The loneliness of creative work

A few months late to the party, I finally watched Bo Burnham’s Inside. And then I watched it again. And then I listened to the soundtrack on repeat for several weeks.

I frankly did not expect to really like this comedy special, much less feel such a deep resonance with it. I had heard a few of the songs on TikTok (very catchy!) and I was familiar with exactly one of his songs previously, an intentionally man-child “edgy” humor ditty about love. I assumed this would be more of the same. I’ve seen quite a few analyses about Inside: as a commentary about internet content, as a nod to liberal white racial anxiety. It has certainly captured the moment for a lot of (millennial) people. To me, Inside is about the struggle of creative work in a state of isolation.

If you’ve read this blog for long enough, you’ll know that between October 2018 and August 2019 I was nearly constantly travelling, both within the US and abroad, to research and write my dissertation. During that time, I developed what was for me unprecedented anxiety and, despite a long history of depression, experienced suicidal ideation for the first time. When the US began to acknowledge the pandemic in early 2020, the ensuing lockdowns felt familiar to me. I had already spent nine months of my life isolated from my friends and family, interacting with them only via video chat and text. But this time, things were better because I was in my own house and I was with at least some of my family. As the pandemic wore on, especially as I tried to focus more on finishing my dissertation, a new kind of depressive fatigue set in. I wondered when I would be able to move forward with my life after three years of social removal. Oddly, that is almost exactly what Bo Burnham talks about in Inside.

In Burnham’s world, he began to experience his intense anxiety five years ago, and in response to that he stopped performing publicly. Inside came about because he was attempting to return to live comedy just as the pandemic began. More than just the pandemic fatigue that I so often see described right now, Burnham expresses the extreme exhaustion of having been isolated first by oneself and then due to external factors. And he comes to this, as he says, as a “kid who was stuck in his room”. It’s not just a circumstance of his adult life, but a habitual behavior going back many years. Burnham describes in Inside how his creative impulses came out of that childhood isolation, and so the loneliness of his present circumstances is even more potent because, initially the thing he was hiding from, it is now a pressure-charged requirement to get out. That pressure is also something he expresses an ambivalent relationship with, talking about how he is desperate to finish production on Inside and get out of isolation before turning 30, a desire that is completely beyond his control to achieve.

I can map parallels onto most of the major points of Inside. I, too, was a teenager who spent a lot of time alone in my room, although rather than recording comedy songs and becoming internet famous, I was painting faeries and singing opera. But the only recognition I ever achieved for that work was in the thriving online art community. And during my research year, I had nothing to fill my time except YouTube and videogames. In that sense, Burnham’s theme of turning to the internet to replace interpersonal contact really rings true for me. It is, I would argue, a hallmark of our generation to find solace and community online. Burnham is almost exactly 8 months younger than me, and like everyone else born in 1990 and 1991, we turned 30 during this pandemic. My ticking clock was not a Netflix special but a dissertation that has gotten increasingly delayed by forces ostensibly beyond my control. So too has my return to a social life, which has been doubly hard because I moved across the country just before the start of my research year and have almost no community where I now live. The final ironic similarity is that Bo is a nickname for Robert, which Robin originally was also. It takes a few small tweaks to turn the lyrics of Burnham’s song “Content” into a song about my experiences instead.

Sorry that I look like a mess

I cut my own hair and I can’t see the back

Robin’s been a little depressed

So today I’m gonna try just

Getting up, sitting down, going back to work

Might not help but still it couldn’t hurt

Sitting down, writing words, reading Arabic

Looking at manuscripts

And look I wrote you a chapter

What Burnham is expressing, and I’ve been feeling, are feelings forced out by the pandemic, but they’re to some extent always present in creative work. It is the fatigue and anxiety and pain that come from trying to monetize and schedule the things that you do for enjoyment. That sudden added pressure, the knowledge that you can’t just walk away from a project that hit a dead end, is an inherent feature of creative work. A dissertation is perhaps the epitome of creative work. It is based in facts, but it has to be original, new. It has to create something. People have compared finishing a dissertation to birthing a child. And you have to do it alone. You have to spend some amount of time locked away to work on it. When you can’t even crawl out of your hole to meet a friend for coffee (the academic’s lifeblood, along with beer), you are cut off from your one respite.

Artist In Media Vs Artist In Reality | Sarah's Scribbles | Know Your Meme

It’s been strangely therapeutic to listen to and watch Inside. Obviously, after three years of writing on this blog, I don’t have trouble expressing my feelings on this. But Burnham’s packaging of these feelings, beyond the catchy songs, in preexisting emotional issues, an internet-heavy culture, and massive societal issues reframed how I appreciated my own experience. I don’t know that it helps to know that I’m not alone in feeling this way, but it’s nice to have a soundtrack for my own experiences (because I’m a self-centered person and I need to imagine myself as the main character in my own story).