Any act of creativity will activate your fear in a big way. That’s how you know it’s working. Creative acts involve a swirling kaleidoscope of emotions, ranging from vision, exhilaration, industriousness, boredom and grandiosity to sheer terror. Sometimes there is shame too. We rotate through all of them along the way, repeatedly, throughout any creative act.
Everybody loves the fun part; the exhilaration, grandiosity and industriousness. These feelings are often referred to as “being in the zone”, and they get a lot of press. This is what most people think of as creativity, especially those who haven’t spent a lot of time engaged in creative pursuits. We think that “the zone” is the only hallmark of a creative person, imagining that artists and prolific writers spend most of their time in an orgasmic outpouring of beauty.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The darker side of creativity is every bit as important and, in a weird way, every bit as productive. Boredom, embarrassment, and, above all, fear, are non-optional companions on your creative journey. In fact, they might be tour guides.
It’s really important to understand this. If you don’t, you might interpret these yucky sensations as a cue to quit. They aren’t. You will sometimes look at the mess you made on the page (or the canvas, or the screen, or the notebook) and feel a surge of disgust. There will certainly be days when you go to bed radiating Wagner-esque glory, only to awake the next morning to find your masterpiece has shrivelled into an embarrassing caricature of itself. You will be humbled by your own arrogance, again and again. This is a brutal experience, humiliating and painful, like a kid shouting “Look ma, no hands!” and then knocking his teeth out on the playground floor.
Beyond the swings and roundabouts of the creative process itself, writing and publishing a book is a scary thing to do. Often, the smartest people with the best material are the most anxious about their writing. That’s because they hold themselves to the highest standard, demanding for themselves nothing less than greatness and deserved acclaim. It’s a lot of pressure.
We’re afraid of being judged on so many things:
- Our argumentation: Will my thesis hold up to scrutiny by smart people?
- Our accuracy: Did I get all my facts right?
- Our originality: Will people think I’m just a hack?
- Our grammar: Ought I to turn this awkward phrase differently? Ack!
- Our personality: Am I charming enough?
- Our humour: Am I funny enough?
- Our talent for storytelling: Hello, is this thing on?
- Our author photograph on the back cover: For the love of god, why didn’t somebody tell me about my hair?!
On top of all that, we worry about whether this is all worthwhile. We wonder: Will I see a return on my investment? If I fork out for a top-notch editor or jacket designer, will I make that money back in sales? Of course, the months (or years) spent writing is time that we’ll never get back, and this can be the most anxiety-provoking investment of all.
Fear of being judged can manifest – as you might expect – as tentativeness, paralysis, or nights of lost sleep. But it can also show up in surprising disguises. It can masquerade as arrogance, laziness, or a tendency to hide behind pat answers. It can make you take shortcuts in your thinking, relying on easy mental crutches.
Don’t let that happen – it will cheat you out of the book you are meant to write.
I’m not saying that all fear is bad. We don’t have to be afraid of our own fear or disown it; it means well. It is trying to keep us safe. Used correctly, healthy fear can be an important tool for anyone who wants to achieve excellence.
Healthy fear focuses our attention on what is most important to us, and heightens our awareness of flaws and weaknesses so that they can be addressed.
Healthy fear makes you look more closely at the work with a clear and sober eye. Healthy fear makes you stay up late rehearsing your presentation and double-checking your facts.
Healthy fear puts our attention on our most challenging competitors, who become our inspiration and give us a benchmark to meet or exceed.
Toxic fear, on the other hand, can turn you into a chronic ditherer who tinkers and anguishes over every phrase until the living spark is beaten right out of your writing. It can make you pull your punches in your arguments, and camp out in the middle ground to avoid dissent.
Toxic fear makes you hide from your work, and hide your work from the world. It makes you drink beer at lunchtime instead of working on your book because it is sunny out and you have been working so hard, you deserve it, damn it!
Toxic fear can cause you to get sick or injure yourself at a critical deadline (or just as you’re about to commit to writing).
Toxic fear can trap you in a Sisyphean nightmare of endless rewriting and self-editing so that your piece never gets finished, published, or read by anyone else.
And this is the most pernicious toxic fear of all: the fear of your own success. It can make you fail in your most important dreams and then hiss in your ear: “I knew it.”
Toxic fear is a liar.
Ok, now I’ve got you terrified of your own fear. Fear not! We’re not aiming to banish fear, because we couldn’t if we tried. We can never eradicate fear from our lives or our writing practice. But we can put it in its place.
Here are some strategies to move past it.
Turn it into fuel.
This is the mental trick of turning toxic fear into healthy fear, and it is always available to any of us. The good news for super intense types is that the power of the force that’s holding you back is equal to its power to propel you forward, once you figure out how to harness it. To execute this nifty trick, try shifting your focus from the thing you fear to the fear itself. Develop an “I’ll show you…” attitude to your own anxiety. See the challenge before you as a test that was set for the purpose of being won, and you will win it.
Drown it out.
When you give fear the floor, it will hog the mic all damn day. You may not be able to shut its mouth, but you can give it a little competition. By surrounding yourself with messages of hope, strength and confidence, you rob fear of its power to dominate your mindset. Fear wants to shout from a soapbox to a captive audience. Turn it into an all-candidates debate, with optimism and enthusiasm at the other podiums. Now, fear can thump its fist all it wants. You get to choose whose rally you join.
Don’t believe the hype.
When you begin to see toxic fear for what it is – a small-minded bully driven to control you in an attempt to inflate its own power – it becomes quite comical. Like the “great and powerful Oz,” from the Wizard of Oz, your toxic fear is a runt and a coward. That’s why it must throw shadows on the wall to try to appear mightier and more menacing. Don’t be transfixed by the display; peel back the curtain. You’re bigger than this.
What you feed tends to grow. That’s true for plants, children and fear. So what does fear eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Your attention. Every time you notice that fearful thoughts have hijacked your headspace, just raise a mental eyebrow and move on. Cut off its food supply and watch it wither.
Act on it.
This is another way to turn toxic fear into healthy fear. If you’re afraid of being called out on your arguments, do your research. Still not sure your assertions are watertight? Fact check them some more*. Fear hates action because it thrives on your paralysis. Once it’s been acted on, it has no option but to move out.
*Key caveat: If you truly feel your due diligence has been done, and maybe done to death, it might be time to switch up your tactics. If you find yourself jumping through the same old hoops repeatedly just to prove yourself to yourself, go back to ignoring your fear or drowning it out. When dealing with an unwanted roomie, nothing says, “you’re not welcome here” like changing the locks.
Pretend the big, scary, wonderful thing is only a dream.
Ok, I’m only being half-serious with this one. This is an emergency measure for when you need to walk gracefully into an intimidating and expansive situation and your fear-based self-saboteur is threatening a meltdown at the threshold. Say you’ve got a book deal on the table. You’ve consulted your lawyer and the fine print checks out. You’ve compared notes with other writers and you know you’re getting a square deal. Your inner cheerleader is punching the air with her pompoms, but fear is paralyzing the hand holding the pen. Bleak fantasies of getting ripped off by your publisher are filling your head. Suddenly you become convinced that your book concept is a piece of crap and your publisher is just too stupid to know it. Or your book concept is a world-changing work of genius and you should hold out for a bigger advance. Or maybe it all seems too good to be true and you feel like putting on the brakes just to regain control. Don’t let your fear-based saboteur kick over your sandcastle. Instead, dream that signature right onto the page. It’s only a dream. Your dream. Coming true. Finish the book. Make the phone call. Sign the contract. Say yes.
This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, which I am blogging about while I write. Like it? Leave me a comment and let me know!
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