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Want to Be Creative?

Then you're obliged to tolerate the realities of the creative process.

Do you want to be creative? Then you must tolerate the creative process. And that isn’t so easy. The creative process is harder to tolerate—and therefore harder to embrace—than most people, the majority of creatives included, imagine.

It is hard to tolerate the realities of the creative process for all of the following reasons:

  • Only a percentage of the work that we do turns out well. And only a percentage of that percentage is really excellent. This means that we have many “failed” efforts to endure, including countless “okay” works that may pass muster in the world but that don’t thrill us that much, don’t internally count for much, or don’t do that good job of keeping meaning afloat.
  • The creative process involves making one choice after another (for instance, “Should I send my character here or should I send him there?”)—and the activity of choosing provokes anxiety. Just about every decision we make, say about buying this car or that car, changing our day job or staying put, accepting this not-very-fair gallery contract or rejecting it, etc., produces anxiety: and the creative process is an endless series of choices. Given all that choosing and given that we do not really love the experience of choosing, it’s easy to see why you might not want to turn to your novel or your symphony the moment you wake up.
  • The creative process involves going into the unknown, which can prove scary, especially if where we are going is into the recesses of our own psyche or to the place of re-experiencing trauma. Say that you are certain that you want to set a play during the Holocaust. But do you really want to spend hour after hour writing about Nazi torturers and their victims? Do you really want to be in that interrogation room? Your play may demand that you go there, but how likely is it that you actually will go there … or be able to tolerate the experience once you are there?
  • The task we are setting ourselves—unraveling this scientific knot, creating that full-scale opera—may be beyond our intellectual or technical capabilities or may require information and understanding that we don’t currently possess. As brilliant as Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and the other great Greek thinkers were, and whatever excellent intuitions they had about the physical universe, could any one of them possibly get to the idea that you had to square the speed of light to understand the relationship between energy and matter? Each individual’s creative process is constrained by what he or she knows—or can know.
  • The thing called “inspiration,” which is one of the great joys of the process and without which our work would prove lifeless, comes only periodically and can’t be produced on demand. We must show up for what may prove days, weeks, months and even years of slogging along with our creative project before a single brilliant ray of sunshine enlivens it and illuminates what we’re doing. That is an idea that is very had to tolerate—and even harder to tolerate as a reality.

And there are many other reasons as well. The above is a fraction of the longer list of reasons why tolerating the creative process can prove so daunting and why fully embracing the realities of the process can elude us. Most creatives do not fully grasp the extent to which this demanding process is itself stymying them. They chalk up the fact that their novel remains unfinished to personal weakness or to their unfortunate circumstances and do not credit the reality of process as the real culprit.

A main headline as to why the creative process can feel so daunting is that not everything creatives attempt will turn out beautifully, that many efforts will turn out just ordinary, and that a significant number will prove flat-out not very good. A composer writes a hit Broadway musical—and the next one is abysmal. No one can believe it’s the same person. A novelist pens a brilliant first novel—and the second one is unreadable. What a disappointment. A physicist comes this close to a breakthrough—but doesn’t break through, rendering his several years of work “worthless.” How demoralizing. These are everyday occurrences in the lives of creative and the rule rather than the exception. How to stay calm in the face of this?

Among his hundreds of cantatas, Bach’s most famous cantata is number 140. His top ten would likely be comprised of numbers 4, 12, 51, 67, 80, 82, 131, 140, 143 and 170. What about the other hundreds? Are some merely workmanlike and unmemorable? Yes. Are some not very interesting at all? Yes. Was Bach obliged to live with that reality? Yes. As must you. Yes, you might completely by accident produce a brilliant first thing and then never try again and so ensure your success rate at 100 percent. But is that a way to live a life? Or, rather, isn’t that the perfect way to avoid living?

Honoring and embracing the realities of the process and calmly living with those realities are choices you get to make. The word to underline in that sentence? Calmly. Anxiety is a natural feature of the human condition and a much larger feature than most people realize. A great deal of what we do in life we do in order to reduce our experience of anxiety or in order to avoid the experience of anxiety. Because life can feel dangerous in all sorts of ways—from walking down a dark alley to giving a two-minute talk at work—and because anxiety is a feature of our warning system that alerts us to danger, anxiety is a prominent feature of daily life.

It is also a very prominent feature of the creative process. When I ask you to embrace the realities of the creative process I am also asking you to embrace the reality of anxiety as a prominent feature of that process. You do not want to avoid creating just because creating, or the prospect of creating, is making you anxious. No; you want to manage that anxiety or, if it can’t quite be managed beautifully, then create while anxious. What you don’t want to get in the habit of doing is avoiding the creative encounter because of your anxious feelings. You know that you don’t want that to be your way of dealing with the everyday, ordinary anxiety that attaches to process.

Creativity” is the word we use for our desire to make use of our inner resources, employ our imagination, knit together our thoughts and our feelings into beautiful things like songs, quilts, or novels, and feel like the hero of our own story. It is the way that we manifest our potential, make use of our intelligence, and embrace what we love. When we create, we feel whole, useful, and devoted. You don’t want your experience of anxiety to prevent you from having all that. The anxiety that is such a prominent feature of human nature can and does prevent us from creating. Now is the time to come to a deep acceptance of that truth.

Why do we get so anxious about creating? There are many reasons. We get anxious because we fear we may fail, because we fear we may disappoint ourselves, because the work can be extremely hard, because the marketplace may criticize us and reject us, and so on. We want to create because that is a wonderful thing to do, but we also don’t want to create, so as to spare ourselves all that anxiety. That is the profound dilemma that confronts and afflicts countless smart, sensitive, creative souls. And, as a result, most creatives spend a lot of time defensively avoiding creating.

Our quite human defensiveness is one of the primary ways that we try to avoid experiencing anxiety. Maybe we deny what we’re experiencing, try to rationalize away what we’re experiencing, misname what we’re experiencing as sickness, weakness, or confusion, get angry at our mate so as to have something else to focus on, and so on. We are very tricky creatures in this regard. It would be good if we did a much better job of frankly accepting that we are feeling anxious and then managing those feelings: that would give us a much better shot at tolerating the anxieties that come with the creative process. But most people are inclined to react defensively when it comes to anxiety.

What should creatives do instead of fleeing the encounter or instead of managing their anxiety in ineffective or unhealthy ways (say, by using alcohol to calm their nerves)? They should acknowledge and accept that anxiety is a regular feature of the process, assert that they won’t allow it to derail them or silence them, and demand of themselves that they practice and learn effective anxiety management skills.

It is too big a shame not to create if creating is what you long to do. The thing to do instead is to become an anxiety expert and get on with your creating. What can help in addition to mastering some anxiety management skills? The following. Create a vow in which you pledge not to let anxiety silence you. Your vow might sound something like the following. “I will create, even if creating provokes anxiety in me. When it does provoke anxiety, I will manage it through the use of the anxiety management skills that I am learning and practicing.” Or maybe you might prefer the shorter, crisper “Bring it on!”

Since both creating and not creating produce anxiety, you might as well embrace the fact that anxiety will accompany you on your journey as a creative person. Just embracing that reality will release a lot of the ambient anxiety that you feel. Since anxiety accompanies both states—both creating and not creating—isn’t it the case that you might as well choose creating? To begin with, you will have to learn that the creative process is exactly what it is and not what you might romantically wish it to be.

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