Tunes for a Monday Morning
Facing fear, 2: On courage and confidence

Facing fear

 I dislike the stereotype of the "suffering artist," for my best work springs from joy, not misery, and from working conditions that are calm, not chaotic. Nonetheless, I'd like to look at the dark side of creativity this week, as it's something so many of us have struggled through: the fear and anxiety that can manifest as endless procrastination, or the inability to complete a project, or even, at its worst, complete creative paralysis. For me, this was more of a problem when one when I was younger, less confident, and less established in my work routines, but even today fear can suddenly appear and 'whup me longside the head' (as my Southern relatives used to say), particularly when I'm entering new creative territory...which, of course, we must regularly do as we stretch, grow, and explore our craft.

Here's  dancer/choreograpger Twyla Tharp again, from her excellent book The Creative Habit:

"When I walk into [thestudio] I am alone, but I am alone with my body, ambition, ideas, passions, needs, memories, goals, prejudices, distractions, fears.

"These ten items are at the heart of who I am. Whatever I am going to create will be a reflection of how these have shaped my life, and how I've learned to channel my experiences into them.

"The last two -- distractions and fears -- are the dangerous ones. They're the habitual demons that invade the launch of any project. No one starts a creative endeavor without a certain amount of fear; the key is to learn how to keep free-floating fears from paralyzing you before you've begun. When I feel that sense of dread, I try to make it as specific as possible. Let me tell you my five big fears:

1. People will laugh at me.
2. Someone has done it before.
3. I have nothing to say. 
4. I will upset someone I love. 
5. Once executed, the idea will never be as good as it is in my mind.

"There are mighty demons, but they're hardly unique to me. You probably share some. If I let them, they'll shut down my impulses ('No, you can't do that') and perhaps turn off the spigots of creativity altogether. So I combat my fears with a staring-down ritual, like a boxer looking his opponent right in the eye before a bout.

1. People will laugh at me? Not the people I respect; they haven't yet, and they're not going to start now....

2. Someone has done it before? Honey, it's all been done before. Nothing's original. Not Homer or Shakespeare and certainly not you. Get over yourself.

3. I have nothing to say? An irrelevant fear. We all have something to say.

4. I will upset someone I love? A serious worry that is not easily exorcised or stared down because you never know how loved ones will respond to your creation. The best you can do is remind yourself that you're a good person with good intentions. You're trying to create unity, not discord.

5. Once executed, the idea will never be as good as it is in my mind? Toughen up. Leon Battista Alberti, the 15th century architectural theorist, said, 'Errors accumulate in the sketch and compound in the model.' But better an imperfect dome in Florence than cathedrals in the clouds."

Drawing by Ryan Woodward

"Sometimes I think the difference between what we want and what we're afraid of is about the width of an eyelash.”  - Jay McInerney

Your thoughts?

Video and sketch above: Re-visiting Ryan Woodward's dance animation,"Thought of You," with music by The Weepies.

Post script: This was written and posted before I learned about the bombings in Boston, which of course raises fears of a very different kind. My thoughts are with friends and readers in Boston today (a city where I used to live, and a city that I love) -- I hope you and are your loved ones are safe.


I like your tactic of writing back to all your fears. It's a good way of diffusing them. xx

It's Twyla Tharp's, not mine -- but I agree, Nomi, it's a good tactic!

I love that animation!

I'm slowly beginning to realise which of my inner convictions are generating my fear, and the biggest is my own expectations and demands on my skills, not that of everybody else. So I'm trying to create different workarounds to trick myself out of procrastinations as well as a bit of brainwash to change those beliefs. So 5 is definitely the sinner here.

Great quote by Jay McInerney. So often, we are the only ones holding ourselves back, by what we tell ourselves.

I'm practicing feeling the fear, but letting it keep moving through me instead of latching onto or getting attached to it. Georgia O'Keeffe said, "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life - and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do." I can't say that—but I feel I'm closer to it than I've been before.

The fear can come at you in many ways—it is very versatile!—but at its root is often the fear of not being enough on some level....

And right she is about facing it head on. Avoidance and distractions can keep me from even admitting to the fear for long periods of time, until eventually I must either deal with it or start circling the drain. It wastes so much and creates so much unhappiness in the meantime.

A previous post on "creative fear" (with many interesting Comments) is here:

Thanks to Carmine for reminding me!

"Avoidance and distractions can keep me from even admitting to the fear for long periods of time, until eventually I must either deal with it or start circling the drain. It wastes so much and creates so much unhappiness in the meantime."

So very, very true.

we all have our own ways of creating. and i find that those creations that do stem from our miseries can be joyous in the way that, that energy is felt..worked through..transmuted..into something real and beautiful. although i do also create from joy, i find my darkest moments produce creations that come from a profound calmness as i take a long sensuous glimpse into the chaotic abysss within, bringing some relief..healing..

a really interesting post. i love reading your blog.

I spent most of my life making decisions based almost solely in fear. I thought it would always be that way; that there was no escape. The deep roots of that fear were really just snarls of shame. It took hitting a personal "rock bottom" and needing to completely start over to begin to crawl out from underneath that oppressive reality. I still have fears (all 5 of the fears listed in this post, in fact!), but they aren't the determining factors in my decisions anymore. A lot of that has to do with my newly understood relationship to God, and my understanding of how (lovingly) He perceives me. In my lifespan, I have much more experience living according to my fears than living according to faith, but each time I step off the ledge and am gently caught, I trust a little more.

These issues plague me, all 5 of them. I've read Twyla Thorpe's book and remember being buoyed by her example, so this reminder is priceless and timely. And in particular that line: "If I let them they will shut down my impulses." I have a project that I cancelled recently because my physical body has amassed that message ... so gently I reach for that scared tiny girl artist and face the fears together. Dreaming and coming through helps talk those fears down.

Reading this with my morning oatmeal allows me to see the cancellation as temporary. The list of fears makes the free-floating effect less untouchable. Especially this one: "5. Once executed, the idea will never be as good as it is in my mind."... sometime in this day I take a step toward just letting the story fly. Thank for you this Terri.

I was noticing in the studio the other day, that I have strategies to walk through fear (or something like it) EVERY time I go into the studio to work. The routine I have established first gets me to the studio, then I circle a little when there before I finally push myself to begin working. I'm untangling in a deeper way what this fear, or fear-like feeling is that I need to move through before I begin.

And I as well need peace and calm and work better from a place of joy. However, lately, as I move through grief, its being in my studio and painting that bring me to a place of peace more and more. With this new body of work, which is a rather big shift in my imagery, I find myself needing to remind myself that I am who the work is for, first and foremost. I am not sure if the galleries I work with will be interested in it, and that brings up some anxiety. That is the practice, right there, to remind myself to continue to work, to let go of the rest, to trust timing, and to make MY work alone in my studio without anyone else with me.

These comments are a great reminder that we are (#6?) NOT alone in these fears. That in itself helps them to evaporate.

An Imperfect Dome

"Better an imperfect dome in Florence than cathedrals in the clouds."--Twyla Tharp

The domes that emerge from my typing
are often lopsided, with shattered tiles.
An arch does not come to a perfect point.
The flooring is smudged, plaster still wet.

Angels of stone smirk in the doorway
while spouted gargoyles laugh outloud
and spit on the parish priest
as he rushes in to read my latest prayer.

Do not worry yourself, this place
will not fall down to shatter your head.
The worst will be the days, weeks, months
of scaffolding as I resurrect and reconstruct
my peculiar gods in their difficult housing.

All art is like that, the dream of the cathedral
the reality of the imperfect dome.
All you need is long patience,
hammers, nails, a few choice words at the start.

©2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

BOY, did I need to read this today! My fears exactly. I loved the one about getting over one's self because it has all been done before. Those go before us to remind us for the present!! Thank you for posting today. I take a big breath now and go forward.

Most of my fears revolve around money. When I was seven years old, with some awareness of poverty,
I tried to figure out how to make a living. Later, I decided to go to college and have a fall back job,
a drama teacher. That didn't happen. Lack of money at crucial times takes a lot of time one would rather give to art. In what I regard as golden times, financially comfortable and creative, it's like heaven. I am now solvent and learning more about the fear of 'what if?' What if my writing is horrible and I can't see that? I decided to consult with the writer who helped me be an outsider, for Isak Dinesen was not yet in the college curriculum when first read Winter's Tales. I decided to read it again and had forgotten a lot of what she gave me. In A Consolatory Tale, the writer Charles Despard says, "All works of art are beautiful and perfect. And all of them are, at the same time, hideous, ludicrous, complete failures...: He goes on about the high and low of creating and then deals with the reactions of the public...which can love it or hate it. It is a fine story to read in the midst of hideous and ludicrous.

Every aspiring poet should read this. it's awesome. I'll try to be in line at the bookstore
when all these brilliant poems have been published as a poetic bouquet.

Most of my life has been spent attempting to help other people, so when it comes down to creativity, art, writing, music, or anything that is just inherently for myself and not designed to help others, I struggle.

I suppose it is the desire to validate yourself in what you are doing, and defend the time and energy and money spent on it. But at the end of the day, I have to try and push through this each week. Because it is the same as eating breakfast, taking breaks, listening to a that song that always cheers me up, walking in the woods, and wearing clothes that feel good. It doesn't make any difference to anyone else. No one else in the world may know if I do these things. But I do, and they have a huge effect to how I feel.

Creativity is like that. Even if my words never see the light of day, the one life that will be improved for my having written something is my own. That's the place where I start.

I agree, Phyllis. Wonderful, Jane.

Thank you for this. I think I'll go re-read Winter's Tales too. It's been ages.

And for me, too, worry about making enough to live on is the fear that looms largest in living an Artist's Life (whilst also managing a health condition that complicates my work schedule). As fears go, it's a decidedly unromantic one, but a daily presence breathing over my shoulder as I work.

I am almost hesitate to say that for fear of discouraging younger writer/artists, who tend to assume that once you've reached my age and are publishing regularly the problem abates. But book publishing, like many arts professions, is not well paid unless you're at the top of the field...and most of us fall somewhere in the middle; which is why the vast majority of published writers do not live entirely on their writing income. That's something young people need to take into account when planning their careers...not to stop them from writing, but to make sure they don't starve in the process. If you're in it for the long haul, be prepared.

It's also something readers should take into account when they make the decision to buy a used book rather than a new book. I'm not against used books, if that's genuinely all a reader can afford; books are meant to be read, after all. But a lot of writers that we all read regularly are struggling more than their readers realize (I won't name names, but this is very real right now, as the publishing industry goes through massive changes), and every sale helps to "buy" them the time to keep writing.

Oh lordy, Joel, that's a big one for me too. I find it really hard to put my own work first if someone needs me for something; and I can always justify time spent on a project if it helps other writers/artists more easily than one I'm doing just for myself. I've been trying for the last several years to change this (slowed down by health, but still working on it), since I've reached an age where if I don't put my own work first now, then it's simply never going to happen. But it goes against a life-time of conditioning, and a life-time of measuring my value by being "of service." (Not that this is a bad thing, in the right time and place.) I'm glad you're tackling this issue while you're still young! You have to do your own work too, for your own sake, for your soul's sake -- and if outside permission is what is needed, I hereby give you that permission.

We all need to be "self-full" in order to create -- which is a made-up word that I prefer to "selfish."

I agree that transmuting pain and misery into works of art is one of the real joys of making art -- but for me, it's hard to do some when I'm still in the middle of the painful experience. It's in the calm after the storm that I can breathe again, sit down, and create.

As someone who is not monotheistic, I feel a similar way about nature. When I step off the ledge into fear, going outdoors into the natural world serves to pull me back, without fail. It's another form of faith.

"I find myself needing to remind myself that I am who the work is for, first and foremost."

Indeed. You're being very brave, my dear. May your path lead you exactly where you need to go.

Thank you for these thoughtful comments, everyone.

I like this quote from the Persian poet Hafiz:

'Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d like to see you in better living conditions.'

I don't know if this is something anyone else has said, but it's the mantra I live by when my doubts start to nibble at me:

I don't have to make it perfect. I just have to make it.

I spent a lot of my life, up until about a year ago, wanting to be a writer but letting my fears decide for me that I may as well not bother because I suck and I'm dumb and I have nothing to say and people will laugh, etc, etc - all the same fears. Yet the drive to create persisted, despite my doubts' best efforts. So I resolved to create, because I have stories in me, and if I don't tell them, who will?

Every time I worry it's not perfect, I remind myself that it doesn't have to be. If I don't make it, perfect or not, it won't exist at all, and that's not something I can accept.

Ugh, yes. When I was in school, and visited the gallery that now represents me, I thought, oh, painters in this gallery are all set, they make a good living. Ha... now I know just how naive that was!!

Big changes In the art world, too. Big changes. Galleries say they can't sell, "smaller work" anymore. What does this mean? I need to make large work, even if my work doesn't call for it, if I want to sell it? And, what is 'big"... is it mainly corporations buying art for lhuge walls? Who knows... but, yes, making a living is a constant worry. But does this in one way contribute to us pushing towards something? I don't know, just through that out... I know we creative folks also have a lot of personal drive, and living on the egde with finances, I just can't become lazy.

late to the table here.... I once asked the Czech glass artist Dana Zamecnikova where she found her inspiration & she replied-
"Where else can we put all the fears, joys, sadness, frustrations & wonders but in the art?"

I am reminded so much of Mary Oliver's timeless poem "The Journey" at this moment:

"But little by little / as you left their voices behind / the stars began to burn / through the sheets of clouds / and there was a new voice / which you slowly / recognized as your own / that kept you company / as you strode deeper and deeper / into the world / determined to do / the only thing you could do -- / determined to save / the only life you could save."

Dear Terri - I so admire your awareness and honesty. As an aspiring artist in a small town,
I knew no others like me, so I looked up all the women artist biographies or memoirs
in the high school library. It was good luck. The truth being, they all needed fall back jobs.
My favorite is Edna St. Vincent Mallay who chose being an actress as her fall back, but
was luckier with poetry. But I know many artists who struggle after great accomplishment.
That is why I invest in buying books at bookshops, which also need our help. in my case,
knowing I might never be rich and famous, it was the craft. How do poets and novelists
do this? I'm still studying and experimenting on this endless quest.

Oh, that's just wonderful. Let's to up to the ivory tower.

I have three children and one is head injured permanently. I had to do a lot of scutwork and demanding sad things to keep him just comfortable. It has leveled off as he now lives in a safe place and he is happy. But the side gift is that this taught me about things I never knew, the world of the shunned and overlooked and it has given me a wider view of life which enhances my work as a writer, and theatre person. I also volunteer to help people
who have stage fright or are flummoxed by Shakespeare. It's all about balance.

The video is so amazing it sent shivers down my spine. Thanks for sharing it!

I've been struggling with finishing a book for years -- so many worries about whether it was good or would be published or would upset some people or was too personal. I've reached a point now that the writing itself is what's important, not what happens to it when it's done. It's simply something I have to do, which doesn't make it easier, but removes all those debilitating expectations and concerns.

You're entirely right, Phyllis, it's all about balance. And also, I think, not measuring our progress against others who may not have had so many hard, time-consuming things to contend with. (Although, of course, everyone has their own struggles, often invisible to the rest of us.) I'm not prone to jealousy (my natural impulse is to be pleased for others' successes), but I *am* prone to judging myself harshly if I don't measure up to self-imposed standards that are often wildly unrealistic, given the limits of my health. Another thing I am trying to change.

And Joel, thank you for reminding me of Oliver's beautiful, wise poem.


"I've reached a point now that the writing itself is what's important, not what happens to it when it's done."

That's it exactly. Even if your ultimate goal is to publish, when the manuscript is finished you can put on your Business Hat and do the marketing work of figuring out what to do with it: where to send it, or whether it needs a bit of careful editing to make it more publishable, etc. etc. But the Business Self shouldn't be sitting in the Writer's chair doing the creative work. That's the Writer's job.

A very good mantra indeed. The dancer/choreographer Martha Graham once said:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

Me too, hon, me too!

My first ever solo exhibition opens in a week, and I'm excited, and I'm terrified. It's one thing for people to see one artwork and say "that's lovely", but I've never seen all my work together in one place. Will it actually work together? Will it say anything or mean anything? Will people like it? Will anyone buy, so I'll feel all the work and late nights and money I've put into it is worth it? Will they come in and wander around and make 'harumphing' sounds and leave, or stand and smile and gasp in delight? I'll be there everyday, watching and listening, what will that be like? And here's a thought...what will it say about me, all up there on the walls, all together in one confined space, all my odd ideas and dreams and poem bits and eclectic media/style choices? Will it reflect back the person I think I am, or someone else? I think I need to write that Georgia O'Keefe quote in Carmine's comment somewhere large so I can see it everyday.

Oh I love the Business Hat. I think of it as my secretary, who has office experience and
has weathered many a peculiar job.

Oh and this reminds me of the amazing poet in our writing group. Her family owned a
Chinese restaurant, and she was very proud to become a fine secretary. She is the one
in our group who corrects our misplaced commas and then brings the most glorious,
strong beautiful poems to us, before they are published.

All of us here at Bumblehill wish you good luck and brilliant success, Christina. We think your work is gorgeous.

At least when people read my books, I don't have to *watch* them do it....

Thanks so much, Terri, it's lovely to know so many people all over the world are wishing me well!

Yes, we all wish you well. Your work is beautiful. I just went back to your site to see it
again. I am sure what I see there is truly you.

"But better an imperfect dome in Florence than cathedrals in the clouds." I don't think I'll ever forget that.

G. K. Chesterton once quipped, "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly." Which, to my mind, harbours more truth than the more common aphorism upon which it plays.

Leonard Cohen remains one of my great heroes for reasons I won't go into. He has suffered all his life from very severe depression and anxiety. An interviewer asked him if that helped, if somehow it put him in touch with his creativity. He replied a flat, "No. All my work has been done *despite* that. It would have been a whole lot easier without."

A life is woven of many threads, mine no less than anyone else's. One of those threads for me has been a complex of fears instilled into me by a weird and confusing religious up-bringing. Only now, at 45, am I getting consciously and comfortably free of that and I have noticed a marked and proportional increase in my creativity, productivity and ease in work.

But I still don't believe in 'writer's block' - I still think that is just a lack of discipline, a lack of courage. Courage is what Leonard Cohen has; the act of doing it anyway, despite the anxiety, despite the fear.

I was taught that my best work would be achieved drunk and depressed. That scuppered me for many years. Now sober and with a greater degree of inner calm and self-awareness than ever, I feel as if I am finally just getting started!

I like this one very much, Jane.

"All you need is long patience,
hammers, nails, a few choice words at the start."

Oh yes.

Thanks. A

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