Creative Fears Can Sink You: Read These Books to Help

There are two questions creators ask me the most:

1) How do I fit my creative work in?

and

2) How do I get over my fear?

I think these are the same question. Because if you weren’t letting fear hold you back, you’d prioritize the work and it would get done. You wouldn’t let it get lost in the sea of other things; you would decide to do it and you would figure out how to get it done. But once fear gets into the mix, it’s easy to procrastinate and let all the other stuff of life get done first while the creative work slides. So the trick is getting over the fear first.

Which is, of course, easier said than done, always. It never goes away. It’s something we deal with consistently. Making your work a habit can help, but living with it and learning to deal with it is the lot of the creative, no?

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Dealing With Your Creative Fears

I have less fear of the work itself these days, since switching to Scrivener (really!) and learning how to have an overarching plan for writing a novel that includes daily goals. My fears have shifted more toward not wanting to share (eek), or speak publicly.

I especially fear that I won’t have the energy I need to deal with those fears and stand in front of an audience that’s expecting something from me. What’s most interesting about that is that when I do put things out and stand in front of that audience, I invariably get the sweetest messages from both loyal, long-time followers and new ones, and those messages boost my energy and reduce my fear.

But I’m always on the lookout for ways to reduce that fear, and recently I’ve read a few books that helped a lot, so I wanted to share them with you.

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The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

A soothing treatise written to help blocked creatives get over their block and get back to work, this one was suggested to me by a reader. (Thanks, Tatenda!) I wrote a few thoughts about reading it here and about the experience of writing morning pages (as suggested in this book) here.

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Windows on Nature by Stephen C. Quinn

This is one that might seem off the wall. It’s about the habitat dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York City. One of the things I’ve been doing in the past year has been organizing events with the local NY chapter of a website called Atlas Obscura, which features the world’s hidden wonders and unusual curiosities. I got in touch with one of the museum’s long-time artists and asked him to give us a talk about the history of the dioramas and the making of them. That’s what this book is about, too, and the guy who wrote it is the one who trained that artist.

You might not easily think of it as something that would inspire you to create, but as I listened to our speaker at the event, and as I read the book by Stephen Quinn, I found myself inspired by this unusual application of art, this way that these creators had found to put their skills and passion for painting and sculpting to use making these marvels of natural history. Not art, exactly, but something so wonderful and interesting and unique that they are now historic treasures, with endless fascinating stories behind them.

Most who worked on the dioramas were artists. They ventured out into the field at a time when travel was difficult and much of the world had not yet been explored to collect specimens for taxidermy (sometimes of animals that were quite dangerous to them) and to compose sketches for the paintings (again often in dangerous situations). These guys braved death for their creations! What am I moaning about in my cozy apartment? Time to get to work.

You’ll see what I mean when you read about Carl Akeley having his face half torn off by an elephant.

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Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

I originally made a Tuesday Truths video about a specific concept I learned in this book but it turned out kind of bad so I opted not to post it. (I was doing it in one take and got interrupted … then couldn’t quite make the cut work.)

In the video I talked mostly about a useful concept I learned from this book that Konnikova calls “distancing.” You know how Sherlock Holmes calls certain cases a “three-pipe problem”? Konnikova argues that he’s doing something quite specific and purposeful.

When you’re obsessing over a creative problem, you’re putting all kinds of information into your conscious mind and your conscious mind is working on it and working on it and working on it — maybe overtime if you’re like me. In that situation, it can be very useful to get some distance. To stop your conscious mind from obsessing and give it a rest, to let the problem sink into your subconscious and let your subconscious get to work on processing it. That’s what Holmes is doing when he’s smoking his pipe.

Konnikova says that the activity can be a multitude of different things. It just has to be unrelated to the problem you’re struggling with (not a different creative problem), not take a lot of effort, but is something that engages you on some level. Holmes also plays the violin for distance, for example. For him that’s less of a creative pursuit and more of an almost meditative experience. This is why people often have good ideas or solve problems in the shower or just before sleep.

One of the key ones she mentions is walking. Walking (especially for writers who sit a lot) can be so useful. Thoreau walked every day for many miles and thought that his walks in the woods helped him return to sanity.

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absoutely free from all wordly engagements. You may safely say a penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shop-keepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them — as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon — I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.” ~Henry David Thoreau

“The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson on Henry David Thoreau

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One thought on “Creative Fears Can Sink You: Read These Books to Help

  1. I have found that talking with my best friend helps. He knows my writing style very well, so can offer suggestions or other input that fits my stories well and thus gets my creativity going. Originally I only spoke to him because my ideas were under developed, but now they are developed enough that I am comfortable sharing them with a select few friends that I think might find them interesting.

    I also find that writing a scene any time I think of something to write helps. I tried that recently and since then even my planning has been speeding up. I even altered my plans for the better based on some ideas from those scenes. I am also keeping the scenes to edit when I get into the writing stages full-time.

    Also, I have been increasingly doing the “distance” thing you speak of — and getting good results. One curious trend in that regard has been that lately when watching DVDs, my subconscious feeds solutions to my conscious mind and I pause the DVDs to record my ideas. It probably helps that they are fiction DVDs. I have long found that immersing myself in fiction helps inspire me to come up with my own ideas. In the past that tended to be when I was reading books, but now I am finding all fiction has that effect, not just books. Perhaps that works for me because I like to think about what I read and watch, not just passively watch them, so I am engaged.

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