Fear isn’t all bad when it comes to creativity

When it comes to creativity, undoubtedly the most discussed antagonist is fear.

Fear is often hailed as the “number one enemy of creativity” because of its limiting powers. Fear can stop the writer in her tracks, or the painter from ever picking up a brush, or anyone from pursuing any idea, big or small.

I’ve written about this myself, of course, about the fear of being uncreative and my fear of finishing anything.

But for all the negatively around the role fear plays in the creative process, fear deserves some credit for where it actually helps us to be more creative: in taking time to process things more thoroughly.

It’s through fear that we don’t make blatantly poor decisions (like jumping off a cliff without a rope or parachute), but it’s also fear that enables us to live in the second stage of the creative process, what psychologist Graham Wallas referred to as Incubation.

It’s in the incubation phase of creativity that we allow our subconscious (or, occasionally, consciences) to process ideas into more beneficial forms. It’s a type of positive procrastination, if you will.

Yes, there is immense benefit to sitting down to do creative work, or to explore ideas, before our inner critic has time to prevent us from doing so. But there is also something to be said for the creative work that actually does best when we give it time to breathe, to evolve in our minds.

By the time you sit down to start the work, it’s not a beginning as so many of us fear: it’s more like a middle, because your brain has already started the work for you.

What matters is that we know when to embrace our fear, to hold off on the work or on exploring the idea further, and when to ignore that same fear.

It’s not an easy thing to address, and for each of us it will vary. The only way to know when the right time for starting, and overcoming the fear, for you personally is to test your limits. Start now, start later, but always keep in mind how that fear is shaping your ability to think and do creative work as you go.

Graham Wallas gave a suggestion for the best way to help this fear remain a positive influence on our creative selves: by working on multiple things at time.

“We can often get more result in the same way by beginning several problems in succession, and voluntarily leaving them unfinished while we turn to others, than by finishing our work on each problem at one sitting.”

Fear gets a bad reputation in the creative world, but does it deserve it? I think not. As Elizabeth Gilbert so elegantly put in her recent book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear:

“Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome… I made a decision a long time ago that if I want creativity in my life then I will have to make space for fear, too.”