Art, Fear, and Procrastination

Procrastination is fairly straightforward on the surface.  We all do it and we all know what it means; the avoidance of a particular activity.  For example, I procrastinate mowing the lawn because it will be exhausting and I generally don’t derive much pleasure from the experience.  Of course, I also don’t like a lawn run amuck, resulting in a struggle between two disagreeable forces; an aesthetically unpleasant yard and the effort it would take to make it presentable.  My decision to eventually mow always occurs when my discomfort and partial embarrassment at the sight of my decrepit lawn exceeds the troublesome prospect of mowing it. Fear has nothing to do with this type of avoidance.

Fear and Artists

However, procrastination is far more than circumventing obviously unpleasant activities.  We also avoid tasks we actually wish to accomplish; evading goals we want to reach.  Creators know of this type of avoidance very well.  If you are a blogger, you are familiar with bypassing the computer to explore your latest blog idea or story.  If you are a composer, you feel the weight of the forces preventing you from the piano.  Most artists, at one point or another, feel afraid and avoid their medium as a way to circumvent their fear. 

To create is to face concerns both large and small. Perhaps we worry that our latest endeavors won’t be good enough or as effective as previous attempts.  Maybe we are afraid that we will no longer have the answers to the inevitable questions posed by any creative work.  Perhaps we fear judgments; that people won’t like our creations or that the work will fail to reach prior standards.  We often play a counterproductive comparison game with our own prior work; believing we might not measure up to past versions of ourselves.  The preponderance of fears is matched only by our propensity to avoid them; aligning with our tendency to bypass difficult emotions and circumstances as a mode of general survival.  Flight; not fight.  Certainly not soften, accept, and allow.    

Fear Correlates to Experience

Creating is always accompanied by the possibility that effective creation won’t happen.  The degree of fear often runs parallel to an artist’s experience level.  For example, if the artist has traversed the globe of creation every which way, the fear of not creating or discovering can intensify; as he or she becomes unsure of where next to proceed.  However, if the artist is at the beginning stage, every possibility is new and ripe for exploration.

Fear of Judgements

Most artists, experienced or not, want to create only works of value, whether for themselves or others.  Value determination can’t be separated from judgement.  The moment we decide that creating value is preferable; we allow judgement to influence our creations.  Either we assess our own work based on our own value standard, or we attempt to predict how others will judge our work.  Regardless, the work has now become influenced by assessment.  If we fear that the end result will be deemed a failure, it’s understandable that we might avoid the creative activity altogether. 

Creating is a Risk

However, when we create, we don’t know whether the finished product will be determined as valuable; either by ourselves or others.  At the end of our endeavor, we might be pleased; we might not.  Each attempt at creation carries risk.  Therefore, if we are concerned that our time spent creating will be unproductive and unsatisfying, we will be more likely to procrastinate; as the default mode of being for most of us is to circumvent difficult situations; especially if we associate the creative process with potential struggle. 

For example, it is easier to sit comfortably in a lounge chair playing video games than to face the prospect of feeling unsuccessful in an artistic attempt.  The decision to produce art is always accompanied by the possibility that the results won’t be successful; no matter how one defines success. 

Positivite and Negative Reinforcement

If our efforts to create continually yield positive results, we will be more likely to attempt the activity in the future.  However, once our efforts are accompanied by an unsatisfying result, we will be more likely to avoid the activity in the future due to the new association with the unpleasurable.  If our efforts continue to yield displeasing ends, future attempts become even less likely as the negative connection intensifies.  Eventually, we might discontinue the activity altogether; each tempting thought to try again is quickly cleared away by the more powerful fear of failing again.

Avoiding Struggle

However, procrastination isn’t merely a reflection of a feared end result. Creating is often accompanied by varying degrees of struggle to that end; whether toiling to refine a small point or working to shape an initial idea into a larger whole.  Creation is always accompanied by numerous questions, and questions demand answers. Sometimes the answers are found readily; other times they are elusive.  If the answers aren’t forthcoming, the struggle magnifies and will perhaps be accompanied by feelings of ineptitude and failure.  Therefore, perhaps it isn’t surprising that we would avoid an activity that offers such potential for struggle and emotional difficulty.   

For example, while working on this post, I have reworked the details of individual sentences, as well as experimented with the overall trajectory of the piece’s form seemingly countless times.  Each maneuver is a response to questions; would another word be better? Should this paragraph come earlier? Is this moment repetitive?  Does this section need more clarity?  If the answers become increasingly elusive to a point where I can’t find some of them, there is a greater chance that this work would end up in a folder of incomplete posts.   

Fear of Writer’s Block

While we certainly worry about the judgements that might accompany our end product, we also may grow concerned with not reaching the end itself; becoming stuck in the journey along the way to the finished creation.  We fear the massive creative block; when solutions are not readily forthcoming; when numerous reworkings of the object don’t net a satisfying solution; when hours of work produce little effective change. 

Interestingly, we experience seemingly countless mini blocks every time we create; it just usually happens beyond our awareness.  When we pause, we are momentarily stuck.  For example, I have paused numerous times just in writing this sentence.  These mini blocks don’t usually cause much trouble, with possible solutions readily forthcoming; consequently, they often remain unrecognized.  However, when the pauses become more pronounced and prolonged, we begin to notice.  When embarking on a creative endeavor, it’s always possible that the blocks perpetuate and eventually turn into the dreaded “writer’s block.”  At this moment, perspiration and the willingness to struggle will often matter more than talent.  However, it’s not surprising that the fear of this possibility might lead us to procrastinate.   

Perspiration Over Talent

History is littered with inherently gifted artists who surrender to the inevitable discomfort that accompanies putting their talent into action.  On the other hand, stories of less talented artists finding a certain degree of success are perhaps just as pervasive.  While many factors contribute to this seeming disconnect, perhaps the most significant component is the degree to which each artist can cope with the uncomfortable. 

While varying degrees of struggle in the creative process are inevitable, the threshold to withstand and overcome the struggle varies from person to person.  Inherent to our struggle is the discomfort born of confronting the possibility that the answers to our artistic questions will elude us.  Some surrender when the answers aren’t readily available, while others can withstand the discomfort of not knowing for longer periods of time.  The ability to live within the unpleasant space of uncertainty is perhaps the most significant distinguishing trait of many successful artists; more so than even the level of talent.

Fear Over Loss of Identity

If we garner a certain degree of success which encourages further creation, which in turn, leads to more success, we eventually end up with a personal world defined by what we do.  We create a life around our art; attending school, finding friends who reflect a similar experience and relatable attitudes; art can become the foundation of both our career and social world. Eventually, who we are can become conflated with what we do. 

“Who are you?”

“I’m a writer.”

We have answered the question incorrectly; or at least the response reflects a slight loss of perspective; as who we are and what we do are not the same. 

However, the conflation can occur when we overidentify with our career.   In building a life around our art, the ego and our self-esteem can become inextricably linked to it.  The success we garner is accompanied by elevated emotions born of affirming praise.  We can feel accomplished, talented, worthy, and strong.  Years of repeating this process help create and shape a new personality and reality with our successful art as the foundation.

Now the creative process reflects a more epic drama, as our entire sense of self is vulnerable and gambled during every attempt to create.  The mini and massive blocks that occur along the way put out entire identify at risk.  If we are defined by our art, then not creating art becomes a threat to the self.  If who we are and what we do are one and the same, the struggle to create is not just about the art; it’s a battle to remain who we thought we were.     

Becoming Comfortable with Discomfort

However, if we can create a new dynamic with the uncomfortable, we can perhaps reframe our entire experience to accept the positive and negative emotions inherent to human life.  In denying and avoiding the difficult, we oppose the inevitable; creating a tension born of this incongruency.  Intellectually, we understand that disquieting emotions and circumstances are part of life, but we don’t accept it fully; evidenced by our tendency to evade the difficult instead of allowing it to be.  In avoiding painful circumstances, we passively wish and work for only neutral to positive experiences.  And in doing so, we desire the impossible.

If we detach from our experience just slightly and recognize the impermanence of all things, we can create a safe place to soften and perhaps accept the difficult feelings that accompany our lives and creative endeavors.  We can gently notice and slightly separate from fear when it arises; as a momentary visit from an old friend, soon to be replaced by another phenomenon.  In this new space where fears are softened, we can address artistic efforts with a healthier detachment; where identity isn’t at risk and potential failure is perceived as just another temporary experience.    

Transcending Qualitative Judgements

If in conjunction we can also construct a work environment that is partially detached from value judgments, we would be less concerned with good and bad; quality determination would have less meaning.  This separation is dependent on recognizing the negative impact value assessments may be having on our work, as well as the positive impact that would stem from releasing ourselves from their burden.  When we become unfettered from the strain of what others may think, we become liberated to explore, discover, and play in new ways; opening new pathways to worlds previously unseen.  In the space beyond good and bad, we may stumble upon a happy accident that leads to new areas of artistic interest.