difficulties. It may not happen on my timeline or come together as quickly as I want, but it is still worthwhile--and I can do it.

Within the past few years, I've had a number of conversations about the creative life. The people I've spoken with have differed from each other: single, married, male, female, those with kids and those with no kids. Yet, despite the differences, there's a question that unifies us: 

How do I pursue my own creative projects when there's a lot going on?

We've all endured phases when life feels like a lot to handle. We may routinely feel frazzled or exhausted after a long day at the office. We may feel overwhelmed and overstimulated from being with other people all day long. The tragedies of the world might weigh on us in an emotionally heavy way. Any number of other factors can pour into our lives, and together, our creative work remains a dream for "someday."

Someday, when I'm in a new life phase...

Someday, when my kids are older...

Someday, when I have more time...

Someday, when I have a different job...

With so many demands in our lives, we may set our creative desires aside for months, or years. But, perhaps we don't want to do this. Maybe we want to engage in creative work now, in spite of less-than-ideal circumstances. We may even have the time, space, and materials for our creative pursuits. However, the exhaustion of our daily lives can begin to smother our aspirations. Feelings of burnout and mental fatigue grow. Our initial enthusiasm begins to dissipate. Maybe someday, I can try again...

What can we do when burnout knocks on the door? 

I look for an easy answer, but memories fly through my mind instead. 

I've made it halfway through the week, and all of my children are in bed. I pray with my husband, and then I collapse in front of my computer and try to collect my thoughts. It has been a fun, but unusually full, week--and thankfully, there's still time to write before I fall asleep. 

I stare at the screen, trying to force words onto the page. I finally have writing time--I can't squander these precious moments! My brain aches. I need a break. I jump up and find a puzzle. Switching my computer screen from a word document to a movie, I start to scrutinize the scattered puzzle pieces and fit them together. I stay up far past my usual bedtime, but as I slip under the covers, I feel refreshed. I have engaged in a different kind of creative work while still letting myself receive much-needed rest. 

Trying my hand at peg doll painting. 

I sit on the hard floor on the side of a packed chapel. I feel thoroughly exhausted from a long week of disrupted sleep, a teething baby, and beautifully energetic antics from my children. My gaze moves from the tomb of Blessed Stanley Rother to the white-haired priest who passionately preaches from the sanctuary. He reflects on the words of Scripture we've just heard, a litany of challenges that St. Paul faced--dangers from rivers and robbers, from those in the city and those in the wilderness, hunger and thirst and cold. "And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches." (2 Cor 11:28) I listen to the priest's words and reflect on St. Paul's mental strain, and my thoughts burst into a question: Does my creative work happen because I am in charge, or because God works in me?  

My thoughts spin as I ponder how I am capable of fighting through obstacles--I've done this many times before. However, the pieces of my creative life have truly clicked into place following the moments when I throw myself before God, helpless. When I come to him in all my exhaustion and say, Lord, there is no way that I can do this work, unless you make it happen. 

Are the interruptions and burnout a reminder that all of my creative pursuits and aspirations need to be rooted fully in God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth? 

Photo credit goes to one of my young children.

How can we pursue our creative projects when schedules, commitments, mental burnout, and responsibilities weigh us down? 

I see value in many of the resources on time management and creative passion, but I wonder if all of our problems truly come from a poor use of time or a lack of creative vision. Yes, time management is important, and yes, prioritizing our priorities is essential. However, I must look deeper. 

Do I trust that God will provide? 

As I navigate obstacles and pursue creative work in the midst of a full life, my eyes turn back to God, the Creator of all--and my excuses fall away. The burnout may loom large at times, and solitary moments might be scarce some weeks. A number of practical techniques can help me--engaging in different types of creative pursuits, crafting unedited rambles in a document--but, first and foremost, I need to root everything in God. If I offer all of my passion and work to him, he will bless others with it. He will provide the time and energy required for me to do it--in his time, not mine. 

Watching wildlife is always a good way for me to rise out of a funk.

Another writing session is disrupted as a child awakes from a too-short nap. I breathe in and out, searching for a way to reframe the narrative, to recapture the abundant life that God invites me to participate in. I holler for the children and we clamber out the door. The cool air is calming, and the soaked ground beckons me to visit the long-neglected flowerbed. Three spiders cling to the wall nearby as I jab the dirt with a shovel. I push down relentlessly on the thick mat of weeds and grass that has grown into a tangle. I grab a poky bush, long dead, and pull it out. My bare toes squish in the mud and I feel alive. The mental strain of the week slips away. 

I rip more weeds out of the ground and throw them into the pile nearby. Little by little, it grows. Even though the flowerbed is still littered with weeds, I glance at that pile and a sense of accomplishment rises in my heart. My little pieces of work add together, and through them, I have made a difference. 


  1. This post made me tear up. Similar circumstances here, in addition to a husband working long and far hours in important pro-life ministry that is time-sensitive this year with an extreme ballot initiative from Planned Parenthood, etc. Your question on creativity arising because I'm in charge or because God provides I also love your reminder that creativity flows in many ways, not always the path we want in that moment....thinking of this as I haven't written in weeks but I have homemade bread in the oven and a pile of pulled weeds on the patio...

    1. I'm so glad this could touch you, Laura! That sounds like an extra-challenging season for you all right now. I hope and pray that you are able to find peace and rest with all that's going on with the kids and your husband being gone for that important work! You are doing a great job with caring for your family-and the bread sounds delicious! That is definitely some fantastic creativity right there.

      I've continued think about this topic, and I've been realizing that making food for our families can be a huge aspect of our creative life. Even if it's not "fancy," just putting together ingredients to nourish our loved ones cannot be underestimated-and as a breastfeeding mom, even when I'm worn out and can't put two sentences together, I'm still creating as my body makes milk for my baby. It's really neat, I think, just how many ways there are to express our creativity and unite ourselves to God in our work.

  2. I love this post, AnneMarie! I relate to so much of it, especially as a woman who thrives on creative projects & alone time. It's hard to find the time for all the many ideas I have and I often feel defeated.. but your post is such a great reminder. I especially needed that reminder to "turn my eyes back to God." Thanks so much for sharing your honest struggles and insight!

    1. You are very welcome, Elisabeth! I'm so glad this could be a helpful reminder. It's definitely something I need to remind myself about frequently ;) I hope you are able to find a way-even if it is small-to get some solitary time and recharge.