November 1, 2015

Fear Is a Subtle Fiend

In looking around the interwebs at what other creative folks (namely a few of my fellow classmates from the Squam workshop Pitch Perfect; Rita Herrmann, Felicia at The Craft Sessions, and Anna at The Road to the Farm) think about Elizabeth Gilbert's book Big Magic, I was surprised to find each reflection centered on the struggle for creative courage to trump the fear that stifles creativity. And then I was even more surprised at my surprise, the subtitle of the darn book is, after all, Creative Living Beyond Fear. Somehow, the courage message just didn't ring out that loudly for me. I focused instead on the imperative to work. Especially when you have no idea what it is you should work on next. Rather than get caught up in the niggling, troubling, diverting tangle of thoughts in your head, just get in the studio and pick up some materials and make something. Anything. Because the momentum of work generates ideas for more work. The momentum of work suggests connections and tangents that would never occur to idle hands and the over-thinking brain.
When the hands are occupied and one part of the brain is focused on what the hands are doing, another part of the brain is free to ponder and reflect. While slowly stitching Sheela (description at the very end of this post), I wondered about my own relationship with fear and its impact on my art making. To be honest, I have always prided myself for not being creatively crippled by fear. Call it thick skin or iciness or arrogance, but I have never hesitated to send my work out into the world once it is completed. What's the worst that can happen? It will be rejected by a gallery owner or a exhibition juror? So what? One person's opinion doesn't matter. One person's opinion says more about the person themselves than it does about my work. If I am happy with the work, I send it out. If it is shown somewhere, great. If it isn't accepted at any of the handful of places I send it, well, then I identify another handful of places to send it. I suppose what I am trying to convey is that I do not need external acceptance or praise to feel good about what I make. I don't make things to please others, I make them because it's what I do. If the work never gets a wider audience than my own two eyes, so be it. It makes no difference to me. What's important to me is that I tried. The only way to fail to accomplish something is never to try to accomplish it in the first place.
While puffed up with my own courageousness, I hit a snag. See that wonky bit of stitches to the right of Sheela's nose? It looks like a couple of out of place stripes. That's where I ran out of floss and started a new skein. Either DMC dye lots vary quite a bit, or the color #945 has deliberately been tweaked in the last twenty years or so. It is possible that the floss I started stitching with at the top of Sheela's head is over 20 years old. The additional skeins of #945 that I purchased last week are consistent in color to one another, but not to the color of Sheela's forehead. At this point, I contemplated starting over. The color difference, admittedly hard to discern in photos, is jarring to me. How many hours already went into this thing? How many hours will it take to complete? All that effort should culminate in something perfect, shouldn't it? 

And there it is. The fear of imperfection. 
If I hadn't been ruminating on fear and courage, I would have missed this example of fear spreading its nefarious tentacles. I most likely would have sighed in exasperation and picked out all the pinkish stitches. And then I would have resignedly started to replace the pinkish stitches with tawny stitches. Because I was attuned to the fear, though, I sat with it for a minute. Doing nothing other than looking at my stitch work. And then I felt a small surge of joy. This inadvertent "mistake" in Sheela liberated me. I changed my thinking to accept this flaw as an opportunity to experiment. Sheela was no longer precious. The hours of labor that it will require to complete her will not weigh heavily on me and prevent me from experimenting further with this piece.

Ahhh, see that? More fear. The fear of messing up. How can I possibly mess it up when I have no preconceived idea of what to do with this collection of tiny stitches? Even if I could imagine exactly what I want this thing to look like, when does reality ever match imagination? Seriously, it doesn't matter if the final piece is different than imagined. What was that I said at the end of paragraph two? "The only way to fail to accomplish something is never to try to accomplish it in the first place." Exactly so. Every experiment, and what is a creative endeavor if not an experiment, is an opportunity to discover and learn. What is this messing up? Fear is a subtle fiend. It masquerades as excuses, justifications, and procrastination. Fears can present themselves as completely reasonable concerns. Except for the fact that the well masked fear at the root of the hesitation prevents work from being undertaken, completed, or even contemplated.
Under the full spectrum light of my magnifier (this one, I love it!) the change in color is hardly noticeable. I combined* 1 strand of a pink floss #754 with 2 stands of the new tawny #945 and continued stitching. It blends quite well. Not perfectly, but well enough. And it saved hours of time and frustration that starting over would have eaten up. I strongly suspect that frustration works hand in hand with fear to create more roadblocks and second-guessing. Better to banish them both at once.

*It never before occurred to me to mix my own floss colors, as it were, by combining stands from multiple skeins. This opens up a whole spectrum (or is it spectra?) of new possibilities. Which is much more exciting than ripping out stitches and starting over.


  1. Love the flow of your description. That fear is a sneaky one, and I am SO GLAD you have not experienced it in its fullest form. I decided this last week that fear and I are breaking up. :-)

    1. Yay! Kick fear to the curb, Rita. And then triple lock the doors. And seal the cracks. What gets me every time is how fear disguises itself in order to sneak back in and dog us again and again. Now that Big Magic has opened our eyes to it, here's hoping we can be more vigilant, recognize when fear sneaks in, and banish it right away.

  2. I love this Laurie and Sheela is a wonderful piece of work. What a refeif it is when we take that pressure off ourselves to create something "perfect". You are spot on when you say... "The only way to fail to accomplish something is never to try to accomplish it in the first place." So many of us go about our days never daring to pursue our dreams in case we stuff it up or it isn't as we imagined. It's such fun and totally inspiring seeing so many of us PP folk start to really recognise fear in our creativity. It sure is a sneaky bugger!

    1. Thanks Xan! I agree, it is inspiring to see us recognize fear in our creativity. I find it especially helpful to re-characterize my hesitations and excuses for what they really are, fear trying to talk me out of taking a chance. Excuses and procrastination had become such a basic part of my creative endeavors that I didn't pay them any mind. But, now, recognizing them as fear gives me something to push back against. It is liberating.