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Can You Hear Your Creative Fear?

I stopped hearing my creative fear.

I don't mean that I've stopped listening to it or being manipulated by it.

I mean that I stopped being aware of its existence and power.

I've been suspended in a fear-coma without even knowing it.

This week, I woke up.

I saw Elizabeth Gilbert speak in Pittsburgh on Monday. At the start of the evening, she announced that she'd be talking about creativity and courage, which, honestly, wasn't a topic I thought I really needed to hear about. Don't get me wrong: I was excited to hear Gilbert speak and interested in the topic in a general way, but I didn't feel as though I needed a pep talk about being brave in my creative work.

Who's afraid of writing and has two thumbs?
Not this girl!

Gilbert talked about how our fears constantly shout at us, trying to keep us from doing things that might result in us getting hurt or being disappointed. Fear keeps us from creating by threatening us with impending humiliation. Fear makes us perfectionists. But, Gilbert reminded us, "done is better than perfect."

I have many issues surrounding my writing, issues that keep me from being as prolific as I'd like to be, but I don't identify "fear" as one of them. My problem is more one of motivation or clarity or project management or lack of tenacity. I put things off. I sit on ideas (for essays, for books, for entrepreneurial projects) for months -- even years -- at a time. I cringingly admit that without an external deadline, I have problems with procrastination and lack of follow-through. On the other hand, I'm also known to do quality, timely work for my clients or when I have a specific writing assignment. So what's the disconnect? What lurks beneath these issues that I have when it comes to self-directed creative work?

After Gilbert's talk, I had a niggling sense that maybe it's actually just plain old dumb fear.

I say "dumb" fear, meaning stupid fear, but now I'm thinking that the other definition of "dumb" might be more appropriate. Dumb: lacking the power of speech.

I'm having an epiphany over here.

Let me back up and tell you how Gilbert deals with the fear that shows up for her at the beginning of each new creative venture.

She said that each new project is like a road trip for her, and that she has two constant companions on such trips: Fear and Creativity. They all pile into a minivan, but before they start out, she has a conversation with Fear that goes something like this:

Hi, Fear. Welcome. I know you're going to be joining Creativity and me on this trip because you always do. And I know you believe that you have a very important job to do: to scream things at me such as "No! Don't do that! Watch out! Be careful!" And may I say that you do your job superbly! But I have a job to do, too, which is to stay focused and to work. Creativity will be doing her job, as well, which is to stay interested and excited about things. So we'll all be on this trip doing our jobs. And you, Fear, don't get to have a say in where we go or how we get there. You get a voice, but you don't get a vote. You don't get to touch the radio, you don't get to choose the snacks, and you sure as hell don't get to drive.

I thought about this and wondered: Is Fear shouting at me all the time?

I listened, but I didn't hear anything. And the silence was troubling.

Somewhere along the way, my Fear has stopped yelling. It's stopped yelling because it doesn't have to yell anymore to keep me in line. It's gone quiet because it has done such an effective job of screaming in the past that now all it has to do is sit in the backseat of the minivan and hum softly. It can even stay completely silent and simply raise an eyebrow at me when I glance in the rearview mirror.

My Fear has done its job so well that I no longer even notice it. Or if I do notice it, I identify it as something else: laziness, confusion, lack of skill, fatigue, boredom, procrastination, anything but Fear itself.

What a sneaky bastard!

As of this moment, I'm demanding that Fear show up as itself from now on. No more masquerading as something else. Fear thinks too highly of itself. Fear believes that it has special knowledge and insight. Fear believes it can drive around me and Creativity. Not so fast there, Fear! You get a voice, but you don't get a vote. And you sure as hell don't get to silently, stealthily put us on autopilot.

I'm giving Fear back its voice.

If Fear wants to have an opinion, it's going to have to state its case clearly. I don't really want Fear's blathering to cause a racket in my head, but I can't allow it to be a silent dictator anymore. If Fear is forced to speak up, at least I'll be able to recognize it for what it is and deal with it directly.

I am beginning to see my perceived issues (laziness, confusion, bad time management) for what they really are: Fear of not creating something perfect. Those perceived issues feel like personal failings, like character flaws. But Fear feels like an external force working upon me. This is radical: Maybe I don't have to fix a slew of personal shortcomings in order to be more prolific and productive. Maybe I just have to hand Fear a bottle of Coke and bag of Cheddar Combos and tell it to let me know when it needs a bathroom break at the nearest rest stop.

And make sure you speak up so I can hear you this time, Fear.

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Reader Comments (4)

I love this post so much. Going to read it again and again.
And handing fear a bottle of coke and cheese combos? awesomesauce.
November 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterliz
laziness, confusion, bad time management - I thought you must be talking about me!! Thanks so much for this post, I can certainly see the connection between fear and all my procrastinations/distractions. For example, I'm knitting at the moment, avoiding the task of finishing a poem that I fear will not be perfect. Fear is stopping me from a lot of tasks at the moment........and I thought I was just being lazy!!
November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTheresa
Wow. Wonderful epiphany! Thank you for sharing this! I think fear has gone undercover in my life, too. I'm gonna get it out where I can see it and lay down some rules.
November 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLisa
I read an interview with Nicole Kidman where she talked about how she tries to turn down nearly every movie offered to her because she's convinced she'll fail at it, and her agent has to force her to take the project. That was the first time I really recognized my own link between success as a writer and "imposter syndrome." I did the same thing as I got more successful in my screen writing career and I'm doing it again now that I'm retired and writing essays and fiction. Last year was a banner year for me in terms of literary journal publications and acceptance. So far this year, I haven't been able to write a damn thing aside from a few blog posts. Cannot believe this crap doesn't go away. Thanks for the pep talk. Feel like I just got a hug.
March 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJayne Martin

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