In a recent commentary on one of our creative coaching exercises, my teacher Eric Maisel said this: “Artistic anxiety is more like a ground of being, intrinsic to the struggle, than a symptom to be relieved.” I found this striking.
Somehow I’ve long had a misconception that real artists and writers always feel joy, calm, clarity, excitement, even authenticity when they are at work. I haven’t perceived them as being confused or lost, anxious or worried. And so because I am anxious when I sit down to work on a chapter or make a new painting, I’ve felt there was something wrong with me.
But here is Maisel saying it’s natural, a part of the creative process. He goes on to say that creatives are often meticulous in their habits and that they try to “bind anxiety through vigilance and carefulness.” (That sounds like me in most aspects of my life.) At the same time, their art, no matter what the medium, requires them to get bold and messy, to strike out into zones where they have not been before, where things are unpredictable and very likely chaotic. No wonder there’s anxiety.
It is tempting to stay with what we know. Short stories, if those have gotten praise. Poems of a certain simplicity or eye for observation. Abstract paintings with only technique to show for them. If we stay with what we know, we stay safe, and the anxiety is lessened. If we get bolder, take on a bigger challenge, we step into that unknown space of chaos and lack of control. And the anxiety goes way up—because, well, we may create crap, especially at first. But there we also have a chance to create something new, something wildly our own. Maybe it’s down the road a little but there’s something important about that willingness to risk, that willingness to see anxiety (our version of stage fright) as a part of the game, no more, no less.