Monday, July 08, 2019

Overwork and Burnout

For the past month and a half, I've been on the road.  It began with A2CAF (a library con aimed at kids and teens in Ann Arbor, MI) in May, and finally ended with the East Regional Library Comic Con in Destrehan.  In between, I taught a whopping six comic classes in Louisiana, with class sizes that ranged from 3-20, and ages that spanned 5-15.  As I land in Nashville, I'm preparing to start another six-week Making Comics session with Nashville Community Ed and resume teaching Copic and Comic classes through PlaZa Art.  Before I left, I was teaching PlaZa Copic marker classes every couple weeks, and my last Nashville Community Ed Making Comics Class ended in February.

With all these cons and classes, you'd really think I'd just be rolling in the dough.  This is what I've worked so hard for, this is what success looks like, right?  People see my tables at conventions and ask for advice on becoming a professional artist, and while I try to come up with something honest yet uplifting, the whole time I'm doing mental gymnastics.  Do I tell them the truth?  Do I encourage them and hope that things are different in five years?  Is it actually helpful, or am I just venting my spleen?

The reality is, I work hard, I juggle a lot, I travel frequently, and I can't seem to scratch a living.  Classes provide somewhat reliable income, but most of the venues I teach through pay by the head, rather than a set class fee.  Although I stand to make a lot more money, I've come to really appreciate the set fee- at least it's something I can depend on.  Pay by the head definitely incentivizes self-promotion, but that only gets me so far- my Twitter and Instagram currently read as a constant shill for classes, with no time left to make art, let alone share it.  While these venues benefit from butts in seats, promotion is usually left squarely on my shoulders, along with class content generation, handout generation, and actually teaching the material.

Recently, I asked friends on Twitter how they handle burnout, short of taking an extended break or walking away forever.  The answers varied- warm baths, relaxing walks, awesome creative hobbies, reading favorite books.  A small investment of self-care and relaxation, if applied regularly, can pay big dividends, and often we forget to reinvest when we're in times of crunch. I'm absolutely guilty of this- I've spent very little time reinvesting in my own mental hygiene while I was in Louisiana.  If I wasn't actively teaching classes, I was prepping for the next class, if not doing class prep, I reviewed Dollar Tree art supplies, if not reviewing Dollar Tree art supplies, I ran errands with family, if not running errands, I edited or screened videos to make space on my phone.  I literally never made space for self-care.

For those of us who live hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck, just one bad convention away from a serious financial problem, the crunch mentality is all too tempting.  It's tempting to take on boatloads of work, even if it doesn't pay well, to try and build up some savings.  It's tempting to start new projects, hoping that'll be the one that really takes off.  It's tempting to overextend, with the fragile promise that once there's some stability, we'll back off and cut back. 

I don't know how burnout manifests for you, but for me, there's anxiety, frustration/anger, and lots of depression.   Those are not traits positively associated with professional comic artists looking for work, let alone comic artists who teach looking to fill classes.  Those are not traits welcomed in comic communities, even if other artists can identify.  Those are not traits I want to cultivate in myself, and the more I burn myself out, the more I become accustomed to those feelings as my baseline- normal for Becca. 

I really want to end this on a positive note, something uplifting or inspirational, some lesson I've learned that others can take away.  Right now, I have another six-week course of Making Comics ahead of me, and when that finishes, I'm teaching another round of Making Comics and an Intermediate Comics course with NCE in the Fall.  Both classes will be six weeks in length, but they're concurrent.  I also signed up to teach various art classes through PlaZa from now until February.  I have a show in September, and I've just made tentative plans with the St Charles Parish Library system to teach more comic art classes. I enjoy teaching, and I like getting paid to teach even more, and all of these opportunities are paid opportunities.  The challenge lies with me to find a balance and try to make the financials work while avoiding burnout and finishing Volume 2 of 7" Kara. 

In the end, I may end up burnt out.  I may end up making the same mistakes.  I may end up making my Summer and Fall a slog of work.  This may be my failstate- falling back into nasty old habits that make me mentally ill.  Or my failstate may be even worse- I may fail to accomplish any of my goals, or I may end up making life-altering poor choices, or I may have to make difficult choices out of financial desperation.  These are all possibilities.  I may also figure out a way to balance everything- I may figure out how to make some sacrifices (workwise) to spare my body and my mind.  I may learn how to prioritize what's really important to me (finishing Volume 2) with what's necessary (earning a living).  This can be an opportunity to forge new habits or a chance to fall back into old bad ones.

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