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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Creative work: doing what scares us

I stopped into the Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury yesterday, looking for a card, and afterward I remembered what one had said. (It may actually have been a refrigerator magnet.) It said: Do one thing every day that scares you. And I thought, well, I already do. I write.

This is always scary, for me. I’m used to it, but that has taken years.

In various phases of my life I avoided writing, or only did it when — as a journalist, then a writer for hire — I had to. Have to is a powerful motivator. It gets you past fear, but it’s external. If you can find an internal motivation, that’s more real, more reliable, and it’ll take you a lot farther. But what stops you from finding it is, basically, the fear. 

As I struggled with this over the years, I observed something. Actually two things. First: the more important a piece of writing, or a segment of a writing project, was for me to do — the more it might break new ground, go somewhere unplanned or especially challenging — the more scared I felt. So the fear was a good sign. The more anxious I felt, the more important it was to go ahead and start.

This doesn’t apply to stupid physical things, like say jumping off bridges, but it does apply to creative work. The second thing I noticed was this: My fear always built up before I started the work. Once I got going, it tended to dissipate, like morning mist in the strengthening sun. I learned to negotiate with myself. For example, I’ll say I can read the Internet news for 10 minutes, but then I have to start. And ... I do. And it works! (Most of the time.)

So many people are stifled long-term by this fear of the creative impulse that’s pushing up inside them. What if I try and don’t succeed? What if I take the risk and never become a music star, a published novelist, or whatever? Won’t I be a failure?

I see this worry in the faces of so many middle schoolers that I talk with when I visit their schools, as I did this morning at the Aurora Middle School in Middlebury, my first visit of the new school year. (Over the next few weeks I’ll be in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Iowa, and elsewhere here in Vermont.) Kids at this crucial time of change and search for their emerging adult selves very often dream of doing creative work — writing books, designing video games, making films; but they’re scared they may fail. And often they get “practical” advice from parents who say, Don’t go there. You can’t make a living.

Is that good advice? I don't think so! Because this isn’t about that kind of success or failure.

Whether you’ll take a risk on your creative impulse or ideas is about whether you’ll become who you really are. And the true practical side is this: no matter what field you go into, being practiced and comfortable with the creative process will be incredibly valuable. One of the skill sets employers most often say they need in young graduates is creative problem-solving — and the innovation of new products, technologies and entertainments is of course vital to our overall economic success.

But let’s stay personal — in fact, let’s go to the essence. Why is it important to act on the creative impulse inside us, if success or failure as an artistic professional is not the real issue? (For the huge majority of us it won’t be, and that’s fine.) One book that I return to every few years — in fact, leafing through it this afternoon, I thought I’d better read it again — is Gay Hendricks’s Conscious Living, whose subtitle is “Finding Joy in the Real World.” In it is a passage about, as Hendricks puts it, “the issue of creative expression in our lives.” It’s this:

“Here the rule is simple. If you are expressing your creative potential, you get to feel good about yourself. If you are not, you don’t.”

That’s it. And that’s why this is not about whether your kid will become a filmmaker, whether he or she will starve trying, or whether you should make time to write in that so-far-blank notebook each morning, even though what you put in there might not be “good.” This is about becoming who we are, at a level that we either wall off and suffer for it, or delve into. simply by pushing past the fear.

If we do the latter, we discover why it matters. It’s like exercising: once you’ve done it for a while, you know why it’s vital to your life and you can’t imagine stopping. If you fall out of the routine, it’s hard to get back in. You avoid the issue; you feel leery of trying. Until you try again. And then you remember.

And then it’s all fine — because this is what matters most: the act of doing the work. In the doing is the first, and the realest, reward.

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