Interview by Magdalena Ball
You’ve written many books for creative people. What’s your intention with this book?
I’m continually surprised by how much anxiety the creative process generates and by how much difficulty creative people have dealing with the many anxieties connected both to the creative process and the creative life. I’ve written on these matters before but in this book I identify the many different anxieties that can arise—whether it’s about going into the unknown, lacking self-confidence, experiencing a crisis of meaning, and so on—and present a useful arsenal of anxiety management tools from which creative people can select. I think it’s the most in-depth look at these issues to appear so far.
Why does creating produce so much anxiety?
First of all, so much is on the line. For someone who’s self-identified as a writer, painter, composer, scientist, inventor, and so on, his identity and ego are wrapped up in how well he creates—and when what we do matters that much, we naturally get anxious. It’s one thing to sing in the shower and another thing to agree to sing at your daughter’s wedding: so much more feels on the line! Second, the process demands that we don’t know until we know: it is a voyage into the darkness of an unknown place where our plot or image or melody resides. People want to know right now, even before they begin: they want a kind of guarantee that they will succeed based on already knowing the outcome. But this guarantee just isn’t available—which produces anxiety. There are many other reasons, too—enough to make anyone sweat!
Which situations produce the most anxiety for creative people?
It’s quite idiosyncratic, though certain situations are notorious for producing anxiety. For most performers, waiting in the wings is much more trying than actually going on. Some painters find the blank canvas intimidating while other painters feel more anxious as they try to decide when and if their painting is actually complete. One writer is made tremendously anxious by plotting while another gets into a panic at the thought of talking with her literary agent. It is quite idiosyncratic but the general rule is, the more important you consider the situation, the more anxiety you’ll experience. That big audition, that television interview in front of millions, that conversation with the last editor likely to want your book—the bigger you perceive the moment, the more anxiety gets generated.
Is there some way to avoid creative anxiety?
There are certain things you can try but they tend not to produce the results you want. You can decide not to create. You can decide to do formulaic work and keep repeating yourself. You can try to handle the anxiety that arises by drinking too much or by using addictive drugs. All the methods available to avoid anxiety, like fleeing the creative encounter, or ineffectively managing anxiety, like getting drunk, are second-rate. It is much better to embrace the reality of anxiety, rather than to try to deny it, and to learn effective anxiety management tools like the more than twenty I present.
What strategies are available for dealing with creative anxiety?
There are really a great many, from taking charge of your basic attitude and becoming a calmer person to doing a better job of appraising situations so that they don’t seem so dangerous to using time-honored devices like good luck charms. In Mastering Creative Anxiety I present a menu of twenty-two effective anxiety management tools, enough tools that everyone can find at least one or two that will work well.
Of these many strategies, what are the top two or three?
The simplest is to remember to breathe; a few deep cleansing breaths can do wonders for reducing anxiety. The most important anxiety management tool is probably cognitive work, where you change the things you say to yourself, turning anxious thoughts into calmer, more productive thoughts. And creating a lifestyle that supports calmness is also very important: if the way you live your life produces a lot of anxiety, that’s a tremendous extra burden on your nervous system.
You say that “getting a grip on your mind” is a key anxiety-management strategy. Can you tell us how we can get a better grip?
Changing the way you think is probably the most useful and powerful anxiety management strategy. You can do this straightforwardly by 1) noticing what you are saying to yourself; 2) disputing the self-talk that makes you anxious or that does not serve you; and 3) substituting more affirmative, positive or useful self-talk. This three-step process really works if you will practice it and commit to it—it’s the way a person gets a grip on his mind.
You focus a lot on “making meaning” as part of the creative process. How are “making meaning” and anxiety related?
The biggest challenge facing a creative person is keeping the belief firmly in place that what she is attempting matters to her. A creative person’s main challenge is therefore existential: we easily lose the sense that what we are doing matters, given how many novels or paintings there are in the world, how hard it is to do the work well, how difficult the marketplace feels, and all the rest. Two kinds of anxiety arise with respect to this profound existential issue: the anxiety that arises when we begin to sense that our work doesn’t matter to us and the anxiety that arises when we realize that our work matters very much to us (and what a burden all that mattering puts on our shoulders!). When you decide to make meaning these two anxieties confront you: the anxiety that arises when you wonder if you just fooling yourself about your work’s importance and the anxiety that arises because your work does matter to you and you want to do it well.
What’s the number one thing that a creative person needs to remember with respect to creative anxiety?
That it will take real work to deal with it. None of the techniques in the book will be available to you when you need them simply because you read about them and nod your head. You have to practice them and use them. It is not enough to agree that your self-talk is unhelpful and unfriendly. You must notice what you’re saying to yourself, dispute those utterances that don’t serve you, and actively substitute more affirmative, useful language. It isn’t enough to like the idea of guided imagery or to agree that stress reduction makes sense. You must practice your chosen visualization and your chosen stress reduction techniques. If you want the results, you will have to do the work.
Given that anxiety is an inevitable part of the creative process, isn’t creating a roller-coaster ride of emotions?
Yes, it is! But if you want to create, you have to a buy a ticket for exactly that ride. Rather than strenuously defending yourself against the experience of anxiety, an effort that will prevent you from taking the kinds of risks that the creative process and the creative life demand, you accept that anxiety is part of your early warning system and your genetic inheritance and you learn to deal with anxiety rather than trying to avoid it or deny it. If you strive to acquire a more detached, philosophical attitude, work to get a grip on your mind so that you create less anxiety, and master a few anxiety management tools, you will dramatically reduce your experience of anxiety and effectively handle the portion that remains. But the bottom line is that creating is indeed one wild roller-coaster ride!
Eric Maisel, PhD, is the author of Mastering Creative Anxiety and numerous other titles including Brainstorm, Creativity for Life, Coaching the Artist Within, and A Writer’s San Francico. America’s foremost creativity coach, he is widely known as a creativity expert who coaches individuals and trains creativity coaches through workshops and keynotes nationally and internationally. He has blogs on the Huffington Post and WholeLiving.com and writes columns for ArtBistro and Art Calendar Magazine. Visit him online at www.ericmaisel.com.