When I finished writing and illustrating my graphic novel Fibbed, I was surprised to find that the immediate rush of joy I felt was followed by an overwhelming tide of relief. In the years since I began the book in 2019, a presidential election has passed, a pandemic hit, and tragedy upon tragedy sparked an explosive summer of revolution and racial reform—only to be overcast by the deceptively still waters of complacency. By the time I had colored the last shade of orange in the final panel of Fibbed, it felt like I was safeguarding the passion I harbored in my creative and professional endeavors by carrying those embers of joy close to my chest, lest they burn out.
Grappling with this reality brings me to the Ananse story “The Elephant and His Tail.” It’s one of the many Ananse stories my main character, Nana, learns from her grandmother during her visit to Ghana. The story follows a village that is being terrorized by a gigantic elephant. All of the bravest warriors try to stop the elephant; none are successful, until a tiny crab outsmarts the elephant and saves the village. But trickster that he is, Ananse tries to take credit for the crab’s feat. It’s only after the crab shows proof that it was in fact the one to stop the elephant’s rampage that it is believed.
What I’ve always loved about Ananse stories is that there are so many tangential lessons that listeners can piece together. Nana learns that sometimes, making the truth feel tangible to others is just the first battle. Confronting the burnout that creators and industry professionals face is not very different.
Burnout often feels intangible because the idea of keeping the creative fire burning is at the core of how publishing functions. But burnout occurs when one has fulfilled the obligations of one’s creative and work endeavors, yet still must carry the often unacknowledged weight of the emotional labor tied to it.
For authors, burnout can result from shifting goal posts or time spent on elaborate social media blasts, leaving us feeling invisible or like our story isn’t wanted. It’s watching the revolving door of editors, designers, publicists, copy editors, and others leave the industry, and grieving the loss (whether potential or personal) of the creative talents who helped bring our stories into the hands of readers.
In my experience as an author from a historically marginalized background, it’s that added layer of not only having to prove that my stories are tangible and worth listening to but that my voice is, too. It’s spending months researching the stories of my culture only to have a white author peer tell me that none of that work matters anyway because readers will confuse my African setting with another similar sounding country located in... South America.
As an editor, I’ve quickly learned that burnout can take many shapes that extend outside of even one’s personal role. The reality is that publishing professionals with a range of experience and at all levels have been leaving the industry in droves. Internally, burnout is the ripple effect from untenable workloads of departments across the board. Burnout is watching important conversations about industry overload, salary compression, and DEI efforts happen online and industrywide, only for those conversations to be drowned out or brushed off, leaving one feeling like those powerful enough to stop the elephant’s rampage are digging their heads in the sand.
As I’ve tried to grapple with how burnout impacts me in both my roles, I’ve come to learn that when it comes to what I can control, burnout in itself isn’t just about time management. It’s about managing my energy.
As a creator, I’ve found that it’s important to identify and hold myself accountable for the instances in which I’ve fueled the flames that burn me out. It’s also important to distinguish publishing’s passionate workforce—who face many challenges from the systems that feed on the fumes of burnout—from those that uphold capitalist structures impacting us all. And as I see these important conversations being revisited and individuals work collectively to turn discourse into action and ultimately, hopefully, change, I’m reassured in knowing that just like the crab, so many are working to save the village.
Elizabeth Agyemang is the author and illustrator of Fibbed and Heart-Shaped Lies (Delacorte, 2023), and is an associate editor at Clarion Books.