A Little Manual on Fear & Creativity
The writing life presents endless opportunities to meet fear. Facing the blank page, sending work out for publication, and reading to an audience can all be triggers. Fear is neither good nor bad — it’s simply an emotional weather vane that lets us know where we are meeting or anticipating challenge.
Fear becomes a problem when we do (or don’t do) something to try to avoid feeling it. And this is what too many of us are in the habit of doing. For example, if we let the fear of rejection prevent us from pitching or querying or submitting, we are ensuring that we’ll never realize our aspirations. Even worse, we’re reinforcing fear’s position as captain of our craft. But when we consciously work with fear, we can actually harness this energy source in ways that support our writing goals and enhance our writing experience. Here are 10 ways to do it.
1 Learn to identify subtle signs of fear
It’s easy to identify fear when we’re about to throw up or pass out or run screaming out of a building. But fear has many subtler faces that can be hard to discern. If you’re overperforming, underperforming or avoiding performing at all, chances are good that fear is in play.
For example, did you ever consider that the piece of writing you just can’t get right — and therefore endlessly revise — may be a reflection of your fear? That the important project you can’t find time to start is likely being thwarted by fear? Even your turbo-charged accomplishment mode could be driven by fear. When we find fear at the root of a challenging habit or behavior, we are fortunate — because with awareness, we have choices.
2 Acknowledge your fears without putting them in charge
We all have negative thoughts that creep in when we’re afraid. Our job is to make sure they don’t short-circuit us. In the film A Beautiful Mind, when someone from the Nobel Prize committee asks schizophrenic mathematician John Nash how he silenced the voices that threatened to interfere with his work and his life, Nash replies something to the effect of, “I didn’t. They’re talking to me right now. I have simply made a choice to stop engaging with what they’re saying.”
This is every writer’s opportunity with fear—to learn to live with the negative stories that get airtime in our minds, without letting them limit what we know we are called to do. Chances are good that your fear is just trying to protect you from meeting pain. Once you give it a chance to see that you’re going to be just fine, it will likely let up, and eventually even shut up for good.
A still from Hitchcock's Psycho. "There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
3 Focus on process instead of results
Fear tends to be focused on projected outcomes — which we cannot control. So, why not use fear as a signal to turn your attention to your process, instead? What we do have influence over is the intention, commitment and labor of love that goes into our writing. When you give your attention to following through on a goal, taking steps to improve your craft, researching places to submit, or reading that book on marketing, you are creating a forward motion that makes it harder for fear to hold you back.
4 Put perfectionism in its place
Many of us have this idea that we’re meant to be perfect as writers. Instead, try thinking of your writing as akin to your fingerprints. They are what they are—unique patterns that exclusively represent you—not good or bad or better or worse than anyone else’s.
Instead of trying to perfect your writing, then, strive to get acquainted with this pattern and become more and more proficient at expressing it. There is no endpoint in this process, and we will never arrive at “perfect.” So why not give up the chase right now, and just enjoy the resonance and beauty of our humble, flawed writing as it is? As Leonard Cohen sings, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Rather than “perfect” as an end goal, try setting your sights on “finished,” and see if that gives you a bit more appreciation for the light that seeps in.
Whatever happens, happens, and then you are excused.
5 Don’t make things harder than they need to be
If you’re used to approaching your writing life from a place of fear, you’re likely to expect that being a writer is really hard. Fear gets us all knotted up such that we have to work twice as hard at writing, publishing, promoting and presenting just to overcome our own resistance. Such an attitude lands you shoulder-to-boulder, on an eternal uphill climb. This gets tiring fast.
When you find yourself working at a pace that feels unreasonable or exhausting, take a step back to consider whether or not fear is at play. Being driven to accomplish and succeed can be a very useful quality in the writing life. But your drive could also be the fear of failure in disguise.
Sometimes, just being still is all our writing lives need from us. Often, more happens — or has room to happen — when we simply allow it without trying so hard. What if you were to expect some task that feels hard and scary to be full of ease and delight, instead? I’ll bet you could work faster and more efficiently — and even get better results — without fear weighing you down.
6 Retrain your bad habits, bit by bit
Do you catch yourself doing just about anything to avoid getting started on or back to work on a writing project that really matters to you? Or, on the flip side, do you tend to write and rewrite an endless succession of drafts, unable to decide when a piece is finished? Try setting and enforcing some performance standards.
If you find yourself scrubbing the toilet with a toothbrush to keep busy instead of starting that piece of writing you anticipate to be difficult, give yourself a time limit: 10 minutes with the toothbrush, then 10 minutes at your desk. Whatever happens, happens, and then you are excused. The point is to give yourself the escape valve (otherwise, you will rebel), but then make sure you actually follow through with your goal.
Similarly, the next time you catch yourself about to revise that piece yet again, try setting a cutoff limit: three drafts, total, and then you will declare the piece finished. Indulge your habit to a point, but then decide when enough will be enough. Resolve to stop getting in your own way.
Like any practice, the more you implement whatever standards you’ve set, the more reliable you will become. Experiment with your own ways to accept and move through your resistance. Don’t forget to be friendly to the resistance. It just wants to keep you safe. Bit by bit, you’ll earn its trust.
One reason for Hemingway's productivity might have been his fascination with fear through danger sports.
7 Do what scares you because it scares you
What do you fear most in your writing life? Take a moment to evaluate if it truly is likely to do you serious harm. If the answer is no, then I invite you to make a point of doing this very thing—as much as you can—until you exhaust fear’s charge around it. I’m not suggesting this process will be fast or easy, though that’s possible. But I do know that the more ambitious you are in tackling a significant challenge, the greater your self-confidence will be on the other side.
In my own writing life, public speaking has been the numero uno fear to conquer. This first came to my attention in second grade, when I skipped callbacks for the role of Gretl in The Sound of Music because I was so terrified that I might actually be cast. (Though I was afraid, I really wanted that role!) I vowed then that I would not let fear interfere with my goals or desires again. And I’ve been working with my fear ever since.
How have I done it? By singing and dancing and acting in every play, performance and band that would have me. And in the past 20 years, by reading and speaking publicly at every opportunity. Flawed and committed, I’ve stayed with it and I’ve gotten better. I’ve had major humiliations and significant successes. I’ve learned how to prepare and that I can trust myself along the way. It’s taken a long time.
8 Keep your eyes on the prize
If you have something more interesting to focus on than fear, it’s far less likely that fear will hog the spotlight of your attention. One way to hold your focus elsewhere is to clearly articulate for yourself why you’re working on a particular piece of writing, what motivates you to stay with it, and what the imagined end result will be.
For example, if you know that the article you’re writing about cultivating organic community gardens is going to teach you about something that’s both a core value and an expression of your platform, you have an intrinsic reward that’s worth writing for. If you understand that meeting a deadline and a word count while earning a paycheck is going to bring you one step closer to being a professional writer, that can keep you focused on crossing those finish lines. When fear creeps back in, let it be a signal to remind you to hold that focus steady.
Writers with defined goals have a better chance of achieving them.
Be curious about how to move from fear to trust.
9 Be realistic about your worst-case scenarios
Fear exists to keep us safe. If you are feeling fear, you are likely perceiving danger. The harder you try to silence the fear, the louder it will get to try to protect you. Therefore, I propose that you lean into that fear, and really listen to what it wants you to know. For example, consider an inquiry process like this:
YOU: Why am I unable to finish this story?
FEAR: Because if you call it “finished,” then you might find out it’s bad. If you never finish it, then you never have to send it out, and you’ll never know. You’ll be safer that way.
YOU: What’s wrong with finding out it’s bad?
FEAR: Then you would be a terrible writer.
YOU: According to whom?
FEAR: The people who read it. The publications that reject it.
YOU: But wouldn’t finishing something and getting feedback likely help me improve so that I might be one step closer to reaching my goals?
Your fear will have to agree.
10 Set your fear of fear free
In short, fear isn’t the problem — fearing fear is where we run into trouble. When we exit this loop, we’ll be in a better place to see clearly, aspire meaningfully and stop tripping over our own self-defeating feet.
I’m not saying that when we release fear’s vise grip, all of our goals are realized and our dreams come true. But it’s been my experience that we have far more room to breathe, experiment and evolve when we’re not squeezed into those small and invented stories that have been dictated to us by fear.
Your life and your writing are both precious resources. Don’t waste a drop of either. Put fear in charge of helping you see where you’re ready to grow, and be curious about how to move from fear to trust. When you walk through fear’s doorway, you have a chance to step into your greatest potential.
SAGE COHEN is the author of The Productive Writer; Writing the Life Poetic; Like the Heart, the World; and the forthcoming Fierce on the Page. She offers support and strategies for writers at pathofpossibility.com — and for divorcing parents at radicaldivorce.com.