Talking to Fear and Curiosity – Letter Writing To Get Through Creative Blocks

Nov 22, 2020 | Advice

Fear has been getting the better of me lately. I’ve been trying to pin down whether it’s caused by a general sense that anyone would get when starting out with their own business, or whether it’s tied to something specific. It made me think about feedback, and the power it can have to your self esteem.

Coming from the classroom, I’m used to getting instant feedback, all the time. Just the look on my students’ faces can be enough to let me know how my efforts are being received. Although I’ve been teaching and leading workshops for years, it’s unnerving to not be able to see the scribblings of those I’m working with. On Zoom, all I see are bent heads. It’s only once they turn their eyes back to the screen and share their glorious words with me that I know the aim of my workshop has been exactly what I’d hoped.

It’s only when I stop and look at things around me that I can appreciate how wonderful the world is. Balancing fear and curiosity is a tricky task.

With submissions, it’s even worse. A story I carefully crafted gets sent out into the world and then it vanishes. Even the short stories have taken hours of my time, but the novel has taken whole months (years if you count the spaces between drafts) to turn into this whole, complete thing. Many weeks or months later I might get a simple no, or even a lovely shortlist announcement. By then I’ve forgotten what I wrote and what the competition was for. The space between them is so large.

Without this reassuring feedback, I get scared. What if I haven’t done the right thing? What if I’m not good enough? What if this is as far as I will ever get in terms of success? It’s hard to turn the volume down on the nagging voice of fear.

Throwing words into the sea is difficult without knowing whether they will float or sink

On the other hand, there’s the joyful spirit of curiosity that has been allowed to run riot since I shifted my focus to writing and creativity. In some ways, it’s great. The ideas for everything from children’s books to calendar designs have been sleeting through my mind, leading to a larger and larger spiral of post-its on my ‘ideas’ board.

But it’s also limiting. While I love the fact that I’m getting lots of ideas, I also need to stay focused long enough to finish the first draft of my memoir. It’s all very well having inspiration for stories, pictures and podcasts, but I actually have to finish some of this. In most cases, I have to figure out how to do something before I can do it (hence the hours spent writing privacy policies and safeguarding documents last week for my charity project, Write By You). Alongside the flurry of ideas needs to come the methodical editor, the process of selection by which I decide which of my exciting ideas will actually take my focus and come into fruition.

Thanks, curiosity, for noticing the gorgeous purple on this shell. But I can’t listen to you all the time!

Struggling with this, I fortuitously came across an episode of ‘Magic Lessons’ that contained a fabulous technique for helping me get some of this straight (all credit to Elizabeth Gilbert for this idea). This is what I did this morning to try and help me out.

1. Write a letter from Fear to Myself

This was depressingly easy. All the things I am afraid of, all the reasons I can think of that I could fail. Why it might be bad for me in the future, bad for my family, bad for my mental health, to carry on down this path. It was interesting to see what was lurking down there. I think I’ve spent so long trying to quiet this voice or tell it to stop being silly that I didn’t actually let it finish. It also wasn’t the enormous list I feared it was, nor were all of the fears completely unfounded. Once I’d finished that, I moved on to…

2. Write a letter from Curiosity to Myself

This was fun. I feel like this part of me has been squashed by teaching exam syllabuses and marking to assessment criteria for far too long. This voice was so full of enthusiasm and joy. It wants me to try out new things, all the time. It wants me to paint in the morning, craft in the evening and write in the middle of the day. It’s bored by targets and statistics and wants to do things simply for the pure pleasure of doing them. But I feel that it also needs a bit of curbing. Which is when I finished with…

The world is just so full of interesting things. It’s hard not to get distracted!

3. Write a letter back to Fear and Curiosity to Myself. As the Boss.

I’ve been so used to shouting at my fear and telling it that it’s stupid and that I should never listen to it. Conversely, I’ve been assuming that any creative impulse that comes along is to be welcomed and embraced. But I noticed something when I read back through the letters and when I really thought about what I wanted to do. Both of them have incredibly good points, and both of them need to calm down.

I told my fear I was grateful. For all the times it has helped me out in situations that were genuinely dangerous. That I knew it was just looking out for me, and that it had raised some really good points. But that it was ok. We weren’t doing anything ridiculously dangerous, we were just trying something new.

Valuing and accepting the messages from these two will hopefully keep me on a bright and positive path

I also thanked my curiosity. Said I was absolutely delighted that it kept throwing all of these lovely ideas at me and that all of them were really interesting and exciting. But that we couldn’t do everything all at once. That I was going to take the ideas and put them aside for now, and just focus on doing some of them really well, before moving onto something new.

I found this exercise so revelatory. The idea that I could genuinely accept fears and turn down new ideas and that it would actually help me was certainly a new one. It’s given me a sense of freedom and control, that I am totally in charge of the direction of things and that I have the capacity and judgement to manage risk and try out innovations. I certainly hope it sticks!

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