The other day I had lunch with a friend who doesn’t make art and was telling her about the workshop I am planning called “Expanding Creative Possibilities.” I told her that the reason I am doing it is that so many students say that their fear of making art impedes them and I would like to help them deal with that. My friend found it difficult to understand how they could be so scared. I was surprised that she was surprised. To me, creative anxiety is a given. Thinking about it though, it probably isn’t a pervasive problem for other professions.
As Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” said, “Fear is always triggered by creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It is, however, something to be dealt with.”
When there is a fixed standard of performance in an activity, one just needs to master the basic skills. With all of the arts, creative writing, composing music, making visual art, etc, you master the basics, but then you must trust your intuition to make something unique. Repeating what someone else does is not enough to be considered good and it takes a lot of courage to risk your ego and create something new. Some of my students are so fearful that they can’t trust themselves to apply paint to the paper. They are paralyzed when it comes to painting. They are in good company.
Historians often note that many notable artists were impacted by their own creative anxiety. Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother, Theo, are full of his doubts and disappointments. When he was 27, Claude Monet attempted to drown himself in because he was struggling to support his family with his art and despaired of ever being acknowledged.
So what is there to be afraid of? Artists are afraid of disappointing themselves and also afraid of the judgement of others. These two kinds of fears can be disastrous for creating authentic, quality work. To learn to manage these fears, artists need to recognize the power of them and find ways to mitigate them.
I don’t think it does much good for someone to tell artists to just relax and make art because the fears are real and complicated. And I don’t think it is especially helpful to didactically describe what the fears are. Instead, like so many things, artists need to discover the nature of their own fears. All of us have different challenges and we need to identify those and develop strategies for ways to keep them from overwhelming us. In my own case, once I realized that I was making rules about what kinds of art production were acceptable, and decided to let those go, my art production became much more adventurous and enjoyable. It took me decades to understand that, however.
Sylvia Plath, Author: “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Susan Hiller: Contemporary Artist. “Self-doubt is always present for artists because we have the job and the privilege of defining problems and then asking ourselves whether we have solved them.”
Sally Mann, photographer: “Each time you take a good picture, you have the wonderful feeling of exhilaration ... and almost instantly, the flip side. You have this terrible, terrible anxiety that you’ve just taken your last good picture.”
John Steinbeck, Author: “I am assailed by my own ignorance and inability. … Sometimes, I seem to do a little good piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity.”
If you find yourself procrastinating about starting an artwork, having a hard time knowing what to do next artistically, unable to decide what direction to take in your art going forward, this workshop is designed you. You are in good company. Like these famous artists and writers, you need to identify what you are afraid of, acknowledge it, and develop strategies that work for you to work through it.
The goal of the workshop called “Creative Possibilities” is for students to gain some tangible insights into their own experiences as an artist and to make a plan for the future. With degrees in counseling and visual art, I have designed other personal knowledge workshops and I think there is a need for this one. It is intended for people from any of the arts, visual, performance, writing, etc., but students must have been working long enough to have established a working style and be able to bring a portfolio of work for feedback.
The most important point I can make here is that, if you want to be good at making art, you will inevitably experience a lot of self-doubt and anxiety. You will do better if you acknowledge your fears and find ways to work through it. I hope you will develop strategies for yourself and use them to be successful. Making art is exhilarating but also scary. It takes courage to face those fears squarely. I hope you are so that you can have a good artmaking experience.
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