In one of my recent e-mails to my subscribers, I asked my readers to share what they’re struggling with creatively. One reader said she has trouble getting to the Work (painting, in her case) — not so much because of time constraints, but because she can’t get past a paralyzing inner fear. She has creative anxiety.
The first thing I want to say to this reader, and to everyone else facing this problem, which, if you are reading this blog, is probably you:
You are not alone. Everyone has this.
This reader is not even the first to ask me about it. A beginning writer friend of mine calls it the Dark Passenger. He asked if it ever goes away.
I have bad news on that front: It doesn’t.
That fear is the biggest struggle a creator faces. Sylvia Plath said that self-doubt is our biggest enemy as creators. Amanda Palmer calls it The Fraud Police. Most people call it the Inner Critic.
But there’s good news, too. You don’t have to be like Sylvia Plath. (Please don’t be like Sylvia Plath.) You can do something about it. You can get better at making it STFU and leave you alone so you can make art.
1. Identify what you’re feeling.
You’re scared. You’re anxious. You have creative anxiety. What’s behind it? You’re afraid of failing. You’re afraid of succeeding. You’re afraid of producing terrible work. Make a long list of all the things that might be standing in your way, creating this feeling of wanting to avoid your Work. When they’re down on paper, they become easier to face. When they get out of your head and become a tangible thing, you can see how you might deal with them and how they are not so big as that feeling makes them out to be. You can live with them a little better.
2. Consider WHY you’re doing this in the first place.
Did you start creating because you felt that you should?
My guess is no.
People become doctors and lawyers because they should. People do the dishes and dust the bookshelves because they should. They go to the dentist because they should.
They don’t become writers, painters, musicians, sculptors, and dancers because they should.
Well, maybe somewhere there is a family in which the mother and the father are both painters and they really want their kid to become a painter and the kid feels obligated to become a painter even though he wants to be a lawyer … you think?
That doesn’t happen often, because there’s a lot of risk involved in creating. There’s not much security. It’s no wonder it scares you. It’s no wonder you have creative anxiety.
You’re going to make something no one’s ever made before, a completely new thing. That’s inherently risky.
Worse, it’s something that goes to the heart of who you are — it’s going to reveal your deepest self, because that’s what art does, and it’s going to be reaching out to the deepest self of others. Also risky.
But think about it. Isn’t that why you do it? The things that scare you are exactly the things that compel you to make art in the first place.
They scare you because you need them, because they are a big deal, and because there is no certainty that you will be successful. But that is exactly what makes the whole process so valuable.
You don’t have to make art. You could set it aside today and do something else with your life. Right?
You’re not doing it because you should.
You’re doing it because you want to.
Try to keep that in mind, the next time you are afraid to get to your Work. You started this because you want to. No one’s making you.
You are making you, and why? Why did you want to make art when you first started?
Because it moves you. Because it gives your life meaning. And even because it’s inherently risky. Because taking risks makes you come alive, because it helps you grow, because taking risks is the essence of life. Life is about going out and getting what you need to survive and thrive, and that is always going to come with risk. The bigger the value, the bigger the risk.
Making art feeds your soul and enriches your life in a way nothing else does. It’s not a should. It’s not a have to. You are doing it because of the joy and meaning and sense of accomplishment it brings you to do it.
That joy and meaning and sense of accomplishment come with fear, by their very nature. Without the fear, where would be the sense of accomplishment? Where would be the meaning? Where would be the joy? You are overcoming obstacles. You are working hard. You are doing it for the thing that’s on the other side of the fear. You have no choice but to go through the fear first. You cannot get to the other side any other way. That is the way life — and art — works.
3. Lower your expectations of yourself.
Yup. Stop being so hard on you.
We creators want so much to make something good, and useful, and beautiful. We have these grand visions that we want to make come to life. We strive and strive and strive and wonder why what we produce never matches up to that dream in our head.
There is often a disconnect, especially when you’re starting out, between what you want to be able to do and what you can do. You’re a beginner. You don’t have the skill yet to make that vision in your head come to life. Unfortunately, that gap lasts. And lasts. Even as someone with many years of experience, I struggle with it. There’s still a gap between what happens on the page and what I’m aiming for. (For one thing, I have a voluminous vocabulary in my head. Somehow it never shows up on the page.)
You have to get okay with that. The only way to get better is to be bad first. To work a lot while being bad. To quiet that voice and let yourself make crap. When you sit down to do the Work, the only thing that matters is the making, not the quality.
You sit down. You do. That’s it.
Give yourself CREDIT for that.
Judge the quality later. Critique yourself all you want in a self-scheduled critique session, to learn from your mistakes, but put it away when you’re in create mode. When you’re making, done is better than perfect. Always.
You’re not good. You know that. So? You can’t get good until you do it, not being good, for a long-ass time. And you may never FEEL like you’re good, no matter how long you do it. I’ve been writing consistently since I was 12 years old. That means I’ve been doing this for more than two decades, and I’m not good — at least, that’s what my brain STILL tells me when I sit down to do it. I tell it: I am going to do it now anyway. Then I watch that Scrivener “Project Targets” bar grow, with pride. Words on the page, that’s what matters; edit later.
Even though my brain tells me I’m not good, people are asking to read what I write. People are paying me to write for them.
But that’s only because I learned how to tell my brain, hush, I’m doing it.
4. Remember what it felt like to make art when you were a kid.
Go all the way back to drawing monsters with crayons. Wasn’t it delightful? Wasn’t it the best feeling in the world? Didn’t you just love it; couldn’t you just sit in the corner by yourself, lost in your drawing, for ages, without noticing what was happening around you? Weren’t you one hundred percent free of that anxiety and fear that dogs you now? Didn’t you just sit down and do it? Because it was fun?
Hold on to that feeling. Call it up every time you sit down to Work. Be a kid artist. Remember that sheer joy and hold it in your heart. Treat yourself like that kid and don’t expect her to be better than she can be, wherever she’s at right now. You must let her grow at the pace of the Work, which is slower than we wish, slower than we think it ought to be. Let yourself do, and revel in the doing.
5. Calm yourself before beginning, by whatever means helps you most.
For a long time, I would light candles before sitting down to write. For some reason, having that small flame burning beside me relaxed me and allowed me to feel more centered and focused and in the moment.
Before I had my no-Internet laptop, I used to write longhand as a way of separating myself from the hustle and bustle of my everyday computer and all the goings-on of the Internet. I would sit down on the couch with my notebook and relax in my living room; then I would tell myself that all I had to do was sit there and think and make some notes. And that is how I would begin, each day, and that is how, over the course of about nine months, a novel got written and revised and proofread.
Just by sitting down and making some notes.
Read books other people have written about your discipline. Reading about writing often helps keep me motivated, just because I get started thinking about it and then my fingers start to itch and I want to lose myself in whatever fictional world I’m working on. Plus, I find tips and tricks I might not have considered otherwise, and I get to try them out and see if they work for me.
When I started writing this post, I set out to find out if there were any books that might help us art-makers deal with our creative anxiety. It turns out that there’s basically one guy who is the most well-known for writing about it. His name is Eric Maisel, and he’s a creativity coach. See my thoughts on four of his books below.
BOOKS BY ERIC MAISEL
I found this the most helpful of the four of Maisel’s books I read. It’s a textbook for his creativity coaching training, so it’s priced on the high side, but it’s worth it even if you don’t intend to become a creativity coach and are only (so to speak) coaching yourself. Seeing the issue of creative anxiety from the perspective of potentially helping someone else can help you work through the negative ways you treat yourself. Given that perspective, Maisel also tends to stay more practical and reality-based than he does in some of his other books. He offers goals for coaches including: to have no goal, to try to understand, to show support, to be real, to be of help.
In the Offering Support lesson, he writes, “For personality reasons, cultural reasons, and even species reasons, it is hard for most people to be self-compassionate and self-kind. When they haven’t written their novel for several years, have been telling themselves that they ought to be writing, and feel like failures, nothing like self-compassion or self-kindness is likely to find its way into their lives.” Is this not so true? He is especially in touch with the pitfalls of this attitude in artists, and has a way of gently encouraging potential coaches to ask questions of clients that can be directly translated into how to treat yourself when you’re struggling.
Maisel’s argument here is that anxiety is a natural part of creating and, in some respects, we must learn to live with it. Thinking through what that means and what it looks like for us as artists helped me relax into the work more. It puts emotions into a new perspective, allowing them to exist while you go ahead with the work rather than trying to jump over them like a hurdle.
There’s more woo-woo than I like; Maisel is interested in Zen Buddhism and most of his advice revolves around meditation and breathing techniques, but I found that simply thinking about this topic in new ways and seeing it as something most creative people struggle with helped me feel better about it. Never underestimate the power of thinking.
Maisel’s way of gently encouraging is powerfully effective, and the book is a quick read. I burned through it in a couple of days and ended up feeling more confident and a bit itchy to get back to writing some fiction.
A collection of affirmations, quotes, and encouraging short blurbs on topics ranging from Inadequacy to Energy to Learning to Space. Lots of insight in just the short blurbs. The quotes come from creative people in all disciplines; they can help you see how other artists work and handle their own difficulties, which can help you feel less alone.
I also tried this one and can’t recommend it: Fearless Creating: A Step-by-Step Guide to Starting and Completing Your Work of Art.
There is some practical advice in this book that’s good and useful. But it’s buried among layers of metaphor, shallow questions, and activities that try too hard (writing naked? drawing wild faces? tossing around a hot potato?). I had a difficult time wading through the over-the-top woo-woo sections that described the creator’s “hungry mind” and trying to balance “wildness” and “tameness,” and when I came to a section in which the author was downright sarcastic, offering a list of ways to “inappropriately” feed your hungry mind (including having intellectual conversations, gorging yourself on facts, and joining a movement), I couldn’t force myself to continue any further. Your results may differ.
Have you read books or used other materials that have helped you overcome creative anxiety? Or do you have special tricks you use to get yourself to get to Work more often? Please do share in the comments; we could all use more help with this.
P.S. Last night the reader who inspired this post sent me this wonderful interview Marie Forleo did with Elizabeth Gilbert; Gilbert has a new book out this week on this very topic called Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. I didn’t have a chance to read it before I wrote this post, so if you check it out, let me know what you think!