Image: “Keys to Freedom” site installation by Janet Riehl at Mad Art Gallery, St. Louis inside the old Soulard jail. From 2005 national exhibition, juried by Judy Chicago. “Contemporary Women Artists Exhibition XIII,” sponsored by Women’s Caucus for the Arts.
Column by Janet Grace Riehl with Stephanie Farrow
Upset stomach, shortness of breath, a general feeling of
malaise. Are you coming down with the flu—or experiencing fear? It’s an emotion that can mimic the symptoms of illness. Fear can also go beyond the physical and wrestle us into a creative hammerlock.
As writers, we can’t afford to allow fear to strangle our creative flow. We must learn how to provide ourselves with a sense of safety that keeps us from abandoning our creativity. It may sound strange, but we need to transform fear from an enemy into a friend. See if the strategies below can
1) Learn to track your fear. What pattern does your fear display? It can travel the route of a tiny tickle of uneasiness to anxiety to panic to outright terror. Identify the progression fear normally takes for you. It might run through every stage from A to Z, or it might stop at one of the intermediate stages.
2) Analyze your reaction to fear. What thoughts and emotions
come up when you experience fear? Do you feel helpless? Notice your physical
symptoms. Identify how they impact your writing. Do you procrastinate by
doodling on your writing pad or playing computer solitaire? Do you abandon your writing altogether?
3)Take a look at how you relate to fear. For some of us, the feeling of
even mild fear compounds itself. It sets off the fear cycle, making it
accelerate and intensify. At the extreme, fear can cause creative paralysis.
4) Find the key to unlock fear’s handcuffs. Whether or not
you’ve used them before, your inner toolbox has the tools to unlock the
handcuffs fear has clamped on your creativity. Physical and psychological
exercises are simple tools any of us can use. They can help us moderate fear
and even come to appreciate that our “enemy” can have friendly benefits.
Your Tool Box To Make Friends With Fear
Learn exercises to keep your body and breathing in balance when fear arises: stretch, practice yoga, walk, or run.
One of my favorite releases for tension, frustration, anger, or fear is the woodchopper exercise from Polarity Therapy. Click here for full
description of the woodchopper. Make sure you do it briskly and with convincing sound as you come down.
Negotiating with Fear
One of my favorite tools is to negotiate with fear. It may sound strange but engaging our fear head-on diminishes its power and makes it possible for us to convert it into an ally.
The first step is to tamp down your emotions and consider your fear as neutrally as you can. Understand that fear is a legitimate—and indispensable—element of our human make-up. It is doing its best to protect and care for us in potentially risky situations. It’s doing its best to keep us safe, both physically and psychologically.
When you feel ready, start a conversation with fear by asking it three simple questions: What do you want? What do you need? What do you have to offer? Write down your questions followed by fear’s responses. Continue the dialogue until you discover the reason for your fear’s recalcitrance and how to ease it. You may be surprised at the circuitous path your conversation takes and where you and your fear finally end up.
Here’s a sample dialogue:
You: What is it that you want, Fear?
Fear: I want to keep us safe. If you take too many risks, we’re going to hurt
ourselves. You want to climb out on that limb with that project, but what if we fall out of the tree? We could really get hurt.
You: What do you need, Fear?
Fear: I need you to listen and understand me. I’m scared. Even fear has its fears, you know. It would be awful if people made fun of us. I don’t want us to look like bloody fools. I want us to be respected.
You: What do you have to offer, Fear?
Fear: I know how to keep us safe.
And the dialogue continues. . . .
Once you know how to identify your fear in its early stages, don’t ignore it. Respond to it right away. Remember that you have the tools you need to change your relationship with this powerful emotion. Like learning to
master any tool, the more you use it, the more skillful you become. With
practice you’ll learn to take advantage of fear’s energy instead of allowing it
to choke off your creativity. You’ll be happier overall and more fluid in your
In our second post in this cycle (3.2), we’ll explore how to use fear productively. Our last post in the series encourages you to define your own success.
Pose questions about practical creativity; give ideas for future cycle themes; and join in the dialog in the comment section below. If you’d like to see previous articles in this series, go to http://storycircle.typepad.com/scn/creativity/
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