I think there are many reasons we postpone doing the personal creative work that we all know we should do. Lack of time. Lack of energy. Other commitments.
But I believe the deeper reason we delay our own work is something else: Fear. Not fear of success or fear of failure. I think it is something far more personal. More like fear of being revealed. Fear of being known.
Most of our days are spent hiding behind our job titles, our e-mails and our collective unspoken agreement not to say anything that is too honest or too emotional. This makes our days flow more or less effortlessly. Even our time with friends is spent in bars and restaurants where we have trouble hearing our own conversations.
But personal creative work demands something more of us. If it is honest – and all good creative work is – then it will show the world something of who we really are. It will leave a mark. Our mark. And everyone can see that mark. This can be uncomfortable and even terrifying.
The creative process is so emotionally loaded for many of us that even our most modest attempts leave us paralyzed. We sit at the keyboard, at the canvas or holding the guitar and we feel mute. We write a word then we judge that word. “What will my colleagues say about this word?” So the second word becomes shy and withdraws. And then we wait a moment. And then we check e-mail and our phone. And this rescues us from the awful tension of trying to write our words. And so our words remain inside us, waiting.
But it need not be that way. I think the importance we place to our personal work makes it harder to simply be in the moment and enjoy the process of making something. I remember as a kid getting completely lost in the building of a sandcastle for hours at a time. I could not have cared less what anybody thought of my castle or the fact that it wouldn’t last past high tide. I just liked making it. On my best days I can still sometimes feel that way.
I don’t think it’s easy for any of us to overcome our creative demons but I can share with you some things that have helped me. They don’t always work but sometimes they do:
Carve out some very personal time and space in your day. Go somewhere that you feel comfortable. (Elvis liked his bathroom.) And in that private space let your mind go, be completely free of any judgments about your ideas, your lyrics or your doodles. Just play with your thoughts and the medium. This part should feel as private and safe as taking a bubble bath. Trust whatever comes up. The results are yours and you need not share them with anyone.
Then, later, look at what you did. Allow your mind and your craft to participate in the work. Decide what you like, what you don’t, and whether it’s worth shaping further. If so, then shape it. If not, then nothing is lost. Try again tomorrow. And the next day. Enjoy the process. You have an infinite number of opportunities to go fishing inside yourself for a new idea or tapestry or noodle dish.
And if you decide to share your work with others, do so without apologies or excuses. Sharing work is a sacred thing. If some people sit in the back row and smirk, let them. The back row is where the most fearful take refuge. Anyone who has ever made an honest mark knows better than to make another person feel self-conscious about their creative work. Only the cruel and the frightened become critics.
Every day I struggle with what to make and how to make it. I wrestle with myself and I dance with myself and I beat myself up. I make lots and lots of things. Most of them are not worth mentioning. They are unformed, partially realized or just plain bad. But every now and then I surprise myself and make something that I feel is worth sharing and then I say, “I made something, look.”
And when the line I draw or the show I make or the song I sing reaches someone else: A friend, a child, or a reader, then I feel good. I feel connected. I feel known. I honestly believe that our collective creative work binds us poor humans together as much as air or water or love.
So I encourage you all to make your own personal work. Do it privately, do it publicly, put it in a museum or let the tide wash it away. But do it. Nothing in this world will make you feel better, more courageous or more complete.
As always, I welcome your comments, reactions and personal stories.