“Anxiety is the number one problem that creative people face,” declares Dr. Eric Maisel, “and yet few even realize it.” His newest book to help creatives unleash their inner resources is Mastering Creative Anxiety: 24 Lessons for Writers, Painters, Musicians & Actors from America’s Foremost Creativity Coach.
It may win a prize for the world’s longest book title. Certainly it is the most comprehensive coverage of anxiety an artist of any sort would want to see. And I might wish I hadn’t seen them all. Some of the 24 chapters name a few even I had not experienced or thought about. Now I’m anxious about developing fears of “mattering” and “thinking.”
I’ve been a practicing agoraphobic most of my life and know what it is to feel frozen, panic-ridden, and unable to perform or make a choice. Fortunately, Maisel’s latest creativity coaching efforts awards readers early with a list of 22 strategies to reduce anxiety. Most people can find at least a few that work well for them, but as Maisel warns, “you must learn and practice anxiety-management techniques if you are to master your anxiety!”
He even offers a self-training plan for implementing his warning. It comes as a checked box To Do paragraph at the end of “Chapter 1: The Anxiety of Creating and Not Creating.” He suggests:
Explore this list and learn what works for you — and truly make use of the techniques that work. Start to own at least one or two anxiety-management strategies, practice them, and make real and regular use of them.
Some of the strategies may sound redundant, such as attitude change and reorienting or deep breathing and guided imagery and physical relaxation. But each is accompanied by a paragraph of additional explanation of the sometimes slight differences among them. Most of the tactics will be familiar to anyone who has had therapy for codependency issues, is a veteran of the Alcoholics Anonymous Al-Anon program, or perhaps took an adult education or enrichment class in self-esteem or assertiveness training.
The names Maisel uses for some of the ways of dealing with anxiety struck me as strange, such as the very first: Existential decisiveness. Personality upgrading and Disidentification were unfamiliar to me until I read the explanations and realized I knew the concepts under different terminologies. Except for Existential decisiveness. It is still as opaque as “existential” was when I first heard the term as an undergraduate in the 1960s.
The chapters cover mostly psychological anxiety sources such as fears about failing, identity, and procrastinating, but not rejection. He does mention it once, in the chapter on “ego bruising” and lumps it together with fearing criticism. Semantics.
Maisel’s suggested antidote appears to be to feel the pain and work with it in ways like dropping defensive measures (denial, blaming others, rationalization). This flies in the face of common advice to realize it is the work that is rejected or negatively criticized (don’t take it personally), to grow a tough skin quickly (shrug it off) and to understand that rejection/criticism is part of the life of all artists (get used to it). These are valid methods for dealing with potential hurts. They change the situations from provoking anxiety to opportunities to grow and learn, but I’m probably quibbling.
The chapters generally follow a pattern of a few paragraphs about the particular anxiety, followed by a Headline (summary), a call to action subtitled To Do, a Vow that could be used as an affirmation, a Teaching Tale, and Your Anxiety Mastery Menu with further explication of one of the twenty-two techniques given in the first chapter. If that sounds a little confusing, it is. Placing the list of strategies in a separate chapter at the beginning would allow readers to more easily refer back to it as they proceed or jump through the book, because it isn’t necessary to read the rest of the chapters in sequence.
A word about the Teaching Tales: cute. The fictional narratives feature either Ari, a “creativity coach who lives and works in an unnamed desert location. Modeled on Sufi teaching tales, these tales employ naturalistic and fantastic elements and present a moral at the end….” or Phoebe, “a precocious girl of thirteen who’s begun to write her first novel….” The purpose of the stories is to drive home the main point of the chapter. Perhaps they stimulate the nonverbal, nonanalytic, more creative part of the brain, providing lessons for all types of learners.
The book concludes with a short bibliography and a nice index that appeals to my back matter fanaticism.
On the whole, Maisel has covered the gamut of situations that might stymie a creative’s productivity and offered a plethora of solutions that will work for most people who are not in need of formal psychotherapy.
In an interview, he hammered home the most important piece of advice that applies to the whole book when he said:
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None of the techniques in the book will be available to you when you need them simply because you read about them and nod your head. You have to practice them and use them….If you want the results, you will have to do the work.