On Creative Practice, Part 1: Overcoming Fear

Beating fear as the first step toward building a creative practice.

“So this, I believe, is the central question upon which all creative living hinges: do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?” writes Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic. This succinctly sums up the ultimate challenge that lies at the heart of any creative life. To live creatively, we must answer affirmatively, then get to work making our art.

After all, we, at our core, exist to create. When we’re children, free of debilitating inhibitions, each day is full of dinosaurs roaming the shores of emerald seas. As we grow older, we refine our self-expression by finding new and increasingly sophisticated ways to produce art. And we do it with all of our soul and with reckless disregard for what others think of us. Then something strange happens.

It’s a slow, almost imperceptible, movement like an iceberg until one day awaken concerned with what the rest of the world thinks of us, and we subtly begin to conform.That same society that promoted creative freedoms when we were younger, now demands that we conform and do its bidding. We become self-conscious. The desire to be different and the sense of unlimited potential wane. We float along, living life by default. Whatever we get, we get. But we can never dodge that lingering feeling that something bigger is possible just beyond our grasp.

We never commit to the idea that it could be better, that we could make it better through the use of our minds and our hands, making something real and tangible in the world. Improving our situation ultimately requires action, which seems difficult.

By no means am I an old man, but I’ve enough years to recognize that for far too many of them I chose to live by default. Don’t get me wrong, there were so many beautiful moments along the way, but they were sporadic at best. My personal journey is fraught with a lack of decision-making and ownership that led me to some dark places even as I went to school and actually practiced an art. I gained a lot of tools and became a stronger, technically proficient artist, but I hadn’t done the work to cultivate the true mindset required to grow and learn and share my treasures with the world.

The reality of our individual existence on this rock we call the Earth is that we have the inveterate capacity to create which remains latent in us as we grow older. Anything is possible, and the only real limits are those that we place on ourselves. But to create anything we have to do the work. We can’t give fully to the process until we get our minds into the right space. It takes work, but it’s a worthwhile challenge. And it starts with by confronting our fears and establishing a personal creative practice.

In May of 1900, L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. If you haven’t had the good fortune of reading the book or watching the movie, I’ll do my best to summarize the story in 100 words or less.

A Kansas tornado transports a young girl named Dorothy to the land of Oz, where she does battle with a witch and befriends a tin man, a scarecrow, and a cowardly lion while journeying to see a wizard who can help her get back to Kansas. What the four of them discover — after a long walk down a yellow road, battling the wicked witch and her flying monkeys, and running through a poppy field — only after meeting a mad scientist, is that to be successful in life, three things are required: heart, brains, and courage.

As it turns out, these are the three essentials that we also need to live creatively. Fortunately, we all have them in varying capacities, and more than enough to make an impact in the world. Oddly enough, it’s the last one, courage, that poses the most trouble. Sure, public speaking isn’t the same as saving somebody from flaming wreckage, but your brain doesn’t see it that way.

This is because all your brain sees is the potentiality of the situation — anything is possible — with an bias toward negative outcomes. Of course, you really don’t know how it’ll turn out, and it’s this ambiguity that makes it so damn perplexing. So your brain fires off a bunch of neurons that start a chemical reaction that produces the emotions of fear and anxiety, which tell you to stay in the cave because there could be a saber-toothed tiger skulking in the shadows out there. But, on the positive side, your rational brain kicks in and says, “Are sabertooth tigers even real?”

While the likelihood of being the victim of a sabertooth-tiger attack has dropped dramatically in recent years, your body still sees risk in the unknown. And even though your rational brain is saying, “Chill, bro!,” you still experience physical anxiety. Now your brain presents you with two options: run like hell or grab the tiger by the tail (if it even exists at all, but it’s so shadowy out there who even wants to risk it?)

This is the conundrum we face when bringing something new to the world. The risk that your work will be criticized or that it won’t live up to expectations or that the world won’t accept it or any of the multitude of fears we feel before we’ve even put a single word on the page are treated the same as being eaten by a giant prehistoric predator. Evolution is a slow process. This is why something like being creative or speaking in public can feel incredibly dangerous.

“Nobody dies here.”

Being eaten by a prehistoric tiger or being creative are both situations in which we find ourselves vulnerable to a broad range of attacks. The good news is that creating that beautiful thing you have in your mind and sharing it in the world won’t result in your death. It’s likely you will not be mauled by your creation. To do our best work, we have to find a way to acknowledge our fears, pause, then take action.

I remember my first week as a law clerk/ bailiff in municipal court. If you’ve ever had to go to court for a traffic citation, then you have a sense of the world that I worked in. It’s a strange of mix of fear, depression, sharp humor, hope, and optimism. It is a microcosm of human suffering, a place that people often get stuck in their lives.

As a fresh-faced twenty-something, this reality was not lost on me. I felt my actions carried a lot of weight. After all, people in muni court are often in the worst ways in their lives, and they just want to move on. Most people aren’t bad people. They are generally well meaning but find themselves in strange and uncertain circumstances, so they do things that don’t accord with their better nature. Our job was to steer them out of it as quickly as possible, before they could be entangled in the machinery known as the courts.

Knowing this, I was super nervous that I was going to be responsible for ruining somebody’s life, even accidentally. Sensing this, one of the deputies said to me, “Don’t worry, nobody dies here. They won’t lose their money. There’s nothing we do here that can’t be undone.”

This was a huge comfort to me. He was right. This was municipal court, which often better reflected a circus sideshow than a hall of justice. Granted those big cases started here, but they were immediately moved up to the higher courts. What was left, for the most part, was the “easy” stuff. The stuff that people could move on from.

For me, this subtle reframing of the issue helped me control the anxiety I was feeling about the job. From there I was able to give myself more freely to the work rather than being anxious about outcomes that weren’t real. And this is something that I’ve carried into my creative work.

Being creative is feels like a dangerous act, and the broader and bigger the audience gets, the more dangerous it feels. It’s because what we’re doing is different, not what’s expected of us, not what we expect of ourselves. Adults don’t start skateboarding in their thirties. That’s irresponsible…and fraught with risk.

In order for this to work, to live creatively, we have to change how we approach our work physically, mentally, and spiritually, recognizing that we are all different but fundamentally the same. We are all as unique as our individual fingerprints, but we’re all made of the same cosmic stuff. We all live with fears and doubts, hopes and dreams, and we all, at one time or another, allow those fears and doubts to prevent us from being our best selves, in work and in life. That ancient part of our brain triggers a response whenever we encounter something different, something with some unknown qualities.

But, if we pause for a moment… listen to our rational brain…and recognize the importance of differences and the diversity that those experiences provide, then we can do bold things, things that feel risky, with the recognition that being creative is a safe place to experiment. With this simple reframing, we can begin to do our best work.

Now we can build a solid practice that will strengthen our mind and assuage fear and anxiety, freeing us to be our authentic, creative self. The truth is, we are all full of treasures, but choose to keep them hidden inside of us because our inner critic — the official spokesperson of our emotions — doesn’t think too highly of the work we do.

But if we’re thoughtful and patient and dedicated, we can retrain our brains, live differently, and share our best work with the world.

And it all flows from a disciplined creative practice.