Swim to Live, Write to Thrive: Fear of Failure and Taking the Plunge into Your Creative Mind
by: Jennifer Fiorile
I find the creative process, the writing process fascinating. I'm sort of new to it, even though I've been writing my whole life. It's always had a mysterious aura around it, one that I believed only a “real” artist or writer could penetrate and understand the inner workings of. When I was younger, I would write on a whim, when an interesting idea took hold of me. This was the least scary option for me, because I'm a go-with-the-flow kind of person by nature. That method worked out okay, because the more that I would follow my intuition, the more I found myself inspired. It was its own kind of writing process, albeit slow and directionless, and I was partial to it until about two years ago, when I started working at the modern art museum, Dia:Beacon.
Many of my coworkers were straight forward about referring to themselves as artists. This was a new experience for me. I'd never been around so many people who were consistently and openly creating art and displaying their work in galleries, as well as happily and frequently talking about what they were creating and why. In the beginning, when I was getting to know my coworkers, I was often asked if I was artist. I struggled to answer, because I knew I had a creative voice inside of me that wanted to be free, but I'd never quite found my footing with it. I would say, “If I created art, it'd be writing.” Eventually, I came up with the more succinct: “I'm a writer who doesn't write.” This was a realization that I felt embarrassed to admit. I was intimidated by people who so boldly talked about their creative voices, whereas I had often felt ashamed to discuss mine. What this harsh realization meant for me was that I still loved writing, I thought about it, I wanted to do it, but I was scared and had ended up on the easy route of just talking about doing something, wishing I was doing something, rather than actually doing it.
You see this a lot when it comes to any habit or hobby that will improve someone’s life but might be hard to get started and carry through with, such as meditating, going to the gym, eating better, and the whole scope of artistically creative work. We're all guilty of doing this. Through these conversations, I saw that I was denying myself something that was fundamental to who I am. I was afraid of sucking at it, of being unsuccessful, of not having ideas, of never getting anywhere with it. But guess what: even though all those things have been true, I still feel the need and desire to put my life and my thoughts into the written word. I still need to express myself. If I had to pick one of the two, I’d rather be a “writer who sucks and is unsuccessful” than a “writer who doesn’t write (i.e. is too afraid to write).” At least in the former option, I’m taking action and not whining about what I “should” do. So, this train of thought helped me see that I can’t tamp down who I am, and I’ll feel a lot more like the real me if I embrace it.
The fear of failing kept me away from the writing world for a long time. I am, by no means, a perfectionist, but the possible humiliation that lies in wait after failure was frightening enough for me. Admitting that you suck and are unsuccessful is awfully hard to do, and while this may be one part of your life as a writer, you can actually change what it means to be a good and successful one. I’d love to wake up and have J.K. Rowling’s life. Being rich and famous sounds like a great situation (though it surely has its drawbacks), but being rich and famous can’t be the only measure of success, because otherwise, we may as well all collectively throw in the towel. I've been guided by the belief that financial success in writing confirms and validates the quality of your writing, that it inherently says “You're a good writer. Your writing matters. You matter.” But most of us will never ride that kind of shooting star or capture lighting in a bottle the way Rowling did and understanding this changed my whole concept of what pushed me to write.
I started to understand that, while making a living from a creative craft is the dream, you can really gain a deep amount of personal satisfaction from doing it simply because you want to and for no other reason. The satisfaction I feel when I really, really write, when I truly pay attention to the blossom of an idea and see what it could be is something that can’t be monetarily quantified. Is it worth 50 dollars or one thousand when I write a poem that expresses, even to my own surprise, a thought that had been struggling to get out? I don’t know what the price is, but I have come to understand that feeling satisfied with my own writing isn't (or at least shouldn't or needn't be) dependent on how others view or value my work.
The process of meeting your true self and exploring what’s in your mind and how to express it is, from my perspective, a life-long journey, since we will be so many versions of ourselves throughout our lives. How much money is it worth? Is a financially successful writer better at it than someone who’s never made a penny and whose work has never seen the light of day? Financial success is, of course, important and satisfying, and it can even motivate us in honing our creative voice, but it isn't the only barometer to understand how valuable and worthwhile creative expression is in our lives, or whether or not we're good at doing what we love.
My writing matters, because it's the way through which I view myself and the world around me. It's the vehicle by which I understand where I fit into the world and what's important to me. And beyond that, my writing matters because of the nagging, unrelenting feeling I have when I know I'm not doing it. I'm not answering the call of a whim when I write; I'm giving in to the tidal wave. I’m learning to swim in these waters, to not fight the waves, and, more importantly, I now understand that I have to keep swimming to continue living and thriving. If I stop, I’ll survive but without that essence that makes me who I am, that makes me tick, and the idea of suppressing that part of me and surviving with unfulfilled desires and dreams is far scarier than any failure.