“It’s not enough to be busy (the ants are busy), we must ask what we are busy about.” ~ Henry David Thoreau
I remember the words of my chiropractor several years ago “We are here to create.”
Her words stuck with me. So obvious and yet not.
Of course, we make babies, houses, businesses, knitted scarves for winter, and food. Oh how we make food! Why then did her words seem … Oh, I don’t know, indulgent, selfish, dangerous?
I was a designer in a corporation at the time. I understood how important creative concepts and storytelling are to communicate meaning and value in products.
But what was it about her words that caused this selfish, illicit love affair feeling?
One day it hit me. Actually it was 4 a.m.
I was painting in my backyard before getting ready for work. I was a little nervous about people waking up in the house and seeing me having a blast with paint in the backyard. I actually WAS having an illicit affair — not with a person but with my art.
Somewhere in the reptilian part of my brain, I was certain that creating my own stuff for the sheer joy of it was very very bad — someone was going to make me take a time out in the corner if they caught me.
Or worse yet, laugh at my pools of paint on the canvas.
I knew my chiropractor wasn’t only talking about babies and food when she asserted that human beings are here to create. I know she creates delicious art and loves every second of it. She also is a person I deeply admire. A whole person. I could feel it in her healing hands. Creativity was her secret weapon.
This was one of the many triggers of my journey of cultivating daily creativity and living a life of more.
- More joy
- More authentic life design towards the goals that truly matter
- More listening to the heart
- More asking for help
- More checking in
- More productivity
- More general enthusiasm about life
Creative Practice Considerations
If you are a woman, it is likely that creating something because you are fascinated or need a time out or feel a calling makes you feel guilty.
A woman could have the most amazing husband or partner in the world who supports her creativity, and the guilt is the same. We are so accustomed to feeling useful, needed and nurturing.
Art, writing, singing, photographic journeys, and collage all bring us closer to ourselves, and sometimes this can be painful if we haven’t visited for awhile. It’s okay, it takes a little bit of coaxing.
A hot bath, a glass of wine, a chat with a dear friend, a long walk. We rarely survive the shock of just diving right in. The nurturing begins creative action.
If you are a man, you might feel more confident about thought adventures or crafting inventions, or brainstorming business ideas, but giving yourself permission to be random? Well, I might as well knock you out and tell you how it all turned out in the morning.
The Symptoms of Creative Fear
Fear is a doozy.
Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, had it right when he said that every day he sits and writes for a chunk of undistracted time. He barely cares if the writing is good.
So let’s look at a few symptoms of creative fear:
- Perfectionism: My life (space) is too chaotic and I won’t be good enough.
- Procrastination: Tomorrow is better, I’ll get more sleep tonight and be ready.
Not finishing: If I finish this project, I have to accept the consequences. What if my work isn't good?
- Self Doubt: Who am I to play, have fun and make something?
- Shame: I’m not an artist. This is going to be embarrassing.
- Waiting: The conditions will be better in a year, etc.
- Blaming: My __(person’s name)__ won’t like it or let me.
- Not practical: I have more important things to do.
- Arrogance: Creating is for kids.
- Resignation: I’m not trained for it, so I shouldn’t try.
I’ve been in the fear busting game since I can remember. I can tell you it does get better with practice.
I’ve come to appreciate the fact that it’s universal. I can always count on fear. It has many faces.
Turning up the volume on creative generosity whenever and wherever we can does in time, snuff out fear’s vice grip.
I have come to accept that I may have these tendencies for the rest of my life, but I’ve learned that they can be managed.
Here are 10 creativity exercises to put fear in its place:
“Be happy not perfect.” I love this quote. Perfectionism is a funny one.
When unpacked it boils down to a big old fat lie. The standards of perfectionism cannot be met because in creativity there is not such thing.
Creativity discovers new ground and responds to curiosity. Creativity is a conversation with the concrete and riffs off of it, making something that is yours. If you strive for your idea of perfection, not only would it not be very fun but likely not very authentic.
Actions: Make bad art for five days straight. Write the words you would never use. Pull up every bias and put it on the page. Sing horribly out of key in the bathroom — not just two seconds, but for a full shower session every day.
Do the opposite of perfect. Be warned: this exercise could make you laugh really hard.
Doesn’t procrastination feel wonderful? You work on everything except your art. I swear my dishes are so much cleaner, my rabbit’s pellets in his bowl get perfectly assembled. I have found the best bowl to hold the soap, and it makes me want to scrub the whole bathroom. It’s so pleasurable.
Actions: After you have exhausted your chore list, your work list and called every single friend you haven’t talked to in months , do you remember what you have been avoiding all day?
Singing practice? A blog post you wanted to be great? A TED speech? Okay. Great.
Ask yourself this: If I wasn’t afraid of not doing well or (fill in the blank, but name the fear) then what would I have done? Would you have done anything different than what you planned?
Write it down, reflect and respect the process, track it like a hunter at night with those crazy orange night glasses.
3. Not Finishing
If I finish this project, I have to accept the consequences good or bad. It's true. And finishing also creates forward momentum, ideas, energy and insight that you can use in the next project. Not finishing is like a tire losing air on a slow leak. It can drain your energy and undermine confidence.
Actions: If find yourself not finishing creative projects you care about, you are likely feeling a bit frustrated.
Try this: the next time you start a new project and you are raring to go, do a little brainstorming about why this project is so exciting. Go all the way and consider the possibilities this project creates.
Write everything you can while the ideas are flowing and you are getting organized. Fold up the piece of paper, put in a self addressed envelope and put it in a safe but visible place.
If you begin to drift from your project, put this letter in a mailbox or ask a friend you to mail it to you.
Re-group, re-charge, remember your “why”. Decide what you will do with it later. For now, re-commit and finish. You won't be sorry.
Do you ask yourself, “Who am I to . . .?” Do you wonder if you are “creative enough” to produce something worthy? Self-doubt reveals an anxiety about existence itself and our identity in it.
There isn't a registry of people who are allowed to create and those who are not. We are all creative in different ways, and we need to embrace that truth and test the waters, even if we doubt ourselves.
If we don’t creativity just keeps rambling on down the road to the next willing participant.
Actions: Self-doubt doesn’t respond well to gentleness (at least mine doesn’t). It requires head-clearing and action to see your own creative worthiness.
Taking a long hike is my tried and true method to unravel my doubts and fears. Really listen to what self-doubt is saying and assuming, and work on adjusting your mindset. Speak to yourself kindly and remind yourself that creativity wears many different styles.
The best weapon against self-doubt is to simply do something creative. Give yourself permission to do it badly. Offer no self-judgments or criticisms. Let creativity unfold as you explore it.
Shame tells us, “I’m not an artist. My art is foolish, silly, useless.” Right. None of us are. We are humans.
Some of us move our bodies towards dance, typing, painting, singing because curiosity has us by the bootstraps, not because we were born “artists.”
The more we do it, the more some art gets born, and the more empowered we feel about ourselves and our creativity.
Actions: Read the book: How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum. Life is something to be affirmed by life itself.
See if you can approach the world with the eyes of a child, just for an hour or two. Take some photos or write some words. Walk, talk to a stranger. Invite novelty.
The cloak of shame is a physical thing. And always a lie. It’s best to take lies out into the sunshine, get a little vitamin D and wash your shame with some good old-fashioned curiosity.
“The conditions will be better later.” That may be true, but usually the “later” we envision as better is just the same as right now. Procrastinating is a habit we develop grounded in fear and doubt. It's also a symptom of inertia and plain old laziness.
Even if you need to wait for certain conditions to be better (you need new art supplies, you have to cook dinner, etc.), you can start now by making a list of what you need to do once the conditions are better.
Actions: Now is good. Now is really good. How can you amplify your now to be as ideal as possible?
Simplify your schedule. Make more space. Stop listening to the voices in your head telling you to turn on the TV or hang out on Facebook.
Take a walk after work to reflect on your ideas and write a few down. Promise yourself you'll take one small action to get started. That's all. Just one. You can do that.
“Now” is a beautiful invitation. Write down how to infuse now with goodness and creative action.
This makes so much sense. The more blocked we are, the more we want to project our procrastination on to someone or something else.
“If she supported me more, I would paint.” “If my mom had allowed me to take dance classes, I could dance now.”
The actions for this one are easy to say. Much harder to do.
Actions: Ask the person you are blaming to help you. Even if they fly off the handle, you have opened your voice and spoken your truth.
Watch what happens. Usually magical things. Creating is sacred ground. When we ask for help, the problem gets solved.
Barbara Sher used to host full workshops on this subject. Someone would ask for help and the whole room started working. Problems invite creative solutions. Whether you are solving it or someone else is on your behalf. Try it. It's a risk but generally worth it.
If you can't get help, help yourself. Be your own cheerleader and problem solver.
8. Not Practical
I have more important things to do. YES. We do. Always. I must ask myself five times a day what I’m busy about. What if the creative idea I’m too busy for is the one that changes my life in such a way that what I’m busy about becomes obsolete?
Creativity is self awareness. The more engaged we are, the more everything is up for a meaning assessment. What’s practical may not be as practical as we think upon further examination.
Actions: You have something that is calling you. It might even seem silly to you. All the better. The sillier the better.
Find one hour this week to indulge it. One hour is extra sleep on the weekend. It’s an hour where someone else gets to be the adult. Do it. Let it be so silly and then give yourself a gold star. The gold start part is super important.
Creating is for kids. YES. And I envy the heck out of them. Don’t you? Look at how much fun they are having. Do you remember the last time you felt truly, unselfconsciously happy? When you laughed so hard you had to run to the bathroom?
Studies show that creativity makes us smarter and happier. Arrogance knows everything except this.
Arrogance is usually sadness and disappointment justifying living in a limited way that feels safe. Arrogance needs creativity the most.
Actions: The creative spirit can’t breathe through arrogance, because arrogance must always be right.
The only way I have combated it in the past is by having a heart to heart with myself. Is the price worth it of being right but not happy? What the heck matters more than that?
Allow yourself to be a child again. Go to a park and get on a swing. Play with paint and clay. Dance by yourself to your favorite music. For an hour or so, just get over your adult self and cut loose.
You don't have to prove yourself to anyone, and you strengthen the creativity muscle when you give it freedom to explore and have fun.
“I’m not trained for it, so I shouldn’t try.” “I'll never be creative, so why pretend I can be.” This one is possibly the most difficult fear to combat, and requires the most nurturing.
An “I don’t care”attitude makes it hard to get off the couch. Resignation and inertia are the lead balloons of emotions, but often they just needs a little attention and kindness. Here’s a method for creative resignation that always works for me.
Actions: First of all, get some rest. Sometimes resignation is really exhaustion in drag. Then have a nice hot cup of tea or take a walk. Or both.
Ask yourself, what is happening on the large scale of my life? Are there aspects I need to re-assess? Do I need help with something? If so, address the bigger issue so you have the energy, motivation, and confidence to let creativity blossom.
Remember creativity isn’t just the arts. It’s life, it’s solving problems, it’s learning, it’s an open, exploration with aspects of your whole life. Wisdom surfaces when we give what weighs on us a little space and respect.
Creativity feels really good and promotes growth. Fear doesn’t. I like to feel good. Grappling with fear to be more creative has been a worthy and generative pursuit for me. I hope it is for you too.
Everyone deserves to feel good and create at their highest level. This is what I wish for you.
Niya C Sisk MFA is an author/illustrator with a driving need to express and engage story and image. She helps people cultivate healthy nonsense when life makes all too much sense. She has a series of non-fiction creativity books in the works and an Adult Coloring Book on Amazon just in time for Easter called Coloring Bunnies.
Art in this post by Niya Sisk.