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12 SEPTEMBER, 2011

5 Timeless Books of Insight on Fear and the Creative Process

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From Monet to Tiger Woods, or why creating rituals and breaking routines don’t have to be conflicting notions.

“Creativity is like chasing chickens,” Christoph Niemann once said. But sometimes it can feel like being chased by chickens — giant, angry, menacing chickens. Whether you’re a writer, designer, artist or maker of anything in any medium, you know the creative process can be plagued by fear, often so paralyzing it makes it hard to actually create. Today, we turn to insights on fear and creativity from five favorite books on the creative process and the artist’s way.

ART & FEAR

Despite our best-argued cases for incremental innovation and creativity via hard work, the myth of the genius and the muse perseveres in how we think about great artists. And yet most art, statistically speaking, is made by non-geniuses but people with passion and dedication who face daily challenges and doubts, both practical and psychological, in making their art. (And let’s pause here to observe that “art” can encompass an incredible range of creative output, from painting to music to literature and everything in between.) In Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, working artists David Bayles and Ted Orland explore not only how art gets made, but also how it doesn’t — what stands in the way of the creative process and how to overcome it. Fear, of course, is a cornerstone of those obstacles.

In the ideal — that is to say, real — artist, fears not only continue to exist, they exist side by side with the desires that complement them, perhaps drive them, certainly feed them. Naive passion, which promotes work done in ignorance of obstacles, becomes — with courage — informed passion, which promotes work done in full acceptance of those obstacles.

THE WAR OF ART

Steven Pressfield is a prolific champion of the creative process, with all its trials and tribulations. You might recall his most recent book, Do The Work, from our omnibus of five manifestos for life. But Pressfield is best-known for The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, which tackles our greatest forms of resistance (“Resistance” with a capital R, that is) to the creative process head-on.

Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.

THE CREATIVE HABIT

There’s hardly a creative bibliophile who hasn’t read, or at least heard of, Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. It frames creativity as the product of preparation, routine and persistent effort — which may at first seem counterintuitive in the context of the Eureka! myth and our notion of the genius suddenly struck by a brilliant idea, but Tharp demonstrates it’s the foundation of how cultural icons and everyday creators alike, from Beethoven to professional athletes to ordinary artists, hone their craft, cultivate their genius and overcome their fears.

There’s nothing wrong with fear; the only mistake is to let it stop you in your tracks.

Athletes know the power of triggering a ritual. A pro golfer may walk along the fairway chatting with his caddie, his playing partner, a friendly official or scorekeeper, but when he stands behind the ball and takes a deep breath, he has signaled to himself it’s time to concentrate. A basketball player comes to the free-throw line, touches his socks, his shorts, receives the ball, bounces it exactly three times, and then he is ready to rise and shoot, exactly as he’s done a hundred times a day in practice. By making the start of the sequence automatic, they replace doubt and fear with comfort and routine.

THE COURAGE TO CREATE

In 1975, six years after the great success of his wildly influential book Love & Will, existential psychologist Rollo May published The Courage to Create — an insightful and compelling case for art and creativity as the centripetal force, not a mere tangent, of human experience, and a foundation to science and logic. May draws on his extensive experience as a therapist to offer a blueprint for breaking out of our patterns of creative stagnation. Particularly interesting are his observations on fear, technology and irrationality, which might at first seem akin to the techno-paranoia propagated by Orson Welles and, more recently, Nicholas Carr, but are in fact considered counsel against our propensity for escapism, all the more relevant in the age of the digital convergence, nearly four decades after May’s insights.

What people today do out of fear of irrational elements in themselves and in other people is to put tools and mechanisms between themselves and the unconscious world. This protects them from being grasped by the frightening and threatening aspects of irrational experience. I am saying nothing whatever, I am sure it will be understood, against technology or mechanics in themselves. What I am saying is that danger always exists that our technology will serve as a buffer between us and nature, a block between us and the deeper dimensions of our experience. Tools and techniques ought to be an extension of consciousness, but they can just as easily be a protection against consciousness. [...] This means that technology can be clung to, believed in, and depended on far beyond its legitimate sphere, since it also serves as a defense against our fears of irrational phenomena. Thus the very success of technological creativity [...] is a threat to its own existence.

TRUST THE PROCESS

More than 13 years later, Shaun McNiff’s Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go remains a cocoon of creative reassurance that unpacks the artist’s process into small, simple, yet remarkably effective steps that together choreograph a productive and inspired sequence of creativity. Never preachy or patronizing, McNiff captures both the exhilaration and the terror of creating — and, more importantly, how the two complement one another, even in the face of fear.

The empty space is the great horror and stimulant of creation. But there is also something predictable in the way the fear and apathy encountered at the beginning are accountable for feelings of elation at the end. These intensities of the creative process can stimulate desires of consistency and control, but history affirms that few transformative experiences are generated by regularity.

When asked for advice on painting, Claude Monet told people not to fear mistakes. The discipline of art requires constant experimentation, wherein errors are harbingers of original ideas because they introduce new directions for expression. The mistake is outside the intended course of action, and it may present something that we never saw before, something unexpected and contradictory, something that may be put to use.

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09 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Illustrated Flowcharts to Find Answers to Life’s Big Questions

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Flowcharting your way to happiness, or why you should be looking for people who intimidate you.

From ever-inventive designer Stefan G. Bucher of You Deserve a Medal and Daily Monster fame comes 344 Questions: The Creative Person’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to Insight, Survival, and Artistic Fulfillment — a delightful pocket-sized compendium of flowcharts and lists illustrated in Bucher’s unmistakable style to help you figure out life’s big answers, in the vein of today’s inadvertent running theme of self-help-books-that-aren’t-really-“self-help”-books.

Besides Bucher’s own questions, the tiny but potent handbook features contributions from 36 beloved cross-disciplinary creators, including Brain Pickings favorites Christoph Niemann, Stefan Sagmeister, Marian Bantjes, Doyald Young, and Jakob Trollbäck.

Let’s be clear: I want this book to be useful to you. There are many great how-to books and biographies out there, and even more gorgeous collections of current and classic work to awe and inspire. But looking at catalogs of artistic success won’t make you a better artist any more than looking at photos of healthy people will cure your cold. You’ve got to take action!” ~ Stefan G. Bucher

(Sure, this may be somewhat remiss in overlooking the basic mechanism of combinatorial creativity, but it’s it’s hard to argue with the need to make ideas happen rather than just contemplating them.)

Though Bucher designed the book as a sequence, it also works choose-you-own-adventure-style and, as Bucher is quick to encourage, asks for hands-on interaction — dog-earing, marginalia, doodles. “If you keep this book in mint condition, I’ve failed,” he says.

We are all different people, but we face a lot of the same questions. The point of this book is to give you lots of questions you can use to look at your life — in a new way, with a different perspective, or maybe just in more detail than you have before — so you can find out how you work, what you want to do, and how you can get it done in a way that works for you. Specifically.” ~ Stefan G. Bucher

Thoughtfully conceived and charmingly executed, wonderfully playful yet infinitely useful, 344 Questions is the kind of treat in which anyone with a beating heart and firing neurons would find delight — and, more likely than not, find some big answers, too.

Page images copyright © 2012. Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders

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09 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Redirect: A New Way to Think About Psychological Change

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How Aristotle went about cultivating virtue, or what Susan Sontag can teach us about self-improvement.

In our ceaseless quest for self-improvement and our relentless pursuit of happiness, most of us have had some brush with the world that lives on the spectrum between self-help books and legitimate clinical psychotherapy. But a compelling new (non-self-help) book suggests many of these methods might be derailing rather than propelling our progress. In Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, social psychologist Timothy Wilson reveals insights from three decades of empirical evidence indicating that what is true of culture is also true of individuals: Our experience of the world is shaped by our interpretations of it, the stories we tell ourselves, and these stories can often become so distorted and destructive that they completely hinder our ability to live balanced, purposeful, happy lives, so the key to personal transformation is story transformation.

Let’s pause here and observe that this seems pretty commonsensical. What’s more, most of us believe that our character and circumstances are so unique that the universal human psychological flaws, biases, and shortcoming we are keenly aware of simply don’t befall us personally. Yet, in one domain of life or another, we find ourselves stuck in thought patterns and behavioral cycles we lack the tools to escape. This, Wilson demonstrates, is a pathological storytelling problem based on the stories we’ve led ourselves to believe and the behaviors that stem from them.

We could solve a lot of problems if we could get people to redirect their interpretations in healthier directions.”

Of course, this isn’t news to anyone who has ever dabbled in cognitive-behavioral therapy — an entire branch of psychotherapy designed to address precisely that. But Wilson argues that there’s a new way to redirect people’s personal interpretations, one that doesn’t require one-on-one sessions and can address a wide array of personal and social problems, from severe trauma to everyday distress.

This new approach is based on the work of Kurt Lewin, who helped found the field of social psychology in the 1930s and 40s, and is rooted in three specific psychological interventions: story-editing — a set of techniques designed to reshape people’s narratives about themselves and the world in a way that results in lasting behavioral change (cue in the famous words of Susan Sontag, one of my big heroes: “I write to define myself — an act of self-creation — part of my process of becoming.”); story-prompting — redirecting people down a particular narrative path with subtle prompts; and do good, be good — an approach that dates back to Aristotle, premised on changing people’s behavior first, which in turn changes their self-perception of the kind of person they are based on the kinds of things they do. Wilson shows how these story-editing techniques have been used to make people happier, improve parenting, solve adolescent behavioral problems, and even reduce the racial achievement gap in schools.

Sample Wilson’s findings in his recent RSA talk. (And rest assured he is much more eloquent and captivating a writer than he is a speaker, bless his heart, as some of the most acclaimed academics tend to be.)

Images via Flickr Commons

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