Art and Fear


     Who do you think you’re fooling? 

     What makes you think anyone wants to read anything you write? You’ll never be good at this. People will see you’re a fake, a fraud. What right have you to be happy? Look, what you just produced there? It’s awful! Who do you think you are? Everything you touch turns to garbage!

     Hateful stuff, but these are the voices that sometimes haunt me. We all have our own versions. And the barrage has been particularly loud since I’ve been getting this blog back up and running. Why?

     Nothing about getting this new platform together and online was easy. It took much longer than I care to admit. The technical end was a challenge, sure, but a bigger reason ~ for this as well as for so many other doubts, hesitations, wrong turns, false starts, and stumbles during my creative endeavors over the years ~ was a much deeper and more primitive animal.


     It took many years for this truth to dawn on me.

     The revelation struck like thunder. I’d been going through our basement library, culling and organizing the collection, and for a while there were books scattered all over the house. One day I spied a volume that had somehow landed on the coffee table. The instant I saw the title, I knew exactly what the book had to tell me. I didn’t even need to read it to get the message.

     The title was  Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

     I did read the book, of course. (And I highly recommend it.) But the epiphany had already happened. I immediately understood that all the different ways of messing with myself were part of the same thing.  And that thing was tightly and irrevocably tied to the making of art.

     The act of creation is frightening. To stand up and say, “Here I am. This is me. This is my heart, my core, my intimate self. For better or worse, here I stand, naked before the world,” requires tremendous courage. No wonder we falter. The forces allayed against such revelation are formidable.

     We’ve been instructed since birth in how to behave in society, and justifiably so. But rarer and often missing in our childhood is an education on how to be true to ourselves, to assert our right to be who we are in the world. To individuate, as Carl Jung would say. To discover and become the person that we are meant to be.

     My cousin Bruce Bayard is also an artist (you can check out his work and that of his partner and fellow artist Ann DiSalvo HERE). After reading Art and Fear, I asked Bruce if he’d ever heard of it. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’ve read it three times.” Enough said.

     He helped me immensely in getting this blog platform together. (Thank you, Bruce! I’m not sure it would have happened without your help.) When I mentioned to him I was having trouble working up the mojo, the chi, the chutzpa, to present my blog to the world, his advice was to Just Do It! 

     My relationship with fear has evolved since I first glimpsed that book on the living room table. I see now that fear accompanies every creative action from the smallest decision to the greatest leap. And I recognize that it loves to disguise itself in other forms. There’s no avoiding it, so one must learn to live with it.

     And it can actually be quite helpful. There is a potent energy behind fear. In a sort of artistic ju-jitsu, its wild and primitive energy can be redirected toward helping rather than hindering the creative process. Any performer will tell you that it is a most powerful motivator. When they feel no stage fright when stepping up to the microphone, the performance usually suffers. Fear brings fire.

     One of my favorite Kansas City poets, Abby Bland, has a great idea on how to deal with fear: Answer the question it is asking. (You can read her blog post on the subject here.) I like this approach. It forces fear out into the open, where one can see what is blocking that particular creative endeavor, then wrestle it to ground.

     Elizabeth Gilbert in her book “Big Magic has another interesting approach. She likens fear to someone traveling with her on the road of creativity. She can’t kick the big lug out of the car; he belongs there with her. She isn’t going to get rid of him, so she insists that he stay in the back seat. And shut up! And don’t even think about touching the steering wheel!

     (By the way, another book I recommend is “The Artist’s Way” by Julie Cameron, a guide for artistic recovery that belongs on everyone’s bookshelf, artist or not.)

     Rainier Maria Rilke’s “The Man Watching” is a poem that has profoundly changed my perspective. It speaks of great storms, shifting landscapes, and the Biblical story of wrestling with angels ~ then ~

“…Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by increasingly greater entities.”

[I based this loosely on several translations from the original German.]

     I read the poem after several bitter defeats while participating in local art and craft fairs, where I was displaying my nature photography and poetry ~ and in which, after weeks and weeks of work and preparation, I came away with seemingly nothing to show for it.

     What the poem made me realize is what I did have to show for the effort. Each encounter, each apparent failure,  “kneaded me with its harsh hand” and strengthened me for the next time. I had been muttering “I’m never doing another art fair!”, but after resting, regrouping, and gathering my energies, I went back out with heart boldened, having learned what only experience can teach.

     One last encouragement about fear: befriend it. When fear is lived through, when it is accepted as an inevitable companion, it dissolves.

     I recall many terrors of my past: reading my poetry for the first time to an audience at the Poetic Underground open-mic venue. Writing and publishing my first book of poetry and prose, Gathering the Self‘. Bringing my very first Skyboy Photos greeting cards to the Nelson-Atkins Bookstore to be offered to the public. I lived through all of these things. As I will live through the next. And the next. And the next. The things that fear foretold never happened. So go ahead, take the leap. Do what your heart yearns for.

     The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.

Painting ~ by Ann DiSalvo ~ Untitled ~ With no need of a title ~

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4 replies
  1. Ann DiSalvo
    Ann DiSalvo says:

    Here’s the title: “After First Press.” I painted in pastel on location beside a winery. It wasn’t finished when the shadows began coming in. I had to return the next day to get the light right. On my return, I saw this big pile of purple stuff dumped in the middle of my composition. The winery had made their first pressing of the grapes and there were the skins. What to do? If I drew in the purple and it looked bad, erasing would wreck it. It turned out to be just the right thing. I erased the fear. The choice was honest, draw what you see. I read that book, too. Enough years have passed, time to brush up on it. Thanks, Dave, “No fool no fun!”

    • David Bayard
      David Bayard says:

      Ann, thank you for the artwork’s history! I love your creative solution, to erase the fear! So appropriate. I am pulling “Art and Fear” down from the shelf right now. No, not yet, I fibbed…almost…there, NOW!


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