May 26th, 2011


Against Creative Paralysis (Advanced Edition)

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Yesterday I dispensed, along with a good size chunk of salt, my advice for the aspirational creator dealing with fear of failure as a barrier to getting started.

Of course creative anxiety doesn’t go away when your work finds an audience. Here are some thoughts on making self-doubt motivate you in a positive way, as an experienced or working creator.

The morsel of advice that most helped me on this point comes from director Atom Egoyan; I’ve quoted it here before: “Don’t get depressed about not being where you want to be. This nagging feeling of anxiety is actually called ambition. Ambition is your friend.” Likewise, the fear of failure can be your friend if you use it to spur you to create, and to improve what you create before you send it out into the world.

To this end, one must discipline oneself to keep the voice of self-doubt on a tight leash. Let it out of its cage when you need it to revise and improve the work. Then put it back again, especially during the first phases of creation. That voice has nothing to say about you as a person, even when the most recent thing you’ve created does not match your full ambitions.

Revise, but not to the point of flagellation. At some point, not stopping work becomes paralysis in disguise. It will never be perfect. Anna Karenina isn’t perfect (although it is a masterpiece.) Flaws make a work human.

Avoid working on stuff you wouldn't enjoy yourself (or wouldn't have when you were its target age.) That's a sure way to lose your creative compass. If you’re working on a piece aimed at an audience whose taste you don’t share, you can’t know when it’s good.

Truly nasty creative paralysis usually proves to be a manifestation of some other personal crisis. This is a tough place to be, a mental state of self-administered punishment. The work becomes a black dog, a symbolic enemy and source of shame. A creator in this position could easily be making quite good stuff without being able to see it through a veil of depression or anxiety.

When enmeshed in a garden variety confidence deficit, showing the work to a supportive and trusted collaborator will help you find the perspective you’ve temporarily lost. Stop fussing with it and borrow a pair of reliable fresh eyes. (Handing it to someone whose own creative despond leads them to dish out aggressive criticism constitutes further self-sabotage.) Everybody goes through this at one point or another. Whatever problems your unfinished piece exhibits are more likely readily-fixed technical issues that say nothing of your self-worth.

However, if creative paralysis starts to feel like real-deal, chronic depression, anxiety or the like, forget the Dr. Phils and the Dr. Robins and seek treatment, pronto. We need you, and we need your work.

Gene Ha portrait

The Worldwound Gambit Sample Chapter

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Zip on over to the Paizo web fiction blog for a sample chapter from The Worldwound Gambit, my brand new Pathfinder Tales novel. Or grab it as a PDF download. Chapter Four, The Lockbreaker and the Distance Man, is from the assembling the team sequence crucial to any heist tale, fantasy or otherwise.

An added benefit of having a sample chapter up on the site is that the novel gets an extra illustration it wouldn’t otherwise have. Artist J. P. Targete makes the mad flame wizard Hendregan even more bad-ass than I imagined him. He’s the eponymous Distance Man of the chapter title, which in heister parlance means “guy who can throw fireballs.”