The Pragmatic Hybrid

Darkness on the edge of town

A few months ago I watched a documentary about Bruce Springsteen, called “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town.”

It’s a deep look at his creative process. In it, he talks about how he came to terms with the reality of his weaknesses as an artist, and admitting that he had them.

He describes his despair at not being able to do his work – wanting to pick a fight with someone who could end him, so his battle would stop. His maturity as an artist finally arrived when accepted the fact of his limitations, and learned to work with the possibilities available to him inside these limits.

It struck a huge gonnnng with me, because it caught me at a moment when I was struggling to write, and not getting anywhere, and feeling only despair.

It was the most creative frustration I’ve felt, ever.

The night before, unable to sleep, I cried and tossed and wondered if I would ever be able to get out of my own way and do the writing that redeems my day.

So when I heard Bruce talk about facing up his limits and learning to function within them, it landed like an instruction tailor-made for me, a message about my path out of the pit.

But his words weren’t entirely good news.

Bruce’s story made me realize that if he has weaknesses as an artist, then I sure as hell must have some too.

And the sad realization that followed on this one was that if the weaknesses are in me, and not solely in my circumstances, then they would never be transcended by arranging my time differently, or by reorganizing my physical accoutrements.

Without realizing it, I was looking for a magic bullet – a mood shift, a change of perspective, a perfect, mythical arrangement of silence and unscheduled days that would make it possible for me to slip effortlessly into the creative trance.

For circumstances to arrange themselves ideally so that I didn’t have to struggle.

To arrive at some plane – spontaneously, by magic – where I had transcended the terror of starting, and it was effortless.

For me, it’s not completely about time. Because I have had the experience of clearing a day to work on the novel, and still fretting and hemming and not have much to show for it at the end.

It’s more about calming myself enough to sit down and start. This is the main barrier – the fear and anxiety that rise up like a wave when I even think about moseying over to my writing space.

Eric Maisel calls it starting anxiety, and says that it’s a major thing to learn to manage if we’re going to make our art.

He teaches that it’s not easy, or solved forever, but that it can be managed.

Maybe this weakness, this fear of inadequacy, never goes away. Maybe we just learn to coexist peacefully, to function in spite of it, the same way one learns to live with a chronic health condition – it may always be around, so the highest goal is to learn to live with it.

To learn grace and yielding and bending, instead of resisting and breaking.

Maybe the best we can do is to learn to calm the anxiety and enter the creative trance, even in the presence of our weaknesses. To admit to being powerless in the face of something bigger.

(And it’s worth learning to manage your creative anxiety, because what’s the alternative? Like Sarah says, you’ll just get cranky if you don’t make your art. So, might as well figure out how to make it.)

This conversation with yourself, the reminding yourself that you’re a weak, limited human, is, paradoxically, empowering. Humility in the face of something you don’t understand and can’t control is quite a practical viewpoint, it turns out. 

I wanted a way to arrive in this place of humility, to learn how to invoke powers greater than mine.

So I devised a ritual.

I started doing this as a silent meditation that happens inside my head, or by writing it out in my journal.

It’s an invocation of the writing, which already exists somewhere, and that I am inviting to come through me. A ritual to smallify the clamoring of my ego, and to shift me into the proper spiritual attitude, which is one of receptivity and opening and not fretting about future greatness.

After creating this technique, I realized that I had made a tool to help with something kajillions of us need. Not just writers, but creators of all kinds, because starting anxiety is something we all deal with.

So, I am doing this up as a recorded meditation.

My plan is to offer a short recording that you can quickly listen to when you feel that starting anxiety surge – a ritual to invoke grounding and safety, to be your entry point into your writing practice and help you manage your starting anxiety and slip into the creative trance.

I’m making a proper version now, and will be offering it in a few weeks. (There will be an exclusive discount for people on my list, which you can sign up for here.)

To make it as good and specific for y’all as I can, I want to know: what stops you from getting started?

What does your starting anxiety whisper in your ear? If you will share your experience with this in the comments, I will appreciate it mightily.

Comment Fu

This space is like a Quaker meeting that is happening in my living room. Honored guests, please speak as you are moved to.  And let’s be awesome to each other, because graciousness among friends is why we hang out together.

  1. Burt McCumber

    Nice piece Amna. I’m no writer, although I do blog daily. And I’m no artist, although creativity is one of my qualities. But when I do write, whether it’s a race report or an essay for homework, what stops me from getting started is wanting to do it right the first time. In other words, I don’t want to have to go back and edit, and proof read, and re-write. I almost have to have it all written in my head first. That first little bit is the hardest part because it’s going to dictate the path of the rest of the essay. Perhaps that’s something I need to overcome, just start writing, get my ideas on paper, then solidify them with a binding thesis. That was my thought as I read this. It may not be what you were looking for.

  2. Rob

    Well, you really struck a chord here! As a writer myself–desperately desiring to become an author–I am constantly struggling against the starting anxiety that you describe. And I can definitely empathize with Burt, as I had the hardest time learning to ignore the internal editor and just write, dammit! Problem is, now that I’ve learned to shift into that gear, shifting back into the “now it’s time to fix this garbage I just wrote” gear is becoming difficult.

    And, I also relate in that time is absolutely not my problem–I lost my day job nine months ago due to disability, and my first reaction (after “ohhh nooooo!”) was, “Cool! I get to be a writer now!” And yet I struggle daily with giving myself permission to sit for two hours or more and just hammer away at the keyboard. After all, look at all the other things I have to get done!

    And really, when I get right down to it, I think the issue is self-esteem: not believing that what I write will be good enough. I guess that’s why it was so difficult to get past the perfect-first-draft hangup.

    So, thanks for the affirmation, and the permission to call my anxieties out on the table and wrassle with them.

  3. @TheGirlPie

    Starting block?
    That it’s not original enough, that it’s all been said by others for (literally) centuries and that it’s been said more widely by people I don’t even like, much less respect so I don’t want to be in the same camp as them…
    Jeeze, thanks for asking, now I gotta deal with this crap, ugh.

    [Lovely post, however, thank you.]

  4. Elana

    Amna, thank you a billion and one times for writing everything you’ve ever written, especially this.

    Starting blocks: I don’t know what I’m doing. What the hell do I write about? That writing prompt is lame. I am such a hack. I’m not a real writer. Real writers write, I just think about it, complain inside my head about it. Miranda July just farts and a fucking story fills the air, but me, I can’t even think of one single good non-cliche story to write and in thinking all of this I am not writing. I am one of those people who only thinks about doing creative shit and never does it. How depressing. I quit.

    How’s that for a tooty fruity of a pick-me-upper speech to hear every time a girl gets a notion to write?

    : )

  5. Square-Peg Karen

    Love this! And it really caused me to think.

    My first thought was: “Nah, I don’t have trouble starting (writing) anymore.” – it actually seems like someone ought to find a way to stop me sometimes!

    But then I went away for a few minutes and gave it some more thought (because I figured if brilliant Amna still has trouble with this, I doubt I’ve overcome it)…

    and, you know, I realized I have trouble when I start writing something “serious”. I’m not talking about academic (I swear, I swear, I swear I will never do that again!!!), but when there’s something (usually a product) I’m working on that I feel very serious about – that I think will be of help to people — all of a sudden I can find a thousand and six things to pull my attention away – stemming from pure, unadulterated fear!

  6. Amna Ahmad

    @Burt – thanks for commenting – this is *exactly* the kind of stuff I’m talking about, and something I’ve experienced too.

    @Rob – ALSO very familiar. Along with the idea that it’s about time – how if we just had more of it, it would solve the not-writing problem. And it might improve the situation if we’re writing and want to write more, but it’s no help at all if the problem is starting. Thank you for sharing your experience with this.

    @TheGirlPie – Your inner voice sounds quite exacting. It demands a very high standard, yes? Thanks for this – I think a key part of starting is detaching (temporarily) from that evaluatory place. And now I will be sure to address this explicitly in the Thing I’m making!

    @Elana – You crack my shit up. And you captured it – from uncertainty to “I quit” within seconds. You raise another good one: the idea of having to think of something good to write before starting to write, which is of course paralyzing, because how do you know what you’re going to write until after you’ve written it? I’ll talk about this in there, too. Thank you!

    @Karen – I totally have a Continuum of Writing Fear too! From non-scary to most scary, it goes like this:

    journal writing –> poems –> blog posts –> other business writing –> “serious” writing (for me, fiction and essays)

    On the left side of the continuum, I don’t think twice about starting – I do it easily and often. But on the right side – holy mama! There’s a lot of talking to myself that has to happen first.


  7. Anna Maria Moore

    I thought this piece was beautiful and convincing! I definitely have the starting block. So much so, that I often just ignore writing altogether.

    My biggest block is fear – “What will they think?” “How will it be received?” “Does anybody care?” “Do I really want to bare myself to everyone?” “Will it be a total flop and then what – does that make me a failure?” As rational as I can be about failure being a good lesson toward betterment, the irrational is much stronger.

    And once I actually do decide to write, I’m blocked by, as you mentioned, not having the perfect circumstances – an uncluttered working area, an inspiring thought, energy, enough time, etc.

    Sometimes I manage to get through all of these walls I’ve put up, and those rare moments are so rewarding. I think you’ve convinced me to get your meditation, Amna!

  8. Tessa Zeng

    This is wonderful – have you heard of Dyana Valentine + her Finish It! series? This is like the whole other side of things!

    My starting anxiety may be of a slightly different flavor! I’m usually revving to go, but what stops me is that I often have the whole big picture idea mapped out in my head, and have trouble landing on just one thing! Then in that distilling process, I’m like, ahh will this even make sense to anyone who sees it? You could say the anxiety sneaks up on me in the middle of clarity + excitement!

  9. Kris

    My “don’t even start it” routine includes: How can I spend time on “my own” writing when there is so much there is so much urgent, critical need in my community, in the world? There is more important work to do. Creative writing is frivolous and wrong.