Jul 302013

It’s funny how fear goes. I’m talking about rampant, off-the-leash fear. It’s often full of contradictions.

If you have a healthy love of paradox, you can find it in fear. It comes in couplets:

  • Fear of failure, but fear of success.
  • Fear of the past, but fear of the future.
  • Fear of confrontation, but fear of not confronting.
  • Fear of people, but fear of being alone.
  • Fear of moving ahead, but fear of the status quo.
  • Fear of the unknown, but fear of the known.
  • Fear of what could happen, but fear of what could happen. (Think about this one; it’ll make sense eventually.)
  • Fear of starting, but fear of finishing.

No wonder things get messed up so easily.

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Talk to me: What paradoxical couplets of fear can you claim? Post a comment below.

Feb 072013

Isn’t it strange how one quits a perfectly good (doable and worthy) project when he can smell the goal line?

I do that a lot. When I’m close to finishing, all this wild stuff happens. Fear (of failure or of success, pick one) kicks in. I get tired. The distractions get more distracting. I get more phone calls from friends. My cat gets psycho. I start thinking about food or anything else. It’s so weird.

I’ve heard it recommended that it’s good to step back, look at the project, and see why I’m doing it. Connect with the why. I find that when I cast my eye on the prize like this, my chances of finishing strong get a whole lot better. That’s when I can bash those barriers instead of complaining about that truck that just hit me.


Jan 182013

Stepping out of the comfort zone puts you squarely in the combat zone.

It’s that classic scene in just about every war movie you’ve ever seen, to the point of cliche. You’ve got a bunch of green recruits cowering in a foxhole with all this artillery going off in the background.

To make a proper war movie this foxhole crowd is a cross section of America. Got the Italian guy. Got the Pole from Chicago, a black, a Navajo, a Southerner, maybe even a surfer dude from California. They’re all there in one crowded foxhole with the gunnery sergent/den mother.

Finally one of them speaks up. “Sarge, I’m s-s-scared.”

Picture this. The salty old Gunny, with all the gunk on his face and greenery on his helmet, speaks up without taking the unlit cigar from his mouth.

“So you’re scared?” he askes in those tones that could only come from Brooklyn (told you this was a cliche). A pause as he shifts his cigar to the other side of his mouth a la Clint Eastwood. “Kid, I’m scared too. I’m always scared.”

There it is.

My better instincts tell me he’s just dumping a lot of snow on his troops, trying to boost morale, but that’s probably not the case. Forgetting it’s a movie for a minute, the Gunny knows there’s a lot at stake. There’s a war going on, and the losers don’t live to tell about it. But in the movies, the worst that could happen is the Gunny gets panned for overacting, the movie tanks at the box office, and he plays nothing but commanding officers in war movies for the rest of his life. Or something.

Leaving the movie and going into real life, there’s a lot to be scared of when you create something. Especially because you’re going out on a limb with nothing but your judgment holding you up.

Every time I write a blog post, I get scared. What if no one reads it? What if people do read it and think it stinks? What if I tick off half my readership? What if they call BS on me in the comments section?

What if I just hear the chirruping of crickets?

Monsters in the closet and laughing manuscripts

There’s that fear of rejection. Every time I submit a piece there’s that misgiving. The editor doesn’t like it. It stinks. Or I’m just barking up the wrong tree and it will take an extensive rewrite to make it passable for my client’s purposes.

I have one of those on my terminal right now, an article I wrote that completely missed what the editor was thinking (mind reading is not one of my strengths) and I’m just staring at it now. It came back to me with a ton of annotations. When I pick at it, I know in my heart it’ll be every bit as bad as the original. It’s just a small, 500-word article for a website with a limited audience, but I can’t get rid of the feeling that my whole career hangs in the balance here. Never mind any past success, never mind the other, better-paying stories I’m pitching right now, this is the article that sits on my screen laughing at me and telling me what a hack I truly am.

Even when things go well, there are still enough fears to disturb me. What if this post you’re reading goes viral, millions read it and subscribe to this blog? What if they expect more of the same on my next post? What if that’s the absolute best I can do and any future efforts get compared to it? What if I fall flat?

I don’t have any stats to back me up, but the creative landscape is littered with the corpses of artists who were an overnight success and couldn’t sustain it. That second novel, that second album was a bunch of garbage and no one bought it. Career over.

Elizabeth Gilbert can tell you about it. In a highly-recommended TED talk a couple of years ago she spoke of the “freakish success” of her book, “Eat Pray Love.”

“People treat me like I’m doomed,” she said. “Doomed.” The success of that book forced her to recalibrate how she looks at things. What if she can’t sustain her career?

“It’s exceedingly likely my greatest success is behind me,” she said. And she wasn’t quite 40 when she wrote that monster bestseller.

Shoot, it’s enough to make a creative want to pour Jack Daniels over his Wheaties in the morning.

By the way, I highly recommend checking out Gilbert’s talk. You can grab it here. I’ve saved it on my cell phone, and when I get to questioning the course of my life and mission I’ll play it.

Out of the foxhole

When you’re creating, you’re going places where you’ve never been before. You’re stepping out of your foxhole and going someplace where you just may get your butt shot off. There’s really no neutral zone; you’re either in your comfort zone or in the combat zone.

If you tote around a lot of fear and anxiety there’s a lot of stuff to feed it.

Let me be blunt here. If you write, if you play music, if you stake a lot of pride and capital on an idea of yours, there’s nothing safe about it. If you’re honest about it, you’re scared spitless half the time.

Years ago, my shrink tried to lay a little cognitive therapy on me, urging me to change my thinking a bit. Part of it is asking myself in the face of fear, what is the worst that can happen?

Dunno. I have a lot of imagination. It’s probably the worst question to ask a person with a creative mind.

Even with all that, I try to soldier on. I try to laugh outwardly at these fears. On my writing.com bio page, I list my hobbies: Reading, music, hiking, collecting rejection slips. I’ve posted photos of my rejections pile on this blog. I tell myself it’s just a part of writing, I shouldn’t take any of this personally, that it happens to the best of ’em. Sometimes I actually believe this.

Then get back to work like a real professional and test the bounds of gravity some more.





Jan 082013

(OK, got a little ahead of myself. This is really tomorrow’s posting, so let’s just call it today and be done with it.)

How deeply committed are you to your art? Let’s put it another way: How much adversity can you endure to pursue it?

There’s plenty of stuff around to knock you off track. Life happens. There’s the day job, a family to feed, promises to keep. Many aspects of life threaten to supersede your art.

OK. Some of these things are non-negotiable. But the cast-in-stone things are fewer than you might want to think, and if you’re serious about your art you will find time. If you’re not, you won’t.




Dec 142012

I keep missing the stupid thing.

Back in the 1970s, Steve Blass pitched the Pittsburgh Pirates into some World Series action, won a couple of Series games in front of an unforgiving national TV audience, and was one of the best pitchers in the league. But in his recent autobiography he said one of his biggest achievements was having a disease named after him.

It was one of the great mysteries of sport, and of real life. All of a sudden the frosty-under-pressure Blass couldn’t throw the ball over the plate any more. He’d pitch and the ball could go anywhere. In the dirt. Over the batter’s head. Into the dugout. Over there by the Section 27 sign. He’d totally lost his stuff.

There was no physiological explanation. His arm was fine. His head … well, not so much. He tried hypnosis. He tried meditation. Helpful fans sent suggestions (maybe even that his underdrawers were on too tight) and he probably tried everything. He was walking upwards of 10 batters a game and no one could figure out why. He was soon out of baseball.

This sudden inexplicable inability to perform a simple task that he’d done thousands of times — throwing the ball over the plate — soon had a name. Steve Blass Disease. Other players discovered the horror of mysteriously losing their stuff. Pitchers Mark Wohlers and Rick Ankiel couldn’t find home plate any more, and Ankiel later switched to the outfield. Infielders Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblaugh lost all control on throws to first base.

Catcher Mackey Sasser got to where he couldn’t throw the ball back to the pitcher without cocking his arm a bunch of times. Strangely enough, in high-leverage situations, Sasser had no problem chucking the ball to second base to nail a runner trying to steal, but he sure took a bunch of static from New York fansw for his double-clutch throws back to the pitcher. It destroyed a promising career.

Although some folks named the disorder Steve Sax Syndrome, Blass discovered the disorder and earned the naming rights. As if he wanted it.

Stick around in the creative world long enough and I guarantee you’ll channel your own inner Steve Blass.

Maybe you’re not able to start. Or finish. Or type. Or finger your saxophone. Or every E comes out E flat. It’s some component of the creative process that hangs things up.

I’m dealing with that now.

I’m good at developing ideas. I’m excellent at starting. I can even finish. I’m getting better at tuning out distractions. I can sometimes even tune out those thoughts of other projects that I can’t do right now, or those that if I did them they’d take me off the project I’m trying to finish. My squirrel-chasing ADHD brain is getting a bit more under control there, and I’m getting much better at jotting those random brain squawkings down on an index card and getting back to work. Sometimes, anyway.

My finger keeps circling over the mouse button and … and … and …

But I still get hung up on that PUBLISH button. You know, the one that sends my work out to be read. My trigger finger will circle over the mouse several times. It’s as agonizing as watching Sasser try to thr-thr-thr-throw.

Right now I have a few stories completed, ready to go out. They’re good to go. I’ve read through them and they’re … well, not Pulitzer stuff but OK. They’re shippable.

But every time I get ready to mash that PUBLISH button, I miss. Hit something else instead. Or my button-mashing finger locks up; is it my carpal tunnel kicking in or some disorder above the neck causing it?

Howdy, Mr. Blass. Surprised to see you here. Mackey, when’d you pull in? Mr. Ankiel, what’s up? And Brother Wohlers. Mr. Sax, who invited your Dodger hiney?

Now here’s the thing. I kinda sorta have an idea my inability to find the SUBMIT button with a bomb sight is just part of my perfectionist streak. I won’t let something go until I think it meets my standards.

Admittedly, this goes back a long way with me. My first real newsroom mentor Charlie Hand brought it to my attention 25 years ago. He said I had real talent, but I had to learn to pull the trigger. My work is not going to be perfect. It’s never going to be perfect. And while I wait for it to be perfect, the deadline’s done passed and the story is a dead issue. Writing for newspapers, you learn to let it go when it’s Good Enough.

Good Enough.

The reader won’t know if the story is Pulitzer material, but he’ll know if it’s Good Enough or not.

Hate to say it, but my clients are not paying for elite. They’re paying for Good Enough.

They don’t want it great, they want it now. As long as it’s Good Enough.

The only one who stands to benefit from me sitting on copy is my loudmouthed inner editor, and what does he know anyway?

But here’s the thing. As long as it sits on my terminal, I have full control over the outcome. Once I hit that PUBLISH button, I relinquish all control. It’s out of my hands.

Steve, go away. Please. And take your buddies with you.


(Footnote: From what I read, all these years later Steve Blass is able to laugh at his issues. He’s enjoyed a nice career in the broadcast booth and recently wrote a book, A Pirate For Life, where he gets down and dirty with his story. It’s one I really want to read. By all accounts he’s a happy man, and hasn’t had to worry about throwing a strike in years.)


Dec 102012

I tend to procrastinate. A lot. Whatever I’m doing can be done just as easily tomorrow as today, or at least that’s what I tell myself. Much of today’s to-do list is just carried over from yesterday.

When I look at why I put things off, I can usually find fear at the root of it. I’ll hold off on submitting something because I’m scared it’s not going to be good enough. I’ll defer on that phone call because I just don’t want to face the guy.

Not sure what there is to be afraid of; I mean none of this is exactly life and death. But once I understand the role of fear I can face it, hold on to my butt, and do what I need to do.


Nov 282012

On Quora I suggested the biggest enemy to creativity is the creator himself. We all have ways of screwing ourselves up way more effectively than anyone else can even dream.

Between fear, procrastination (often fear-driven), distractions, perfectionism, narcissism and hubris, these are enough to knock the creator right off course.

While these things are real — especially fear and its kin — and it’s worth it for me to know these are present, the main job is for me to get in there and do my work.


Oct 142012

Seth says share it, but don't tattoo it.

This comes from change agent/guru Seth Godin, and it’s kinda interesting. Godin argues that if a project falls apart, chances are one of these seven factors is off kilter.

Let’s run through this whole thing again:

  • Strategy
  • Persistence
  • Fear
  • Tactics
  • Execution
  • Reputation
  • Desire

Some of these have the obvious d’oh! factor, but I was interested to see fear in there. Maybe there’s a reason for it, though. If you’re doing something significant, of course you’re gonna be scared spitless. A lack of fear may mean you’re not trying.

Now that's a tattoo: The Circle of Fifths.

In all, I thought this makes a decent learning aid, though not nearly as useful or information-packed as the musician’s Circle Of Fifths.

Get right down to it, this is pretty simplistic. Almost too simplistic to be useful, but not quite. It’s like saying you’ll win that golf tournament if you can bang home those 90-foot putts. Yeah, ducky soup.


Sep 262012

I’m not exactly the most well-adjusted person on the face of this earth. I probably have more fears than most. But the funny thing is, most of these fears tie in with the twin gifts of writing and music, something I should excel at.

I keep telling myself that whatever it is I’m doing, it’s not good enough. My work isn’t thorough enough. Folks won’t like what I’m doing. I’ll never be able to make a living at it. Any success is because I’ve fooled your pants off.

This sort of bad self-talk gets in the way of using a gift. It’s probably the strongest force of resistance I face, and it gets worse when I’m close to finishing something. Here’s the deal, though: When I run through the litany of bad self-talk, it just shows that even though I can fool some of the people some of the time, I can fool myself any time I want.


Aug 232012

(*FUD: Computer user’s term for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. We’ve been discussing it all week.)

Being in a place where you’re warm, happy and comfortable can be a real tease. It could be anything. When you think about it, even sitting barenaked in a pile of horse dung will give you that warm happy feeling.

The comfort zone may be well protected from the FUD* monster, but nothing ever gets done from there. In the creative world, there’s no such thing as remote control. You have to be out there where the action is.

It’s gonna get cold out there. You’ll face a lot of resistance, from yourself and from outside. They’re using live ammo. You’ll need to learn to duck. The FUD monster will slobber all over you. But you’ll be using your gifts and getting some real significant things done.