According to Big Magic, a new book on creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert, the reason you haven’t written your novel yet – or taken up weaving, or bonsai-cultivating, or otherwise given expression to the art inside you – is almost certainly fear. But, looking at it logically, receiving a life-threatening medical diagnosis is scary; not having the cash to feed your family is scary. But opening your notebook to jot down some ideas for a short story? Calling that “scary” feels melodramatic and brings to mind the story of of Salvador Dalí kicking a blind beggar in the street. “What did you do that for?” came the howled reply. Dalí: “Because you don’t have the pain of seeing.”
Although, the scepticism may be misplaced. For many, the thought of expressing themselves creatively really is frightening and this especially surprising, since creative work is a collision point for numerous deep-rooted fears: ridicule, social rejection, discovering you lack talent – not to mention the fear of stirring up emotions you’ve been expertly repressing for years.
Hang-ups about creativity reach far back into childhood: parents can all too easily squelch a child’s imagination, and research indicates that teachers generally dislike more creative pupils, however much they claim otherwise. Indeed, some neuroscientists argue we’ve evolved to distrust creative ideas: except in a crisis, there’s little survival benefit to trying something new.
The real question, then, is not whether creativity provokes fear, but what to do when it does. Far too many authorities urge you to conquer it: to “kick resistance’s butt”, in the macho words of Steven Pressfield, author of the bestseller The War Of Art. But as with any emotion, launching an all-out attack on fear is counterproductive. That just puts it centre stage, and risks reinforcing the notion that creativity must – and should – be one endless, bare-chested struggle.
It may be true, as Pressfield writes, that fear can be a useful sign: “The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.” But it doesn’t follow that creativity counts only if you hate it. As Gilbert puts it, “Too many artists still believe that anguish is the only true authentic emotional experience… Heaven forbid anyone should enjoy their chosen vocation.”
Cheesy as it sometimes feels, Gilbert’s approach seems preferaferable; it essentially involves treating fear like an annoying younger sibling, or a beloved though rather trying family pet. The trick, if you can do it, isn’t to ignore fear, or destroy it, and definitely not to obey it, but to make space for it. She uses the odd but useful analogy of a road trip. Fear always comes along for the ride, and that’s fine – but that doesn’t mean you need to let it anywhere near the steering wheel.