I want to create, but creating is scary. It’s risky business – you risk failure, embarassment, ridicule and more. I bought Fearless Creating – A Step-by-Step Guide to Starting and Completing your Work of Art by Eric Maisel, PhD. in the hope that it will help me, not necessarily create more, but better, more meaningful art.
Unfortunately I was not brought up with an open mindset (see Carol Dweck’s book Mindset). I have been cursed with perfectionism and what that means is the results matter more than the process. I’ve gotten better but I’m not quite where I would like to be. I love the creative process but perfectionism focuses on results so if I don’t think I can achieve the results I want, then I drag my feet – for a long time (we’re talking decades). With needlecrafts, where my skill level is highly proficient. I have the technical expertise and I’m ready to go deeper to create something unique, personal, meaninful, artistic.
Will this book help me do that? Let’s find out.
The preface was what made me buy the book. It asks “where do unmet dreams reside?” and goes on to say:
That beautiful question is central to this book. Each of you has dreamed of creating and creating well. But in too many of us that dream remains unfulfilled.– Eric Maisel, Fearless Creating
Eric gives creativity a different spin. Most books identify the creative process generally as: preparation, incubation, illumination, evaluation and verification. He classifies the stages as: wishing, choosing, starting, working, completing and showing. Each chapter goes into more detail of the stages. It identifies the anxiety a person is likely to feel during that stage and how to overcome it. The first three stages – wishing, choosing and starting – are my achilles heel. Specifically starting. The working, completing and showing stages don’t seem to create any conflict in my mind, but then again, I’m not a professional. This isn’t my full-time job. I have the luxury of not worrying if there is a market for my work. One day, maybe. But for now, I’m content to just explore my interests for the sheer joy of it.
I’m going to focus on the first three chapters because these address my own personal sticky points.
Chapter 1 – Hushing and Holding: Nurturing the Wish to Create
In his introduction, Maisel says he wants to offer us two things – the rhetorical and the technical. I appreciate this as most authors will give the why but leave out the how.
Creating produces anxiety. You can’t escape it so it’s a matter of choosing which anxiety – the anxiety of creating or the anxiety of not creating? This concepts interests me the most. How do you make the shift? By nurturing the wish to create. This is done through:
- Balancing Wildness and Tameness
- Affirming your Appetite.
Hushing is about quieting your mind, the constant inner chatter. Meditation is a form of hushing. The point is you can’t go deep until you silence the nonsense.
Once the mind is quieted, room is given for holding it: giving it space, giving it a container, offering it life. It’s akin to letting an idea percolate, giving your mind the opportunitiy to make connections. Your feelers are up and your focused and you start to collect words, sensations, images, chords, etc. depending on your medium.
But all these ideas and progress can cause fear. The key is to take baby steps. If you want to draw, start by carrying around your sketchbook and just be with it. You don’t have to draw anything yet. Tomorrow you could just draw a line. Don’t overwhelm yourself at this point. Ease into. Our brains prioritize consistency so it’s better to devote a minute every day to your drawing than an hour once a week.
The concept of “wildness” is described as “working naked” (literally and figuratively though I’ve never tried the former). This resonated with me because while I have technical skill, I know I’m not tapping into that creative vein. I’m creating from my head and not my heart, where the wildness resides. Where original and interesting ideas live. As Maisel puts it, I’m trying to reproduce an image instead of encountering a blank canvas. Working wild means taking risks and making “mistakes”. He has a whole list of ways to nurture our wildness which he says we should internalize.
Wildness left uncheck can be a bad thing though. It can lead to obsessiveness, compulsion, rage and undue drama. This is where it needs to be balanced with tameness. Tameness in its healthy aspect is “moderation for the sake of rebellion”. Either end of the spectrum – pure wildness or pure tameness is problematic. Maisel describes it this way – “Wildness is the heat, tameness is the thermostat. Wildness is the energy, tameness is the valves that regulate“. It’s about finding the right balance – moderation, discipline, governance over the wildness.
This is the state of hungry-mind anxiety as Maisel calls it. For me, it’s that need to create but I don’t know what to create. I’m itching to make something but nothing comes to mind.
“This is what must be tolerated if you are to be alive: data taken in, deep connections made out of conscious awareness, projects begun in a split second and abandoned in the next split second. This is pain. This is tragedy. This is hungry-mind anxiety. The productive artist lives with this.”
And a hungry mind needs feeding. There are productive ways to feed it and inappropriate ways. Asking an intriguing question is productive, going down a rabbit hole of fact-finding, not so much.
Ask yourself what would make a mind enriching meal?
Chapter 2 – Making Meaning: Choosing your Next Subject
Choosing and clarity were the two overarching themes for me in this chapter. There are three things you need to choose to create. You need to choose a project, choose to work on it and continually make choices as you work on it.
I usually choose an idea before I start but I’m wondering if I choose prematurely in some instances. The book gives several strategies for coming up with ideas. The question I ask myself though is “Am I choosing deeply or superficially?” Easy ideas aren’t bad, per se and I’ve certainly had my fair share of them. But lately I want more. Maisel summarizes my feeling beautifully – “ When you hold the desire to create deeply, you bypass the top of your mind, you bypass the safety net of formula, you bypass marketing considerations, and you travel to the region where truth resides. And what is the truth if not dangerous?”
I don’t like not having a project to work on and I have to be careful that I’m not choosing an easy idea to avoid the discomfort. This is where clarity comes in and another area I have to show more trust and faith. I like knowing the outcome before I start. And often I won’t start if I don’t have that clarity. But this type of clarity can stifle creativity. I like how Maisel frames this – “you can’t expect an unclear situation to be clear, but you can expect you to be clear.” You can be clear about which ideas excite you. You can be clear that you are competent. You can be clear that you can choose. If it’s not working, you can make a different choice.
I never really thought about choosing to work but it’s an important choice to make especially when your idea is still forming. Productive creatives choose to work, whether they have an idea, whether they’re in the “mood”, whether the stars are aligned. I’ve read about the habits of famous people and all of them are in the habit of choosing to work. They sit down and write, draw, dance, or sing. It’s called practice (Seth Godin’s book The Practice is good read read on this topic).
Chapter 3 – Belligerent Commitment: Starting Your Work
Oh boy, here’s where I hit a brick wall in my own creative journey. I get to this point and all of a sudden, I get sidetracked by another idea. I’ve made procrastination an art. And it’s frustrating as hell, because I’ve got ideas that require me to step up and dig deep. Dangerous ideas. They’re dangerous because they’re outside of my comfort zone and mistakes will be made. I want to be “...the committed artist, afraid like everyone else, afraid of not knowing enough, aftraid of not doing well enough, still determines to listen to the songbirds and to record their songs.”
The most important sentence in this chapter is “Commitment is defined by action,” Action is the step I most afraid to take and I thought about this for awhile. I think the answer is because I take it too seriously, which might contradict what this chapter is all about and this may be where we part ways. Don’t get me wrong, there is some useful information here, but for me, I think the way forward is to play with my ideas, in the true sense of the word. Play around with color, play around with my ideas, give myself permission to enjoy the process and not worry about the outcome. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.
I liked this book and got a lot out of it. The three main ideas I will apply first are:
- Take more care to feed my creativity (hungry-mind anxiety). My ideas have been stagnant because I haven’t been filling the well (as Julia Cameron calls it in The Artist’s Way). I can do this by asking myself intriguing questions to get juicy ideas and expose myself to more experiences (something that’s been harder since the COVID. I’m naturally a hermit so being forced to stay home didn’t help).
- Choosing to work, which basically boils down to having a practice. An interesting idea is all the motivation I need to begin but what about when I don’t have any ideas? Or I don’t “feel” like it? The strategy I’m going to use is to have some tasks I can fall back on such as do a tutorial, try a new stitch pattern or technique, see how different colors interact, making a doodle, etc. Doing something, anything, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem, will get me into the habit of taking action. Besides, within these actions could be the seed of a great idea.
- Devote a sketchbook to play. I would love a sketchbook filled with beautiful drawings that is a work of art on its own. But this kind of mentality doesn’t get me to actually draw because I’m afraid of making a mistake and ruining it. Instead, I’ve decided my sketchbooks are “play” books. Their purpose will be to make a mess, play around and experiment. The point isn’t to keep it pristine or create a beautiful work of art, the point is to put marks on the page, get it dirty, mess it up and let loose. I have gotten in the habit of being a collector instead of a creator – a collector of yarn, fabric, sketchbooks, colored pencils, etc. It’s time to use them up.