One of my earliest memories from my school years, comes from when I was five years old. My teacher set us a piece of homework to take our pencil for a walk. I remember feeling that this was a fantastic and weird thing to do; that all I had to do that evening was walk around our garden with my pencil, showing it all the wonderful things that it could write or draw about. I imagined that somehow my pencil was soaking up the images around me and that the following day at school it would come tumbling out of the tip and onto the page like water from the tap. Of course, the teacher had meant me to perform a simple task involving drawing a swirling pattern of intersecting lines and loops and then colour them in.
At school, the following day, I was horrified to see all the other children displaying their colourful drawings and I still recall the burn in my cheeks as I explained to the teacher what I had done, admitting my mistake. Now, as a writer, I am rarely walking without a pencil and paper at hand but that wonderful feeling of creativity is frequently stymied by self-doubt and fear.
It is understood that almost everyone is born with some creativity; a child can take a simple task and turn it into an expression of their own imagination. The thing is, I did not ask the teacher to explain our homework assignment but being free from the thought of failure, I took a chance, not thinking that I might be wrong. But as we grow those thoughts and imaginings, that are outside of the norm, are constantly assessed by society and eventually by ourselves as wrong, making us crippled with self-doubt and paralysing our creativity with fear.
Fear is an emotion that develops and deepens as a result of negative stimuli or feedback from our environment. It’s a protective emotion that the brain signals for our survival. Its intention is to improve our well-being, health and success. When confronted with a fearful thought or vision our brain’s instruction is to avoid. But unfortunately our brains can’t distinguish between life threatening fears and the not so life threatening fear of creative failure.
When a creative urge comes upon us, it is usually sparked by some kind of initial light bulb moment, a pure idea that is ours. Then we mull that idea over, perhaps read or study around the subject becoming more embroiled in others’ opinions of said idea or how others have approached it. Then we may attempt to put that idea on the page…and then self-doubt creeps in. No one else has done this before? Does that mean it’s ridiculous? What if I’m laughed at? Such and such does this so much better, I’ll never be as good as they are…Oh God, this is not perfect!
Almost every writer that you speak to admits at some point to feeling unworthy of the work they are doing, or a fear of the blank page. As I ensured after my pencil walk, that I understood all future artistic assignments from my teacher, all writers feel that need to ensure that what they produce will not result in humiliation or embarrassment from their peers. The fact that every creator admits feeling this fear of failure, should help us draw some comfort that we are not alone.
What to do then when you find your pen stilled by fear? Firstly, bring your thoughts back to that initial light bulb moment, awaken your curiosity, try to hear the voice of your imagination and just focus on the process. Do not think of the end product; immerse yourself in the creation and expansion of that first idea. Anytime you find yourself saying: ‘this is awful, this is the worst work I’ve ever produced’, recognise those words of self-doubt as your fear speaking and know that this is one of the greatest indicators that you are learning as an artist. And in the words of Salvador Dali: “Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.”
So go on, feel the fear and go for it anyways, take your pencil for a walk. You may get it wrong but your pencil will learn a lot.