The act of creation can be very scary – even crippling. That can sound ridiculous to those of you who place yourselves in harm’s way on a regular basis (I’m looking at you cops, soldiers, firefighters, loggers, and apparently fishermen). Sure, sculpting or painting or making a film is nowhere near as legitimately dangerous as some of the world’s most dangerous jobs, but the fear that shadows many artists is legitimate and important to get a handle on, especially if the world is to continue benefitting from great art.
To be clear here, after asking around, this fear seems to be most present when there is some sort of truly personal element at stake in the art you are creating. In a way, it is the “personal” element that makes it art in the first place – but that’s another conversation. Ultimately, it’s important to point out that a healthy dose of the work that we do may not require us to lay ourselves bare and, therefore, doesn’t necessarily incite fear. Most-commonly, the fear is present when something personal is (or appears to be) at stake.
Out of curiosity, I decided to ask around The Story Shop to see what fears my colleagues regularly wrestle with. Some of the answers were:
- Fear of looking stupid.
- Fear of looking like an amateur.
- Fear of failing.
- Fear of producing crap.
- Fear of being found out as an artistic fraud.
- Fear of not connecting with an audience (irrelevance).
- Fear of getting it wrong.
Do any of those sound familiar? Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of why this fear happens and then explore how to bring it under control.
The Bad News.
To some degree, you are just going to have to get used to the fact that a certain amount of fear is always going to be there, trying to halt your forward movement. That’s because fear is a part of your biology and is primarily interested in your own self-preservation. It doesn’t care about gaining new ground. It prefers to maintain what is already tried and true. Think about the stereotypical caveman. His cave is predictable and secure while, down in the valley below, the open plain is filled with flesh-eating beasts. For that super-simple reason, his brain (and ours by way of genetic transference) is wired to prefer the cave by default – feeling fear toward anything that may pose a threat to our survival.
Fear of death is biological and comes from the oldest part of our brains – the “reptilian” brain – located near the base of our skulls. This area of our brains handles things like breathing, heart rate, balance, and temperature. Essentially, it automatically manages all of the non-negotiables that are tied to your survival. With regard to living, you don’t get to choose whether or not your body will try. Hold your breath long enough and you will black out, collapse to the floor, and automatically start breathing again in your unconscious state. You can thank your “reptilian” brain for this automation. Not surprisingly, this is the same part of the brain that is responsible for getting you out of danger when emergencies rise up.
But our survival instinct also kicks into gear when a less-severe threat presents itself (so long as it is legitimately perceived as a true threat). This can include social threats that appear capable of dismantling our networks. Remember, our ability to eat and have shelter is not entirely a matter of will. We rely upon communal bonds, relationships and the so-called “herd” for the totality of our needs to be met. When something comes along that requires us to undergo some degree of exposure or vulnerability (like good art often does), the automated fear response snaps into effect. The same automated desire for self-preservation that tries to save your pretty face from getting ripped off by a tiger is the one that causes artists to freeze up. The end-game is about staying alive by surviving all threats – both the immediate (obvious) ones and more nuanced (socially-charged) ones.
The Good News
Creative fear is not unique to you. It’s nature! That’s means that you are never alone. And because you can predict it, there are a few things that you can do to help curb fear’s effects and get yourself back to the drawing board.
1 – Expect & Prepare
Just knowing that your fear response is built into your body’s hardware is a great advantage. Staying aware of what makes you feel the fear can help you to expect it when fear-inducing conditions are met in your life. The antidote to being caught completely off guard is being prepared. If your fear has paralyzed you from turning out art, make self-awareness a priority.
2 – Meditate
This is essentially the next step to simply being aware. Meditation can help you to overcome the automated (reflexive) emotional responses to fear by centering yourself and analyzing and evaluating the cause-and-effect relationships between how you feel and why you freeze up. In practice, meditation has the power to turn an emotion-only response into a pre-cognative, measured response. By doing the work of thinking through how you will react to fear before the fear is washing over you, there is at least a possibility that you will be able to override your automated, survival response and generate a different outcome for yourself. In addition, meditation carries a host of other benefits that make it a good idea if you can carve out time for it.
3 – Forgive Yourself
The point is to do better but, when you fail, it’s ok to cut yourself some serious slack. Remember, you are battling against primal forces within you that are evolutionary in scale. The idea that you might somehow assume total mastery over these self-preserving impulses is just silly. For that matter, who would want to? Staying alive is also pretty important when it comes to creating your art. So find the balance between legitimate self-preservation and the social risks required for your maximum, quality output.
4 – Risk & Reflect
Eventually, fear or not, it is going to come down to you closing your eyes and taking the creative leap, and I strongly encourage you to do just that. Go for it! But do so coupled with a commitment to reflecting on how things went when the smoke has cleared. What did you do right? What could have been better? Did it kill you? Bruise you? Weaken or strengthen you? Only through the intentional act of reflection (and the application of tweaks to your next go-round) will you get to the point where the fear is proven wrong (or at least significantly diminished) and loses some of its power over you.
Whatever you do, be sure to be kind to yourself and never believe that you are alone. And make your art! For God’s sake, make your art! I believe the world needs it now more than ever.