Column: What are you afraid of?

If you’ve been making art for any time at all, you’ve known fear. You’re cruising along, producing solid work, feeling pretty good about yourself and your life as an artist, and whammo – fear jumps out of a dark alley and knocks that satisfied smile right off your face.

light skeletonWhat to do? Curling up in a ball in the corner is rarely attractive, and liquid courage never works for long – just ask Hemingway or Fitzgerald. (Oh, wait. We can’t.) And to complicate matters there isn’t just one big fear you can anticipate and sidestep. Fear takes many different forms, and might be so subtle you don’t even recognize it for what it is: a big, sneaky traitor.

I’ve struggled with fear over the years, and believe it’s just part of the creative process. Making something from nothing is tough business, and doesn’t inspire great confidence unless it’s going well. Which it often isn’t, and that’s also part of the process. Lame work precedes the good stuff; it’s just the way it goes. But that roller coaster is a breeding ground for doubt.

So I’ll start. My biggest fear these days is not being able to find an audience for my books. Or that there isn’t a big enough audience to support my writing. I’m not writing about knitted hamster booties, but still, I worry that writing about U.S. road trips doesn’t have a huge market, and that I’ll only find a handful of readers.

That’s ridiculous, right? Surely I can find more than a handful. I should go for two handfuls! Ten readers! Take that, irrational fear!

That’s the point: these fears are usually irrational. The truth is, if the writing’s good – which it will be, since I’m going to work my butt off to make it so – I’ll find more than a handful of readers, and you will, too. Here a few more fears and how to handle them if they show up.

Fear of failure. Who hasn’t been afraid of never improving beyond that first mediocre sketch, or toiling for years with only a drawer full of unpublished novels to show for it? The fear of spending all that time and energy on something that never results in success will stop you cold.

The fix: Remember, persistence is as important, if not more so, than talent. Really. The longer you work, practicing and studying and making one attempt after another, the better you are. And the better you are, the chances of success start multiplying exponentially. Persistence.

Fear of success. I’ve heard of this but have never seen proof, sort of like the jackalope. Someone’s afraid of the adoration of fans, the respect of peers, and enough money to go on fabulous vacations and fund a retirement account? Gee, that sounds terrible, you should definitely be afraid of that. (Seriously, if someone has experienced this I’d love to hear more.)

The fix: How about this: you get so successful that you’ve booked that fabulous vacation, and you take me with you. I’ll gladly convince you over a Mai Tai just how unfounded your fears really are. You’re welcome.

Fear of being found out. As talentless, a poser, boring, whatever. I’ve read more interviews with famous creatives than I can count who’ve confessed this fear, so it’s fair to say it’s common.

The fix: The more good work you produce, the less likely it is you are (or will be thought of as) a poser. Make good art.

Fear of exposing yourself. I don’t mean the creepy way with trench coats, I mean through your work: exposing your true feelings and desires, the creative ideas that scratch at your window at night.

The fix: Know that exposing your true, vulnerable self through your work will make you more successful than you can imagine. No one is interested in an artist playing it safe. Be yourself, be honest, be bold. Your fans will love you for it.

Fear of never being as great as those you admire. Well, let’s face it – you (and I) may never be. But it doesn’t mean you can’t be great in your own right, and it doesn’t mean you don’t have something important and valuable to share with the world.

The fix: Ditch the black and white “I’ll never be as good as (Great Artist) so I should stop right now” silliness. There will always be plenty of room for great art, regardless of if it’s hanging in the Louvre or someone’s living room. I say this a lot, but it bears repeating: Give us your best work. We all win when you do.

What do you fear most? Let me know – I won’t tell.

This column first appeared in The Taos News. Photo credit:

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  1. Loved this article, Deonne – made me pause for self-reflection. I guess what paralyzes me mostly is not making a decision about what project to start, which I suppose, stems from the fear of choosing the wrong thing.

    • Iris,

      I’m so glad it helped, and I totally get the “which project?” dilemma. I have three book-length projects I could be working on right now, and I ended up going with the novel because it’s lighter in theme than the other two, and it just seems like more fun right now.

      I’m committing to finishing it and not getting distracted by other projects, even if in the end I don’t publish it. It will have been worth the time and effort, because practice – the work – is everything, regardless of outcome.

      For you I’d say choose the project that seems the most fun, or exciting, or interesting – the one you can dive into right now with energy and abandon. Then commit to seeing it through, regardless of the other distractions or ideas that will surely come up. I’m guessing you’ll be glad you did.


  2. I have been there…will be again no doubt. Brings to mind this great piece:

    Our Deepest Fear
    By Marianne Williamson

    Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
    Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
    It is our light, not our darkness
    That most frightens us.

    We ask ourselves
    Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
    Actually, who are you not to be?
    You are a child of God.

    Your playing small
    Does not serve the world.
    There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
    So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

    We are all meant to shine,
    As children do.
    We were born to make manifest
    The glory of God that is within us.

    It’s not just in some of us;
    It’s in everyone.

    And as we let our own light shine,
    We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
    As we’re liberated from our own fear,
    Our presence automatically liberates others.

    • Garrett,

      I do love this quote, so thanks for posting it here. I often think of the line “your playing small does not serve the world” when I’m feeling afraid. Great advice for all of us.


  3. Deonne (and Iris and garrett): Wow. Love this post: your humor is great and your timing is so perfect it falls under the category of synchronicity. THANK YOU. I just got back from doing a reading. I read some poetry–which people in my community expect and know me for–and closed with fiction, my first time reading a story in public which made me feel very vulnerable. Reading your list of fears reminds me that as “makers” we have to keep going and exploring, experimenting, sharing, doing. I’ll keep this list handy.

    • Alexa,

      You’re welcome! So glad this post found you at just the right time. I agree about what we need to do to keep going. Action is best. We run into the most trouble when we start overthinking the work or the process. It’s a lifelong endeavor, this making of stuff, and I suspect it’s also a lifelong struggle to stay on track and not fall to depression or insecurity or fear. It’s a tough road, but it’s the only road. We can’t *not* create, right? God knows I don’t have any other skills at this point, so writing is going to have to carry me through. Ha.


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