Turning Anxiety Into Creativity
Using what scares you to motivate you
Posted September 11, 2012
An old deodorant commercial on TV once proclaimed, “If you're not a little nervous, you're really not alive.”
Pretty sage advice, even though the only thing at stake was staying dry and odor-free. But there is something to be said for accepting---and learning to navigate---the minor turbulences of life. I'm talking here about common, everyday anxiety. The jitters. Butterflies.
This is particularly true for artists in Hollywood---writers, actors, directors, composers---whose very feelings are the raw materials of their craft. No matter how mundane, the small anxieties can swarm like bees, making work difficult. Those everyday distractions, like an impending visit from the in-laws, money worries, or that funny noise the Honda's been making.
Then there're the more virulent, career-specific anxieties, shared by few in other lines of work: Your theatrical agent hasn't returned your phone calls. You're three weeks past deadline with your latest screenplay draft. Your short film didn’t make the cut at the Sundance festival.
In other words, you're the stereotypical struggling Hollywood artist: bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived, staring pathetically at a blank computer screen (or the waiting edit bay, or the silent piano keys), hoping for inspiration and yearning for another cup of coffee, and maybe a nice piece of cheesecake. A dozen nagging, self-mocking thoughts echo in your head: You're untalented, a fraud. You're getting old and fat. No woman (or man) will ever want to sleep with you again. Your life is over.
These kinds of feelings are tough to deal with, to be sure, even if validated (and then gently challenged) by a supportive therapist, mate, good friend, or fellow creative type who's “been there, done that.” These deeply embedded, childhood-derived, seemingly inescapable Dark-Night-of-the-Soul feelings can, in fact, be crippling, regardless of your level of craft or years of experience.
And, as I've said countless times to the creative patients in my practice, struggling with these doubts and fears doesn't say anything about you as an artist. Other than that you are an artist.
Frankly, this difficult emotional terrain is where an artist lives much of the time---in a matrix of triumphs and defeats, optimism and despair, impassioned beliefs and crushing deflations. In the end, it's all just grist for the creative mill.
And, believe me, this is equally true for both beginning artists and accomplished, battle-hardened veterans.
But there's another kind of anxiety that emerges occasionally in a creative person’s life: the kind of gut-wrenching, dizzying upheaval from within that throws everything you think you know into doubt and that scares you to the very core. A puzzling, alarming career dive. A shattering divorce. The death of a family member. A spate of sudden, dizzying panic attacks.
Then, what balm is there to offer---or to receive---that doesn't seem trivial or woefully inadequate? Catharsis and validation, the foundation of most psychotherapeutic work, suddenly feel like mere word games. Medication, while often clinically appropriate, seems at best an armoring against something primal that's working within you.
What is an artist to do with that level of anxiety?
Because, for an artist, when all that's left is the work, the work is all that's left.
What kind of work? Maybe numbed-out and shapeless at first; chaotic and unsatisfying. Maybe dark and ugly, or self-pitying and shameless. Maybe a blind, angry clawing at the air with inchoate feelings and inexplicable images.
The important thing to acknowledge, to accept and to make use of, is the fact of this anxiety -- its weight, its size, and its implacability at this time in your life. For whatever reason, it's there. As immoveable as a brick wall, as deep and fathomless as a sea.
And, for now, it isn't going anywhere.
So you, the artist, must ask yourself this question: Is there a character in the story I'm working on who feels such anxiety? Who feels as overwhelmed, as out of control, as terrified as I? These are the raw materials of the work. Whether writing a scene, directing a scene, acting in a scene, or composing the music for a scene, you must inhabit those aspects of the character whose narrative you’re building.
If you’re willing to do so, then plunge headlong into creating the hell out of that character, giving him or her your voice, your fears, your dreads. Create situations and scenes in which these anxieties are dramatized, exploited, “acted out.”
Create monologues, rants, vitriolic exchanges between characters, letting passions and behaviors emerge that may astound or alarm you; that stretch or distort or even demolish the narrative you've been working with. These problems can all be dealt with, deleted, perhaps even woven into the story later, in the cool light of day, when you have some kind of perspective.
Because to be truly in the eye of the emotional storm, to create from a state of anxiety, is to surrender any fantasy of perspective. In fact, in the purest sense, it's the ultimate act of creative surrender from which, out of the crucible of your deepest pain, you might discover a joyful, wonderful surprise.
Do this: put those trembling fingers on a keyboard, RIGHT NOW, and start stringing words together that reflect how you feel...without context, or narrative, or character. Just raw feeling, in as many vivid, living words as you can call forth.
Then look at what you've written. Feel whatever it is you're feeling. And hit that keyboard some more. Soon, I believe, you'll have a sense of the logjam cracking. You'll feel the urgency of creative expression, the palpable release of banked anxiety. Without judging what comes, without needing it to be anything, I think you'll find yourself creating something---even if that's just defined, for the moment, as putting words down on a page.
Does the idea of this exercise itself make you anxious? Doesn't surprise me. We're all pretty scared of creating, or making art, out of the very emotional space we'd most like to avoid or deny. It's human nature.
Besides, as famed psychiatrist Rollo May reminded us, real creativity is not possible without anxiety. In many ways, it’s the price of admission to the artist’s life.
Which means, for those artists who have the courage to embrace their own fears, to co-exist with potentially crippling anxiety and create anyway, the rewards can be significant. Consider artists as diverse as Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen King and James L. Brooks, Anne Rice and Phillip Roth, Richard Pryor and Diane Arbus. They use who they are---all of who they are---as the wellspring of their creativity. Just as it is for yours.
Moreover, when all that’s left is the work…the work is all that’s left.
So trust it. Trust yourself. Like it or not, you’re all you have.
And the good news is, that’s enough.