Creative work is unlike any other job you could take on. When you create, you leave a piece of yourself behind for the world to see. There's a certain amount of vulnerability involved.
That vulnerability can make it difficult to separate you, the artist, from your art. And that can lead to paralyzing fear of sharing your work.
If you've ever dreaded sharing a creative project for fear of being judged, you're not alone.
Many creative professionals go through this, including me.
And, this year, I've decided it's time to tackle this fear and lack of confidence head-on. Are you ready too?
Creative Comfort Zones
The funny thing about creative projects is they aren't all created equal. (Or at least they aren't for me.)
Take freelance writing for example, or blogging even.
Those are "easy" creative projects for me in that I don't have the same kind of vulnerability or attachment I have with other types of art. The same thing is true with photography.
These are things I'm pretty open about sharing.
But that's far from the extent of my creative interests.
In addition to those things, I also write fiction, draw, paint, write music, sing, and play several instruments -- trumpet, clarinet, sax, flute, guitar, and I've been working to improve on the piano.
Whatever creative bug I was born with even carries to my more analytical side, hence my background studying engineering.
I love using design for problem solving and more practical purposes. For example:
Where most kids were playing with toys and video games, I had an amazing architectural drafting set-up where I used to design buildings, create my own plaster beams, bricks, and such, and then model my designs.
In my 20s, I enjoyed designing and building furniture.
I used to design and create clothing as well to satisfy my sometimes quirky tastes.
If I can design, build, or create something, I'm in my element.
Yet I share precious few creative projects beyond my nonfiction writing and photography. The truth is, the rest terrifies me.
The confidence I have with blogging and freelance writing simply doesn't translate to these other activities.
I feel like there's more of "me" in most of those projects -- especially drawing, painting, fiction, and the music I write. And that means judgments of that creative work can feel far more personal.
Breaking Down Barriers to Creative Confidence
A few months back, a podcast listener asked me to weigh in on merging different creative passions into their writing business. And I shared some examples of how they might specifically combine their writing and music.
I also shared some of my own plans for how I wanted to incorporate some of my other creative interests, like paintings, drawing, and music, into my business this year.
And yet, here we are, getting near the end of the first quarter of 2017, and I still haven't made much progress on merging, or even sharing, these various creative works that scare the hell out of me.
I haven't pitched any poetry to publications as planned.
The same for short fiction this year.
I've written some new songs, but they're highly personal (as they usually are), where no one but me is likely to ever hear them.
I haven't started the drawings for my horror story series illustrations yet, and I haven't begun the illustrations planned for the children's picture book series I wrote either (which is just waiting on that artwork).
In other words, I've been crippled by fear yet again. Yes, I've been busy. I've been distracted even.
But those are excuses.
The simple fact is I'm terrified to finish some of these things because I'm scared to death to share them.
Yesterday morning I decided I'm tired of being afraid, of feeling too exposed to share my art. So I started outlining a plan to help me get over that hurdle this year.
For example, rather than worrying about publication, I decided I'd aim to get five rejections for both poetry and short story submissions. Instead of worrying about what readers might think, I'll focus on forcing myself to get more comfortable just putting work out there in front of editors.
And with my artwork, I'm going to consult with an illustrator friend first to help me get more comfortable with my style choices (ink drawings for the horror stories and ink / watercolor illustrations for the picture books).
Then there's the music. This is going to be the most difficult for me. But I think I may have found a way to lessen that feeling of unease, at least a little bit.
First, I won't share my personal work. I'm thinking about creating a series of songs around some of my fiction, then choosing one for a book trailer or other promotion.
Perhaps more important, I plan to tap my network on the music side of things and pull in an artist to duet so I don't feel totally exposed, going it alone.
The issue with sharing it is that the fiction has to be ready for that promotion too, so I'm going to make that a priority.
That's the gist of my plan this year for forcing myself to push through the crippling confidence issues with my art. In the case of short fiction and poetry, it's about lowering my own expectations. And with my illustrations and music, I'll be turning to people I can trust as a sort of support system.
But what can you do?
Dealing with Self-Doubt & Other Creative Demons
If you've ever found yourself in a similar situation where you're scared to share your creative work, how can you overcome that?
Here are five things you can try:
1. Publish under a pen name.
Whether your fear comes from publishing fiction, nonfiction, blog posts, or sharing work with paying freelance writing clients, as a writer you have a simple option: write under a pen name.
By taking another name, your writing is separated somewhat from your personal identity. It can make it easier to compartmentalize feedback, or criticism, as something other than a personal attack.
2. Pitch (or share) your least personal work first.
If you're too emotionally invested in one project, share something else first. Perhaps that even means creating something new.
Let's say you want to share fiction. Instead of publishing a novel you wrote about your local village, pick a random writing prompt and create a piece of flash fiction or a short story. Share that first. Better yet...
3. Bring others on-board.
Sticking with the writing prompt example, why do it alone? Make a challenge out of it. Get some fellow writers together. Each of you tackle the same writing prompt. Then share your stories together. You could even publish them in one place anonymously, letting readers choose their favorites without any author association.
Another option along these lines would be to work with a co-author or some other type of collaborator.
4. Seek private feedback.
If you're terrified to share your writing or other art publicly, consider running it by a trusted friend or colleague first.
For novelists, this might mean having a critique partner. For me, with short fiction, I can generally run crazy ideas by my sister before anyone else, because I know if it's absolute garbage, she'll tell me (and if it has potential, we'll probably hash out the plot together because we'll get excited talking about it -- you can even listen to us do it in real-time in a podcast episode).
I did something similar with poetry. I had some poetry published many-a-year ago, but shortly after, I stopped for no real reason. Last year I worked with a colleague on a bit of a reintroduction to it. They presented me with a challenge of sorts -- a new style to tackle, and helped me work through some revisions. This year I may run some by published poets in my network before pitching to editors, but we'll see. Nothing's set in stone yet.
When it comes to private feedback, just make sure you're asking people who will be honest with you. Having your family and friends talk your work up isn't going to help you if they don't represent the audience you actually hope to reach (or if they'll rave about it just to be nice).
5. Create for yourself first.
Sometimes the solution to a lack of confidence in your creative work is as simple as getting more practice.
Sure, if you've only written a few short stories, you might be nervous about publishing them. If you've written a single poem, the thought of pitching it somewhere might be scary as hell. Even if you're a freelancer, and you're tackling a new project type, you might be terrified the client is going to hate it.
If you think your fear might be rooted in "newness," then forget about sharing for right now. Create for yourself instead.
In my old apartment, every painting on the walls was one of mine. Not a single piece of my artwork currently hangs in this house, nor do I even remember where I put them when moving (nor would that style really suit what's here now). Yesterday I found a few blank canvases I'd forgotten about. I'd wanted to do a dark nature series for the house, but I never got around to it. So I may start with those just for myself, and then move into the more public work for the picture books. And I'll likely share some setting and character concept sketches sooner rather than later. I'm much more comfortable with drawing than watercolor work, so that'll ease me into sharing before I post finished illustrations.
Consider trying something like that. Get that much-needed practice. Get comfortable with a certain project structure, genre, writing style, or whatever it is you're working on.
By watching your own work improve, you might be able to build enough confidence to start sharing publicly. And if not, you can always move on to the other suggestions above, like taking on a collaborator or working with a more private critique partner.
So tell me...
Have you ever faced paralyzing fear as a creative professional, whether with your writing or some other art form? If you successfully overcame it, I'd love to hear how you did it in the comments.
6 thoughts on “Paralyzing Fear and Creative Professions”
Thank you for this very useful tips, I really like no. 5, to create for myself first. This is what I am doing, I am creating articles which will help me learn more about my subject, which is my hobby too.
I’m glad you found it helpful, and I hope you do start creating more for yourself. It’s awesome when our work is also what we love, isn’t it? 🙂
I wasted at least 10 years because of this paralysis and what finally made me go for it was a quote I read that said “Even shit sells”. The author was not saying you should deliver poor quality content, he was saying you should not allow lack of perfection to stop you from moving forward.
It´s true. I so often read blogs, or success stories and am amazed but how uninspiring they are – they just had the nerve to get out there!
If you are not the personality type to charge full ahead, I agree with your steps above to at least take keep moving forward.
Thanks Yolanda. I’m glad you were able to find a way past that paralysis. Perfection is a friend to no one, especially in business. And what we’d consider perfect is often not in line with what clients expect. We can be much too tough on ourselves!
Jenn, I love the idea of aiming for rejection slips! Some how, the first two I got way back when meant something really positive for me… I’d actually written and submitted. I celebrated by posting them on my bedroom wall… wish I still had them.
I suppose I figure, at this point, I’d rather have something to show for the effort than nothing — even if that “something” is just knowing my work has been in front of editors’ eyes. I’d love to get a few pieces published this year, especially horror fiction, but baby steps… 🙂