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kalevtait asked me to talk about fear of creative failure and how to harness its dread powers for good. (I’m paraphrasing.)

This is a subject I’d be disinclined to tackle unbidden. It’s too easy to talk about creative anxiety in a way that generates more of it in readers, which is the very hallmark of bad writing advice. I’ve never allowed myself the luxury of creative inaction, so my telling others to avoid it smacks of the lifelong abstainer telling you how to kick that crack habit. If I thought it possible to transform folks’ attitudes for them by exhortation and homily, I’d be chasing me some of that sweet Dr. Phil money.

Grain of salt thus dispensed, my take is that the only guaranteed route to creative failure is failing to deliver. If you make nothing, you’ve failed for sure. If you make something and it’s not so great, well, you’ve learned something about how to make the next thing. That’s not failure, but a down payment on future success. Maybe you don’t release everything you make, if you don’t think the end result works. No one becomes good without taking creative action, or without making a great lot of stuff that is formative at best. That’s true whether you’re talking Rad Bradbury’s ten thousand pages of lousy writing which you then throw away, or Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours of effort to achieve mastery of a field.

Thinking you might want to create some day doesn't count. Only by getting your ass in the chair, or in front of the canvas, or onto the stage, can you possibly succeed.

To conceive of the next thing you do as the make or break, the item that will either establish your reputation or seal the lid on your obscurity, is to commit an act of self-sabotage. Creative people generate ideas. If this one doesn’t gel, you'll go onto the next. You can’t force a breakthrough. You can only keep yourself open, pursue the task with discipline and all the time it requires, and tackle revisions with taste and detachment.

If you’re worried about criticism, pick a creator you deeply respect. Then go and find a comment page or forum thread where yahoos bray their ridiculous disdain for the object of your admiration. Trash talk is a constant, untethered from the quality of one’s work. With the advent of the net it’s always a mouse click away. Conceive of it as background noise. It’s no more a telling judgment than when you step on gum while out for a walk.

There’s only reason to let fear of failure stop you from getting started creating: you’re more enchanted by the idea of yourself as a creator than you are with the act of creation itself. By never doing anything, you can savor the fantasy that you someday might. There’s nothing wrong with harmless daydreams, so long as you don’t let them turn on you and become a source of self-blame. But if you’re a creator at heart, you make stuff for its own sake first of all. Everybody enjoys positive reinforcement but ultimately it’s about the work, not the approval. And the disapproval of others will never be as withering as the voice in your own head telling you not to try. So tell that voice to go screw itself, stop thinking about making something, and make something.

More tomorrow...


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