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Artizenship, Part 7: Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires

It’s possible to get burned out on anything... the leaders among our artist-citizens are particularly at risk. What do we need to do when our art leaders get weighed down and sun-burned?

You’ll have to forgive me for not changing out of my farmer’s plaid and into my writer’s cardigan. I’ve been busy pruning in the orchard; and, besides, when you sing a song each time you change out of your clothes, it can become too much of a hassle to bother.

The other day, when I had climbed down my ladder, done for the afternoon, I opened my mouth to say something, and what came out was not a thought at all, was not even a full sentence, was hardly words. I tried again, with no intelligible progress.

Some might tell you “classic Jeremy,” but really I think I was sun-fried and pruned-out, my brain short-circuiting after weeks of crossed branches and swollen buds. We call this “pruning fatigue,” but it’s nothing more than a specified form of your classic burnout.

Burn Notice

It’s possible to get burned out on anything—even pleasurable, rewarding things, like board games, or creativity, or—dare I say it—wine. And it’s possible for anyone to arrive at that point. However, the leaders among our artist-citizens are particularly at-risk. Whether self-designated, politically elected, or naturally escalated, these are the individuals who spur vigor and action into the rest of us—our teachers, organizers, activists. They get us moving and they shake things up; they knit our community tighter, they motivate growth and shepherd change.

When I prune, I spend a lot of time looking at the “leaders,” the tallest, most energetic parts of each branch. Sometimes the fruit of the last season will have weighed down a branch’s leader; other times, the leader has been sun-burned or broken. It’s my job to give the leaders support, to train them back upright, to let smaller twigs remain to give them shade, or, when necessary, select a new leader.

The question is, then: What do we need to do when our art leaders get weighed down and sun-burned?

Wear Sunscreen

The remedy for pruning fatigue is fairly simple: you sit in the grass and eat an orange in the shade of the barn. However, arts leadership burn-out might require more attention. As upstanding artizens, we have an obligation to watch for the signs, and to help when we can.

So, how? Some thoughts:

Clear brush. Examine yourself: are your actions or habits creating burnout hazards for other artists? For yourself? What can you clear away to make burnout less likely for you and others?

Lend yourself. Arts leadership fatigue is often stoked by Red Hen Syndrome: the feeling that one is doing all the work but everyone else is enjoying the bread. You can mitigate this by sacrificing some of your own sweat and tears. Continue to follow the lead, but reflect some energy back to it.

Send cookies. Or toothbrushes. Or thank-you-notes. Or hugs. The point is to let your leaders know their time and effort is appreciated—or at least noticed.

Step up. The motivation for some leaders’ habit of going and going, until their only choice is to get gone, is a fear that the community will float apart unless they are there actively keeping it together. Become a leader yourself to show them it’s okay to relax. Also: diversity and change keep all communities healthy—especially communities of artists.

Controlled Burn

Like pruning fatigue, sometimes the only sure cure for burnout is a break. There’s no harm in that. We’ll all go on creating and communing—join us when you can. Feel free to use my hammock. There’s ice in the fridge.