When Fear Doesn’t Go Away—How to Continue Creating

Filed in When Writing Is Hard by on January 27, 2015 • views: 1471

As a French horn player, I’ve spent most of my life performing.

It started with small recitals, then grew to more serious chair competitions, auditions, judged solo performances, and solo recitals.

I don’t remember my fifth and sixth grade years being particularly scary, but soon after that stage fright set in. It was important to me to do well, and that made me nervous.

Unfortunately, for a horn player, nervousness dries your mouth and makes your breathing shallow—two things that are horribly detrimental to playing the instrument well. I had a couple experiences where the dry mouth stopped me from making some of the notes speak, an extremely noticeable flaw that seriously reduced the quality of my performance.

After that, my stage fright got even worse.

Fear is less palpable when I’m writing, but definitely shows up when that writing comes under review.

How are we as creative people to handle the fear and keep creating anyway?

Fear Plagues All Sorts of Creative People

Despite my fear, I did well playing. I won horn scholarships for college, played principal all four years, and went on to play in community orchestras (which I still do to this day).

I’ve often felt frustrated, though, that despite my years of experience, the fear has never completely gone away.

Then I started reading about other performers.

“My courage sank,” wrote one actor describing the terror he felt during an opening scene, “and with each succeeding minute it became less possible to resist this horror.” His voice faded, his throat constricted, and he was just barely able to get through the scene.

This wasn’t some newbie just earning his stripes. It was Lawrence Olivier in 1965, when he was at the top of his game.

The great Al Pacino experienced something similar. He called live performances “scary…a walk on the wire.”

Even the legendary Cher has said that she wished she could change one thing about herself—her tendency to experience stage fright.

Where Does the Fear Come From?

The base of this sort of fear is rejection. No matter if you’re an actor, writer, musician, or corporate manager about to make a presentation, the fear of rejection is very real, particularly when you’re up there alone without cover or support.

Music students are notoriously more comfortable performing duets or ensembles than solos. That solo performance leaves you with nothing to rely on but yourself, and that’s a scary place to be.

“Fear doesn’t go away,” writes author Steven Pressfield. “[T]he battle must be fought anew each day.”

Accepting this idea can be extremely difficult. Most of us hope that as we gain experience we will outgrow unpleasant side effects like fear. Unfortunately, in many cases, it’s just not possible.

“You’d think that after eight years of public blogging and writing books,” says writer and creator of Zen Habits Leo Babauta, “I’d be completely free of fear when it comes to putting my writing out in public. You would, of course, be wrong. Hitting ‘publish’ still makes me nervous.”

He later adds, “Writing in public is like speaking in public, if you’re doing it right. You’re baring your soul for all to judge, and there are few things as scary as that.”

What we have to do, instead, is learn how to deal with it. That requires acceptance—accepting that fear will always be there, no matter how far down the road you go.

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway

Taking action on any endeavor that matters to us—particularly if it involves risk—is a lot like performing. It often means taking a chance on ourselves. Frequently it means going it alone. Usually, it leave us open to criticism.

“Stop kidding yourself that your writing fears are unique or special,” says freelance writer Carol Tice, “or that you can get rid of them as you progress in your writing career. That’s probably not going to happen. The trick is to learn to live with and manage your fears. To push through them.”

The good thing is that once you experience success, no matter how small, it gives you the courage to try again. And again. Until even though the fear is still there, you learn how to keep it from getting in your way.

How do you cope with the fear? Lawrence Olivier arrived early so he could stare savagely at the critics from the wings of the stage. Others envision nice, helpful people as populating the audience. Some write pro and con lists before making decisions as a way to shore up their confidence.

“Whatever is worth doing will stretch you out of your comfort zone,” says holistic coach Henri Juntilla, “which is exactly why it’s crucial that you learn how to overcome your fears. The difference between the great and the merely good is that the great feel the fear, acknowledge it and keep moving forward.”

“All agree that while we would wish for a miracle cure to move us past what scares us,” writes blogger Annette Colby, “the best course of action is showing up.”

No matter how you approach it, the important thing is that you don’t give up trying.  There is certain joy in going after what you want even when it makes you uncomfortable, and there is a definite thrill to overcoming your fear in the process.

Some of my proudest moments have been after I nailed a solo despite the fact that my heart was slamming behind my eyes the whole time. As writers, we often feel the same elation when we receive positive feedback on a piece we were afraid to show.

In fact, I’d venture a guess that we experience some of our most potent feelings of success when we overcome fear to achieve a goal. Perhaps that knowledge can help motivate us to jump in with both feet, next time.

As Jack Canfield famously said, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

Robert F. Moss. Stage Fright Is the Villain Many Actors Must Upstage. The New York Times. Dec. 29, 1991.

Steven Pressfield, The War of Art. Rugged Land LLC, 2002.

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Comments (6)

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  1. Chere Hagopian says:

    I think you’re right- doing well in spite of abject terror is very rewarding! Knowing that I did my very best at something I was afraid of, even when I completely botched it, is satisfying too. I read somewhere that the brain experiences rejection like acute physical pain, so we tend to avoid it like a hot stove burner. But unlike things that cause physical pain, rejection can’t damage us; it can only hurt. The pain isn’t trivial, but pushing through the fear of it is freeing!

    • Colleen says:

      Very interesting on the rejection. Maybe that’s why we all hate it so much, huh? They do say the more you face the things you fear the less they affect you, and think that’s true sometimes, but definitely not always. Maybe we need to reward ourselves more often for pushing through, no matter the results, as you say.

  2. I’m so glad I read this. I love knowing about the French Horn and what a whiz you were. I also love being reminded that fear is a natural part of taking a risk

    Like most everyone, I’m afraid. For years I let fear stop me and played it safe. After my husband died, I knew I couldn’t give myself more excuses. Time to move. I did the TEDx talk even though I hadn’t done much public speaking. I didn’t melt or fall apart. The message got out and it’s making a difference. And it made me less afraid of all the other things I do for the book. What could happen? Oh, that’s not so bad.

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Elaine! I hear you–sometimes it’s some of the most painful experiences in our lives that push us to have more courage. I think you did a great job on your talk! You have a wonderful message to share, and you write beautifully about it. I’m with you that the fear is always there. Our next concert (in 2 weeks!) includes several high and long horn solos that will dry my throat for sure, but I’m looking forward to it at the same time. We’re going to have acrobats twirling behind the conductor to music from Harry Potter and Hook! Worth a little fear to be a part of, for sure. :O)

  3. Kate says:

    Loved the piece Colleen and kudos for you for playing the French Horn! It has to be one of the hardest brass instruments to play, although I love its beautiful sounds! Thanks for the reminder that we all overcome fears, every day. I think while we fear rejection, we fear having to experience emotional hurt that results from the rejection. I remember when I was a teenager asking a friend whether I should do apply for something. Their response resonated with me. “What’s the worst that can happen? They say ‘No’.” It helps me get over some of my fears – I do my best and that’s enough – the worst that can happen is someone says ‘no’ – but then again, maybe they won’t.

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Kate! It is a hard instrument, but I love playing it. I’m sure you’re right on the emotional hurt that goes along with the rejection, and I’m with you—I’ve used the “worst that can happen” thought process. That definitely works sometimes, and can encourage us to take risks. Other times, such as when I’m facing a big solo in a symphony (and don’t want to let others or the music down), the stakes can feel a little higher, and the worst is not fun! (Think missed note out there for everyone to hear–ouch!) I’m reading a book now called “Effortless Mastery” by jazz musician Kenny Werner and will post about it soon as he has a great point—to get over the fear, we need to let go of wanting to sound good. Tough one that, but I’m working on it! :O)