I first came across Mastering Creative Anxiety through a DailyOM course. Each of the lessons was presented as a tidy weekly nugget designed to address the specific types of anxiety that visit creative artists: writers, painters, musicians, actors, and so on. When I began the course I wouldn’t have used the word anxiety to describe the many reasons why I hadn’t finished a novel that I’d been working on for several yars, but I knew that I had to do something different to up the urgency, and push through the wall of excuses I’d built around myself. What the course did, and what this book does, is to strip away those excuses and make obvious the reasons why I hadn’t progressed at the rate I wanted to.
Maisel’s techniques helped me dramatically in the short term, allowing me to prioritise my creative work, cope with my avoidance mechanisms, and complete that novel within a few months of doing the course. In the longer term, it also helped me accept that achieving my creative vision will never be easy, and that there will always be a wide range of anxieties associated with doing it. I suspect that I’ll be returning to this book repeatedly, at various points through each of my larger projects – whenever I need reminding that creative work is utterly necessary for me, and that the anxiety which I’m struggling with can be managed.
What I particularly like about Maisel is that, unlike many other authors offering self-help advice, he never resorts to hype, or over-simplifies the difficulties that the reader might be going through. There’s no cheerleading or irritating platitudes about the inevitability of success. Part of creativity is the inherent risk. There are all sorts of very real risks, including the risk of failing, of compromising, of ruining the work, of ego bruising. All of these outcomes can and will happen to any artist that is attempting to make meaning through his or her work. These risks lead to anxiety, which takes many forms but amounts to the same thing:
“There is clearly no simple answer to this dilemma, which is yet another reason that you must learn to manage your anxiety. The anxiety is coming; it will accompany you as you try to address your survival needs, which may be literally more of the time.”(60)
Basically there’s one key takeaway from the book and that’s to “expect anxiety, and deal with it.” It may sound facile, but it most certainly isn’t. Maisel is an expert who has devoted much of his professional life to addressing artistic anxiety and its many manifestations. He not only uses a range of tools to tease out the forms in which that anxiety tends to take, but helps artists find ways to come to terms with, and manage that anxiety. It is part and parcel of the artistic life, and for those who feel the calling, there is no option but to learn to deal with it. Avoidance causes as much if not more anxiety as creating, and choosing not to work is still a choice. Facing the fear is the only way to become a happy, fulfilled artist, and Maisel illuminates this key existential point without whitewashing or over-simplifying the problems that artists face.
There are 24 different lessons, each of which focuses on a different type of anxiety and a different method for dealing with it. The techniques are practical, multi-functional, and most have proven their efficacy over time. Maisel is never didactic, and doesn’t qualify any one method. Each one is presented as one of a number of possible options. Each chapter looks closely at a particular type of anxiety, defining it clearly, and then presenting an “Headline” that summarises it. There is then a “To do” exercise, a “Vow,” a “Teaching Tale” to illustrate the lesson’s point, and an “Anxiety Mastery Menu” which contains specific techniques to try. The repetitive structure is easy to follow, and provides a tool for artists to return to repeatedly when the inevitable anxiety monster strikes.
The anxiety mastery techniques are particularly powerful, providing techniques that range from the complex, such as making decisions and changing attitudes, to the simple and specific, such as deep breathing, incantation, and relaxation exercises. sing the book as a workbook; and taking it a chapter at a time, one week or so per chapter, works very well, allowing time to clarify what the anxiety hotspots are, and which techniques are most effective.
If you’re an artist–an author, a painter, a musician or an actor–who has chosen to live a creative life, you can’t avoid anxiety. It’s part of the process, inherent in the work you do. Coming to grips with that anxiety can be the difference between working and not working, which can be the difference between a fulfilled life that has meaning and one that is unsatisfying and meaningless. Mastering Creative Anxiety is a powerful, well-written book that every artist can benefit from, moving towards recognising and working effectively through the inevitable anxiety that comes with the vocation.