Creativity, Works in Progress, and How to Handle Fear.

The “essential effort” of artists “is to catapult themselves wholly, without holding back one bit, into a course of action without having any idea where they will end up.” – Anne Truitt, Daybook: The Journal of an Artist

This is a watercolor painting of some tangled bittersweet branches that I’ve been slowly working on for several weeks now. It’s still a work in progress, as you can see.

Watercolor Bittersweet, Work in ProgressBittersweet Watercolor, Work in Progress

The going has been slow, due to starts and stops along the way. Once, I had to put it on pause so that I could finish up the commissioned wedding stationary I shared a few weeks ago (and I’m not complaining! It was a great project). Then, when some oral surgery left me surprisingly wiped out, I took another little break. And yet another time, my momentum was interrupted by a spontaneous and much-needed trip to Arizona (again, no complaints!).

But more than once, I stopped because of Creativity’s pesky little companion: Fear.

Fear is an inevitable part of making art, brought on by the inherent unknowns that characterize the process of creation. And, with the exception of brain damage and other physiological malfunctions, it is basically impossible to eradicate it. As artists, though, we can’t make progress unless we learn to accept that Fear is there and to learn to do our work regardless of it.

There are already many things trying to steal time from our projects: Appointments, trips, holidays, social obligations, chores, headaches…etc. So why on earth do we let internal obstacles get in the way as well?  Well, I suppose it’s because Fear is good at making himself seem big. He’s crafty. He knows how to make compelling arguments that strike close to home. What are we to do?

It helps to understand that it’s all just rhetoric. Fear starts chattering the moment we face a new project:

I don’t know how this is going to turn out. Will this even work? What if it’s a waste of time?

And he keeps it up at each step along the way:

Is this what I’m supposed to be doing? What if I mess up and everyone hates it? Maybe I should stop before I invest too much time in a failure…

Fear will do anything to get us off track. He starts with the basics, telling us how dumb our ideas are and pointing out how unqualified we are for the job. He tells us we’re too tired and too sore to spend another day at the easel. He measures us up against all of the other artists whose work is better than ours.

Then he gets existential. He tells us that it’s not our art that stinks, it’s us. Period. And then he goes on to suggest that perhaps art is pointless altogether, and that our pursuits contribute nothing to the world. “Other people are doctors, doing surgeries and saving lives. And you’re painting twigs?!” He said to me the other day. He reminds us, untruthfully, that everyone must surely be watching and waiting for us to FINALLY DO SOMETHING AMAZING with our lives…that it’s our last chance to prove our worth before ….something terrible happens.

I’ve even heard Fear go so far as to suggest “Kid, if you mess up this painting, it’ll mortally wound everyone you love.” WHAT?! C’mon Fear, that’s going too far.

Yes, thankfully, when Fear reaches that point, its pretty easy to call his bluff. (I mean, even I can see how irrational it is to suggest that an erroneous mark will cause the death of millions). But what do we do then, once we recognize what’s going on?

For starters, we seek the community of fellow creators, both living and dead. It’s helpful to know that other people have been there, too. I’m reading Anne Truitt’s Daybook: The Journal of an Artist right now, and every page makes me feel connected to other artists throughout time. “For me,” Truitt says, “this process is mysterious. It’s like not knowing where you’re going but knowing how to get there.” I read this, and I feel understood, strengthened, and soothed. Hearing other artists share their thoughts about fear makes it feel less personal, which diminishes its power to paralyze.  Go to the library and borrow a book, read an artist’s blog (ahem), or go to a museum. Join a local artist community. Any of this will help bring clarity to our thoughts and foster the determination needed to continue working.

Because ultimately, the only REAL solution to the stagnation of fear is just that: to get to work. “No excuses, no explanations” my mom likes to say, borrowing a quote from Julia Child. And she’s absolutely right (as mothers often are). Fear will make excuses until he’s blue in the face, offering millions of reasons why we can’t get to work. He’ll demand that we explain ourselves, that we rationalize why our ideas are worth the effort. But meh, whatever. It gets to be an old story, eventually.

So yes, Fear will greet me, day after day, but I won’t let it freeze me. We’ve developed a working relationship, Fear and I, just like author Elizabeth Gilbert did (see her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear). Nowadays, in my ripe old age of __ (fill in the blank), I tell Fear this: “Thanks for sharing your thoughts, but I’ve got work to do.” And then I get to work as soon as possible, before he starts talking too loud. I don’t worry that ignoring Fear will hurt his feelings, because I know he’s not going anywhere anyway. He’ll be around for the next project, and the next, and the next, which is why I might as well teach him his proper place in this relationship. His proper place is over there, in the corner, where he can talk and talk forever. Because I’m not listening anymore, anyway.

 

 

 

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