Once we’ve started on our creative journeys things aren’t necessarily easy. It can be tempting to think that just because you’ve finished your BA or MA things will slot into place, that just because you’ve found the material or technique/process that excites you, the work will be made easily, that just because you’ve made the work it will find its audience. We know it’s not that simple. There are so many things that can get in the way. In this post I’m going to be looking at one of those internal barriers to a creative life running smoothly – fear – and seeing if the words of other creative people can help us to find a way to live with the fear and to find the courage to create in the way we need to.
Fear is a part of the creative life. Who doesn’t feel slightly afraid when they start a new body of work, accept a commission, take part in a big show or exhibition, talk about their work in public? The low-level anxiety that comes with the thoughts ‘can I do this?’ or ‘surely this time they’ll realise I can’t do this?’. Luckily this low-level anxiety tends to get swept away in the action of doing the work, soon we’re too far in it to be worried. But what of the fear that permeates your creative life, that causes you to feel reluctant to start on the big work, those secret big dreams you have for your own practice? How do we deal with that, because it’s that insidious fear, that lurks waiting for quiet moments to pounce, that will really kill dead your biggest ambitions for yourself.
In her fantastic book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert opens with a chapter that addresses the fear that all creative people will have if they are attempting what she calls ‘creative living’, that is, when you are “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” And she asks us the central question at the heart of creative living: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you? Because honouring the creativity inside you is an act of bravery, it demands courage. Whenever you attempt anything creative, fear will show up “because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome.” What Gilbert goes on to describe is how this perfectly natural, evolutionary response to potentially dangerous situations – fear – irrationally believes that your creative acts are also dangerous, and so you need protecting. Fear stops you from acting, thus it keeps you safe. But we don’t need to be kept safe from our creativity. Fear is not a vital part of the process, but that doesn’t mean you can stop it. Gilbert’s answer is to make space for your fear. It has to be dealt with, not ignored or pushed back, not resisted or conquered, but accepted. You must accept that fear and creativity will go hand in hand, that you are all on this journey together, but it doesn’t mean you have to let your fear decide what happens on that journey: you are in charge.
Big Magic is a great book (I’ve written about it here) but it is a very general book, and Gilbert’s discussions on fear and courage are widely applicable to any creative endeavour whether for pleasure, as a hobby, or for professional reasons. That’s not to say it’s not useful, but sometimes I am craving something a bit more relevant to me, to my situation, something that speaks to the writer, artist, maker in me about the struggles of writing, creating and making. Which is where the next book comes into it.
Art & Fear. Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland is an excellent exploration into the issues that artists face when making their work. The authors are artists and teachers, and throughout the years they have gathered questions that they were curious to answer: How does art get done? Why, often does it not get done? And what is the nature of the difficulties that stop so many who start? As they state, “this book is about what it feels like to sit in your studio or classroom, at your wheel or keyboard, easel or camera, trying to do the work you need to. It is about committing your future to your own hands, placing Free Will above predestination, choice above chance. It is about finding your own work.” So much of this book is dedicated to unpicking the fears artists have, about themselves, about their work, and the challenges that external forces place on their art-making. It is comforting to see so many of the fears that I know I have echoed back in the stories of their students, or of their own careers.
In a section of the book which reflects many of the issues we looked at in last week’s post, the authors talk about the difficulty of creating your work:
In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive. … Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did. In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible. To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping your artwork. … The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars – even the failed pieces are essential.
Again, we find ourselves thinking about the purpose of our creative work, the duty we have as creative people to be ourselves and to find a way to do the work we must do. Fear is the obstacle that gets in the way, that causes people to shy away from the challenges in their practice or to give up on the big goals entirely. As the authors of Art & Fear acknowledge: “To survive as an artist requires confronting these troubles. Basically, those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue – or more precisely, have learned how to not quit.” The rest of the book is about how people manage to allay their fears, or to live with them enough to develop the courage to continue.
The courage that I need, and that I can hear other people searching for, often boils down to this – learning to have the courage to be yourself and to be honest about the work you do and why you do it. Living courageously, in this way, enables us to do everything we want, to make the work we want, to set up the sort of practices that reflect our needs. Reading books like Big Magic and Art & Fear offers us the chance to hear our fears out loud, to recognise that other people feel just like we do about the very real and big anxieties in our creative practices. It helps us to be that little bit braver.
What artists learn from other artists is not so much history or technique (although we learn tons of that too); what we really gain from the artmaking of others is courage-by-association. Depth of contact grows as fears are shared – and thereby disarmed – and this comes from embracing art as process, and artists as kindred spirits.
What fears do you have about your creative practice? Are they low-level anxieties or are they big, scary thoughts that hold you back? Try taking a moment to write them down, and to begin to unpick the effects they are having. Perhaps sharing your fears with a trusted friend or colleague might help. If not, I can whole-heartedly recommend these two books as a place to start.