Friday, December 15, 2017

Internal Alchemy: Fear, Deadlines and the Creative Life

I’m a songwriter. I’m a performer. Those two things basically sum up my life’s work, and I’m very fortunate to be able to say so. It’s been twelve years since I made the leap to quit the 9 to 5 and start singing and writing full time, and I’m hopeful that I’ll look back after successive decades and still be in love with it all.

Some days, twelve years seems like ages. Others, it feels like nothing. The trick is to continue to find new experiences in your chosen field that keep you interested, that keep you inspired. Sometimes it’s hard work to feed your soul, but the work really pays off.

My work is a great deal of fun for me, largely because I’m specifically an independent or “indie” musician. For some people, this means working with a non-corporate record label. For me, it means no record label at all, nor any restrictions: no arguments with anyone else about what songs I choose to record and release, no limits on genre or sound, and no having to fight to keep writing about all of the weird, witchy things I love to put in my songs. Call me a folk singer, if you like; I am an absolute folklore fangirl. Call my work folk-jazz fusion, if you want to; I’ll be honored. Call it all Mythpunk, if you like the way the word tastes. The term, repurposed by my friend Catherynne M. Valente, has come to represent artists of all different types of media, music not the least of these, whose work puts a new twist on familiar stories and world folklore. For example, I have a set of songs in which Wendy becomes a pirate instead of holding a torch for Peter Pan for the rest of her life. That’s where I like to be. That’s where I live.

The author in performance

Last year, I had an opportunity to take on a songwriting challenge the likes of which I’d never sought out on my own (to write something new once a week, on a deadline), and it terrified me. It also got me thinking about how we relate to our own creativity on the daily. Some of us embrace it and find ways to work it into our common routines. Some of us save it only for vacation time and treasure it as something we do only for ourselves. Some of us think it’s not important enough to prioritize. Some of us let it languish because we’ve been told-by sources internal, external, or both-that we’re just not good at painting, drawing, singing, writing, dancing, sculpting, acting, or whatever. Most of us, it seems, whether it’s because we’ve got families to raise or we’re just trying to survive, are under so much pressure that we feel we don’t. Have. Time.

When my friend and fellow songwriter Bekah Kelso invited me to be part of her songwriting group-a commitment which involved turning in a brand new song once a week, written to certain specifications and prompts-I was scared. Not so scared that I didn’t tell her yes, but definitely spooked. The invitation scared me for several reasons:

-What if I couldn’t keep up with the pace?

-What if I hated all of the song prompts?

-What if this made the songwriting process, which I’d always loved, feel like just another deadline hanging over me?

All of these seemed to boil down to one of two things:

-What if I let everybody down?


-What if I’m not good enough?

As the weeks passed, I learned that I was more than equipped, more than up to the challenge, and more prepared than I could’ve dreamed. The commitment lasted a full year, fifty-two weeks, and despite having a one-week pass that I could take at any time, I didn’t miss a single deadline. I wrote fifty-two new songs last year-more actually-because of how consistently inspired and on fire I was! I didn’t even know I could write that much new music in a year. Now I do.

I’d like to say with confidence that I’ll never doubt myself again, but the truth is we creative folks are really good at self-doubt regardless of all of the obstacles we may have overcome in the past and all of the awards we may have won. We’re really good at sidelining the things we love to do best, even when we’re lucky enough to have those things pay the bills. This is certainly true for me, and as I kept on writing new songs (on time!) I started wondering why. Why did the deadlines help so much? Why does facing the fear of creative limitation end up expanding creative potential? Why do we need some sort of accountability factor in order to feel that our creative pursuits are legit? Is it a cultural thing? Is it just human nature? I talked with several of my friends in various creative fields, and we got to the bottom of it, as much as our wild schedules would allow.

Sample “The Feast of Krampus” by S.J. Tucker


Culturally, many of us are encouraged to sideline our creativity. Why? Why do we talk ourselves into doing so?

I’ve heard it said so many times in recent years that all of our decisions and actions as human beings in the world boil down to a choice between love and fear. Are we so frightened to fail at creative stuff that we won’t make time to practice, or just to mess around? If nobody ever got over the fear of sounding terrible for a little while, there’d be a shortage of virtuoso violinists, bagpipers, jazz soloists, and performers of all kinds in this world-and I say that as a very rusty trumpet player! There’d also be a shortage of art supplies, free classes, and brilliant teachers. Heaven forfend. If we don’t keep on making art and conquering the fears that make us set it aside, then art goes away for good.

Fortunately, I think most of us will at some point blow a big raspberry in the face of anybody who says we can’t or shouldn’t do something, i.e. “grow up” or “get a real job.” You know what? You can do both and still have more fun than the naysayers ever will. You can also create and play in spite of anyone and everyone who’ll tell you that to do so is silly.

Is there a creative thing that you love to do so much that you can’t imagine your life without it? Why are you still reading this? Go on!

Sometimes the fear is about a thing that we create not being good enough,

Nathaniel Johnstone

commercial enough, or what we wanted to make in the first place. My friend Nathaniel Johnstone says that we’ve got to “stop measuring and just make stuff.” He also told me that his internal music-writing muse knows better than he does.

“When the muse decides to put something in my head, it absolutely behooves me to trust. I used to be super self-critical and edit things before I even let them out. I used to write music that I knew was solid, but that I didn’t like.”

Nathaniel is a great person to bounce just about anything off of in a discussion. He’s a jazz and mythpunk band leader, composer, collaborator, and instigator. His wife, Laura Tempest Zakroff, is every bit as unstoppable as he, teaching and performing bellydance, crafting jewelry, and painting more mythological beings on reclaimed cedar panels than a single gallery can hold. The two of them rock the creative life, supporting each other’s artistic and professional selves. Nathaniel told me that getting laid off was his kick in the pants to devote everything to his music. “It’s amazing the reserves you find in yourself when failure is not an option, when there is no plan B.”

Not all of us feel called to make our creative pursuits into our livelihood, but those of us who do often find the rug pulled out from under us at the perfect time. “The only reason I’m doing music now is because I got laid off when I did,” Nathaniel said. “If your creative job isn’t your main job, it can hurt your professionalism with your creative job. ‘I don’t have to be on point for this, because I’ve got the paying job.’ The middle-of-the-road job is almost the worst thing, because you’re not unhappy enough to reach for something better, but you’re happy enough that you feel content. You don’t really live; you’re living in a cage. I didn’t get laid off; I got released.”

I’m ready for the assumption that “you gotta suffer if you’re gonna make good art” to die in a fire. Even the great B. B. King said in an interview that, while suffering does help, it’s certainly not a requirement for playing the blues. All levels of privilege aside, nobody needs extra suffering. Certainly not as validation for painting, performing, or creating. I’m also ready for the dominant paradigm to let go of the idea that all artists are broke, and the ones who aren’t are the only ones worth investing in to go also.

Sean Michael Argo

“Commercialism dominates the creative landscape in our culture, to the point that even uttering the phrase ‘art for art’s sake’ is to invite snorts of derision,” says writer and filmmaker Sean-Michael Argo. “When I tell people that I am a filmmaker or a writer I am generally asked whether or not I’m making any money with these projects. Their initial assessment of my work (before even experiencing any of it) is already made based on my answer.”

So what if it’s not a great big smash? If it makes even one person smile-and I’m counting you in this-it makes a difference. It’s okay to do something artistic just for yourself. It’s okay to post it on YouTube, and it’s okay to turn down anyone who comes along and wants to make you “great” after seeing it. It’s okay to keep on creating neat stuff if no one ever calls you and offers you a contract even once. It’s okay to keep making neat stuff just for yourself after that contract is signed.

Author Vivian Caethe, creator of the Writer’s Block Tarot, says, “[T]he things that we make, even the small silly stories I wrote when I was twelve, they matter. Despite what anyone says, they matter because they are creativity and wonder embodied in a world that must drink them to live.”


Deadlines help us stay focused, giving us a surefire way out of the often habitual trap of setting our creative pursuits aside. Why is that? Why does a deadline further legitimize something we already honor and hold dear?

I will always have a love-hate relationship with deadlines for things I don’t enjoy doing, like dealing with logistics for my concert tours and filing my taxes. I never expected to feel good about a deadline for a creative project until my once-a-week songwriting adventures last year. I enjoyed beating those deadlines, perhaps because I wasn’t writing those songs for anyone but myself and the other writers in the group. Those deadlines stressed me out the least of any that I’ve ever had. I got a lot of “keepers” out of that project, but I wasn’t expecting to. I and my fellow group members had given ourselves permission to write and submit things that we didn’t feel were necessarily our best work if it meant we still beat the deadline. Maybe if we all learn the trick of keeping our deadlines separate from our expectations, we’ll be onto something.

Sharon Knight

My longtime colleague on the festival circuit, singer-songwriter Sharon Knight, confessed that she works really well under deadlines. “I think it is because they give us focus. As artists, we have dozens of creative ideas popping up all the time. So how do we choose which ones to give our attention to? Often, it is the one that’s under deadline!” Accountability and consistency come easily when there’s a deadline at stake. “We’ve given our word, and our reputation hinges on our word.”

Word of mouth still counts for a lot in the worlds of music and art, indie or otherwise. Our reputations still make or break us.

My aforementioned friend Bekah Kelso says, “[A]ccountability does something cool to us. Artists are constantly trying to turn ethereal ideas into something concrete. Having a fixed point in the future, a point of focus, makes the goal of fruition more realized, more rooted in this world and less a free floating fancy bumping around in your head.”

Bestselling author S. M. Stirling said that deadlines can end up being a distraction from our fear of effort and failure-we’re so busy working to meet the deadline that we forget to fail at the task. “Deadlines help, like a leg-brace,” he said.

Vivian Caethe concurred. “We feel justified in saying that we can’t art today because we have so many other things to work on, so many chores, so much to do. Deadlines help us refocus on what’s important, not only because they provide an actual date, but also because they either give us the hope that other people want what we are creating, or it gives us the truth that people have asked and now we must deliver (which brings a whole new set of fears we must conquer)…Having deadlines and goals makes it so that I don’t have time to get caught up in the drama inside my head. I only have time to write.”

“Deadlines, psychologically, help legitimize our creative endeavors by making our work ‘product oriented’,” said Sean-Michael Argo. “A deadline implies the completion and assembly of a product, and products are what we present to our audience, paid or unpaid.” He also suggested that we think of deadlines the way we think of romantic relationships. “When you make a commitment, that means you’re in it through the good times and the bad, but always towards the greater goal of happiness.” Have you ever been as anxious about a romance as you have about a creative project deadline? Don’t lie.

Sample “La Sirene” and “Rootless” by S.J. Tucker


Confronting our fears of creative limitation actually expands our creative potential. How does that work? Why does it work?

Going after something you’re not sure you’re capable of and finding out that you are gives a pretty significant rush. Sharon Knight said, “[T]here is something about confronting our feelings of limitation that is like sand in an oyster. The grit of our discomfort gets rolled around in us until a pearl is created….Each fear that is confronted builds confidence, so that something that was once scary loses its ability to intimidate us. I think this works because our limits are always due to a lack of understanding, and that understanding can be gained through practice and study. If we feel limited, we learn more, practice more, and walls dissolve.”

Creativity’s best magic exists in the unknown, in that fraction of things that can’t be measured or predicted. As creators, we cannot know how people will react to the things that we make and share until we have the courage to get them made and shared. If someone’s work gives us a new memory or a story to tell our friends, if we are affected by the experience of a concert or a ballet, then we come back for more again and again. If we as creators get the chance to see the effect of our work as it lights up someone else’s eyes, or if someone later tells us that a song we wrote got them through really hard times, then we have proof of that magic’s existence. But none of us can predict it. None of us can predict people’s reactions when we walk into the room with our treasures in hand, just as we did when we were tiny children who used up reams of paper and oceans of crayons. In some ways, we’re still little kids running up to bigger people to say “look what I made” in hopes of praise.

Maybe this is why there will always be people who dismiss creative pursuits and creative people: no matter the serious subject matter of our creative works, we will always move forward with a childlike spirit of sharing. Vivian had a couple of theories on why this must be. She said, “I feel a lot of it has to do with the apparent ‘magic’ of the creative act. For example, it’s easy to see how one can become a tolerable athlete, there’s practice and work and sweat that goes into it. But with art, it’s harder to see what goes into it to make someone good at it and foster their innate talent. So it comes across as magic in a way, which a lot of people distrust as a source of responsible income-making.”

It seems to me that the athletic world has the same sort of potential for rejection as the world of the arts does, and that those who work within it can find themselves to be just as prone to depression, volatility, and substance abuse as anyone who works in the arts. And yet, I rarely hear a career in sports described as anything like “not a real job”, the way I often hear careers in the arts described. All sports careers and all arts careers are hard work to maintain and can take the effort of a lifetime. None of these are for the faint of heart, and anyone who takes them on deserves respect for giving it a shot.

S. M. Stirling illuminated why, culturally, a lot of us treat the concept of a creative job like a trap waiting to spring. “Generally speaking the creative arts are the most overcrowded of all professions. That’s because they’re extremely fun/fulfilling/whatever to do. They’re many people’s dream. That makes it tremendously risky. People fear risk — it’s a tremendous rush to take a risk and succeed, not so much if you go bugsplat. And it happens over and over again.”

Bekah Kelso

Bekah reminded me “not everyone who has an ounce of creativity is called to be a full-time, self-made artist. You can be creative in lots of ways, in your personal hobbies and in problem solving, for example. In more and more companies these days, I think creativity is considered an asset in an employee. Something to be cultivated. So not everyone is compelled to crush that instinct anymore.” Perhaps the first world is becoming a more culturally supportive place for creative pursuits. Perhaps someday, this will seep into our governments as well and stay there.

Whatever comes, I believe in the magic that exists in the unknown space between storyteller and audience. I believe all acts of creativity are acts of magic, and I believe that’s magic worth doing. Whatever the cost. Whatever the obstacles. And however many times I have to bulldoze past my own limitations or fears, I’m on this earth to make stuff and to sing songs. Here’s to that childlike spirit, that small voice that says “look what I made.”

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