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Is the Best Way to Create to be Scared Shitless?

Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome.” Elizabeth Gilbert

I’ve been reading Steven Pressfield’s wonderful book, The War of Art, lately, in which he recommends that, when choosing creative projects, to work on the one that scares you most. If, when you think of this project, you feel nauseous, terrified, or as if you’d like to hide in the nearest convenient closet, according to him that’s a great sign to go ahead full tilt. To not do so may lead to another dreaded feeling that always arrives too late, regret, and arriving at the final day on Earth with not much to show for it.

When I think back on my life, it seems to me that the times I grew the most were the times when I was most uncertain and scared. These are two feelings that humans, for the most part, abhor, and a lot of us avoid diving in at the point when we realize that things are going to get unpredictable and thorny. In fact, we find any excuse to not face the thing that terrifies us. This can include choices (another name for excuses) like drugs, alcohol, bad relationships, addiction to television, or simply finding unrelated distractions that keep us from our real work, the excavation of our truth.

When I was in my mid-twenties and living in Milwaukee, I noticed that there were a lot of excellent young string players coming out of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s music school, due to the teaching of the superb Fine Arts Quartet. I had just graduated with a Masters Degree in violin performance from Indiana University’s fabled music school, and was itching to not only show off and use what I had learned there, but to explore repertoire that excited and challenged me. 

These young musicians and I would often end up on freelance gigs together, and began to talk about forming an all-string ensemble, something Milwaukee had never had. No one seemed to want to take the lead on getting it going, so I looked into all the “official” business of forming a non-profit and putting together a board of directors, crowned myself the chief administrator, and we were off and running.

We lasted about three years, when people either found other work that actually paid, or didn’t agree with my administrative reign, and/or our funding ran out. It was joyful, painful, exhilarating, scary and sad, especially at the end when the music stopped.

Was I terrified during this period of my life? Yup, most of the time. Did I sometimes want to throw up? Of course. Did everything go according to plan? Uh, no... But boy, did I learn a lot.

Since I’ve begun a writing career, I recognize those same feelings. It’s a rocky road of stumbling around, finding my footing, stumbling some more, having something AMAZING happen, getting lost in the weeds, wondering if I’ll ever amount to anything, all kinds of useless nonsense…I’ve found this is normal, everyday life if you decide to live an adventurous one. The highs are higher and the lows are lower, but at least you’re feeling something at all times. 

I’ve also found that the most important thing you can do when you recognize what’s going on, is to face down this terror and bring in some backup. The backup could be in the form of a spouse or friend (preferably another creative soul) to talk you down and put you back on the dusty path, a book or song that inspires you, a podcast that talks about the struggles and rewards of being creative. It does NOT mean a swig of bourbon, a tote of weed, an entire box of Oreos, or calling the so-called friend who is also struggling with their own creative monsters and is jealous of any progress you make. Or, one of my personal favorites, watching a show or movie so I can analyze it and use it in my own writing on the 12th of NEVER. (There’s nothing wrong with using this as a tool, but you actually have to, well, use it.)

Simply facing the fear, writing it down and/or saying it out loud to someone you trust lessens some of its power over you. For one thing, looking it straight in the face tells you what it’s made of, and you realize suddenly, that it’s not much. Ha ha, why did I fear this thing? It looks ridiculous! Did I really think it could keep me from getting to where I want to go?

Okay, we got over that hurdle. But the project is still looming above us, looking bigger by the minute. There’s no choice at this point but to begin, no matter how small. In fact, small is good. Write one sentence, one paragraph - everyone works differently. I tend to hop around if something isn’t working. I very rarely put things together in logical order, and somehow that works for me. It may not work for you, but you need to poke around to see what does. The thing is, if you write at least one sentence a day, at the end of the year you’ll have three hundred sixty-five sentences! But believe me, once you start writing one sentence a day, you’ll notice that some days you’ll write/sculpt/paint/etc more than that.

Maybe you were told at some point in your life that you’re simply not creative, so you proceed to prove those people right by underperforming. Here’s a great example of how suggestion can turn into reality: young girls are told that they aren’t good at math, so sure enough, they underperform in math class and on math tests. This is a well-documented result of anxiety over an incorrect stereotype influencing performance. But the thing is, all human beings are creative, it’s built into our genes and nervous systems. We had to be creative to survive this long and arduous trek to the Twenty-first Century. Your particular brand of creativity may not be the same as mine, but that’s a great reason to explore it and find out where yours shines.

The bottom line is that nobody escapes feeling fearful about creating, we simply create in spite of the fear. But we have to get to it, this stuff won’t create itself….although, that would be a great invention…..hmmmm. 

Get to work!!

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