"My Son is Sick" and Other Lies I Told: How Emotions Get the Better of Us in the Creative Process
When I was a junior at Grand Valley State University, back in 19 (cough-cough), my History Professor, Dr. James Smither, assigned a run-of-the-mill essay in which I was to analyze primary documents and expound on certain aspects of World War II. In earnest I began the assignment, thoroughly reading missives, bulletins, news articles, propaganda, advertisements, and other documents that exemplified the zeitgeist of this raw and complicated period in our collective history. Diving in deep, I fully engaged with the texts--making connections with the current geopolitical ideologies and policies, applying deep critical analyses through the lens of Neo-Marxism, comparing and contrasting popular representations of this period (e.g. movies) with the stark reality of the inhumanity and cruelty humans can inflict on one another. It was proving to be a rich and engaging project for me.
But I was young and plagued with emotions.
I knew it was a serious topic that demanded a thoughtful approach--and being a History minor, I wanted to impress Dr. Smither (who I fondly recall was an avid Chicago Cubs fan) and perform well in the course. More importantly, I didn't want to look foolish or insincere. Plagued with doubt that my ideas had relevancy, that what I was sharing would have value, I wrote and rewrote it. I toiled on--and noodled with--the essay. But, what started as an exhilarating essai (French for "attempt") became an irksome chore and eventually a downright debilitating exercise in futility. Worry, doubt, shame--and a feeling of responsibility to those who suffered from the war--weighed heavily on me to the point of paralysis. My emotions overrode my intellect. At the time, there were no Writing Centers like there are now in colleges; I felt alone and frozen with fear. So, I abandoned it. Fortunately for me, I was a single mom to a 3-year old, so I had a "built-in" excuse for not getting the paper done: "My son is sick," I lied to my professor. I simply didn't turn it in and resumed my coursework as if the assignment had never existed.
Weeks after the deadline, Dr. Smither approached my desk and asked "Is your child well now?" I knew what that meant: time to cough up my disaster of a paper. Now, I actually felt sick. One would think I was experiencing a "self-esteem" issue--and certainly that was the case. I rarely felt confident in my abilities and still struggle with my inner demons regarding my abilities, but it was more than that. I had resistance to finishing and submitting the paper because of the feelings I attached to the solemn content of the paper, to the possible reactions of the potential audience (the professor), and to exposing myself as fraud.
I now know, from my years as a creativity coach, that it doesn't matter how old you are or what the creative project is, if you are deeply entrenched emotionally in the content, or in how it may affect people, or how you may be perceived by your original ideas, you may experience a myriad of fearful emotions ranging from anger to numbness to shame. Sadly, many a great thinker and creator has succumbed to the forces of emotions and withheld from the world her beautiful, leading edge ideas and creative expressions because of the numerous niggling negativities washing over her.
Let me count the ways in which your fearful emotions will raise their ugly head and stop you from living your best creative life: You’re afraid you are talentless. You’re afraid you’ll be rejected or criticized or misunderstood. You're afraid your family will resent you for the time you spend with your pursuits and not them. You’re afraid there’s no market for your work, and therefore no point in pursuing it. You're afraid you aren't smart enough, pretty enough, deep enough, whatever enough. You’re afraid somebody else already did it better. You’re afraid you’re too old. You’re afraid you’re too young. You’re afraid you aren't disciplined enough. You’re afraid of facing your inner "shadow", your past, your weaknesses or anything else that you've been running from your whole life. You’re afraid you don’t have the right kind of environment, tools, financial security or time in which to focus on discovery or craft. You’re afraid you don’t have the right kind of education. You’re afraid somebody will steal your ideas. You’re afraid you won’t be taken seriously. You’re afraid your work isn’t thoughtful enough to make a real impact on people's lives. You’re afraid that the work has been a colossal waste of time, effort, and money. You’re afraid of being exposed as a fake, or a fool, or an amateur, or an egomaniac. You’re afraid of what the world--inlcuding your family--will say when you lay down your truth bomb. You’re afraid that your best ideas are behind you. You’re afraid you never had any good ideas to begin with. You're afraid of running out of ideas. You’re afraid you neglected your creativity for so long that now you can never get it back. And that's not even the exhaustive list of what your reptile brain can produce!
So what do you do with all of those fears? Well, first you must acknowledge that fear will never be overcome. Yes, never. Sorry about that. I wish I could give you the "The Top Ten Tips for Battling Your Fears and Winning". It just can't be done. Steven Pressfield, in his book The War of Art, says that only "amateurs" believe that we must first overcome the emotions of resistance. He says the "professional" knows "that there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist".
Okay, the fears are always there, how then do you proceed when you have all that crappy, heavy, horrible fear-stuff weighing heavily on you? You accept it, you make friends with it, you even embrace it. Lao Tzu says in The Art of War that “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.” You see, you don't need to be brave, you don't need to be strong, you just need to be aware. When you feel, think and see fear rear its ugly little reptile head, exclaim, "Oh, hey, I know YOU! There you are again my little fear-y friend!" And just keep creating. In fact, when you feel it the strongest is when you are actually starting to pull some great creative thread that MUST be yanked a little harder. If you had no fear, you probably aren't working with anything grand anyway. Consider it a barometer: the greater the fear the hotter the content you're playing around with!
It takes some practice, but it gets easier. I promise! The more you create, the easier it is to recognize the niggling little emotions, smile at them, and keep going. Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her treatise on creativity, Big Magic, “It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes, too.” Just recognize it, relax and pivot toward focusing on your passion. All will be well. And besides, a creativity coach like me can show you some fun--and super effective--tools (like laughter yoga, breathwork meditation, spiral drawing, and shamanic drumming) to help you stay centered, draw upon source energy, and hold space for your powerful creative intentions.
So, whatever happened when Dr. Smither read my paper? He handed it back to me the next week with the following scrawled on the back page: "You need to clarify your points in a few places and be more consistent in your use and annotation of your evidence, but overall you approach the topic intelligently and provide evidence and analysis to support your argument. In short, this was worth waiting for. (But next time, I hope I won't have to wait as long!) A-" It was worth waiting for! How about that?! But the poor professor
had to wait another 23 more years before his beloved Cubbies won the World Series! Some victories, it turns out, are worth the wait. Thank you, Dr. Smither for that lesson.