I recently spoke at Jeff Goin’s TRIBE Conference about fear and creativity. It was the fourth year of the event and the third time I’ve been invited to speak.
I enjoyed putting together the talk and wanted to share it with you here in written form. This is not a transcript. It’s just me writing down what I tried to say. I hope you enjoy it!
A lot has changed for me in the two years since I last spoke here. Most notably, I wrote and published a new book titled Running Down a Dream.
At the time, I had already finished the first draft of the book. However, when I showed it to Jeff Goins, he said, “This is a great collection of blog posts, but it’s not a book.”
Then I showed it to Shawn Coyne, my editor and co-host of the Story Grid Podcast, hoping he would disagree with Jeff. Instead, he not only agreed but added this thought:
“This is a book that people will read half of it, put it on the shelf, and then immediately forget it.”
That’s not what you want to hear.
So I began this journey of trying to figure out what my book was and what I was trying to say.
A brief side note here: through all of this — my blogging, writing my first two books, beginning to write fiction, starting this third book — I never actually called myself a writer. I kept telling myself that I was doing all of these things for my business, not because I was trying to be a real writer.
Then Jeff texted me.
“That article Shawn wrote about you was really good.”
“What article?” I responded.
Come to find out, Shawn had written an article on Steven Pressfield’s website about me. Here’s a short clip:
“He’s the quintessential master of the ‘shadow career,’ the professional life that parallels real ambition.”
Shawn was pointing out that for a decade I had worked with writers, worked with publishers, even written my own books, but was still dodging the fact that I was a writer.
So now, one shitty draft into writing my next book, I decided I was actually a writer and it was time to get to work.
And yet, it was two more years until I finished the manuscript that would become Running Down a Dream.
Why? What took so long?
The final draft of the book only took me about thirty days to write, so what was I doing for two years?
Now, looking back, I realize, I was trying to tell the Truth.
But what is “Truth”?
Obviously, there are lots of different ideas and definitions of truth. I’m not using this word in the way 1+1=2 is true or the way science is true.
I remember Stephen King hammering this point home in his book On Writing over and over.
“The job boils down to two things: paying attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see.”
“It’s important to tell the truth; so much depends on it.”
“Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all …. as long as you tell the truth.”
As artists — writers, musicians, songwriters, painters, etc — we are always trying to tell the truth.
But again, what is the “truth”? What is it we are trying to say?
This is the best way I’ve come to describe it…
We are trying to say out loud what our souls are silently screaming.
Which then leads to the next question…
Why is this so hard?
My first two books were Your First 1000 Copies and Book Launch Blueprint. They were all about book marketing.
They were also what I call “guru on the hill” books. I am the smart guy that had gone out in the world and figured out all this awesome stuff, and now I was writing it down to help you out.
I was the guru on the hill and people were coming to me for my wisdom.
The problem with the book that would become Running Down a Dream is I kept trying to write another guru on the hill book. I was just trying to write down some tools and tips on overcoming creative resistance. I wanted to once again be the smart guy sharing my wisdom.
And the book kept not working.
I finally realized I couldn’t write another guru on the hill book.
It was time to climb down off the mountain and tour my ruins.
This book wasn’t going to share the knowledge I had. It was going to show the reader where this knowledge came from. It was time to dig into all of the painful memories, brutal mistakes, and enormous embarrassments about what I had gone through over the last twelve years.
Put another way, it was time to tell the truth.
Which, again, begs the question: Why is this so scary?
Why is it so scary?
What is there really to be afraid of? What is triggering our fear?
If you think through this logically, what is it that we think will get us?
There are no monsters here. There is no bear chasing us. Most of us live in places where we are not going to be put in jail or have any freedoms taken away for our art.
So why the fear?
Our brains are built to be hunter-gatherers living in small groups of people. Trying to live in the modern world is like taking the Commodore 64, an 8-bit home computer released in 1982, and attempting to install the latest version of Microsoft Windows.
It’s not built for that and you’re definitely going to make it fritz out.
When it comes time to say out loud what our soul is silently screaming, the fear alarms start going off like crazy.
It’s terrifying to expose our soul to the world.
What can we do?
How do we overcome fear?
For me, I decided I was going to be the best at what I did.
Ten years ago when I started working with authors on their book marketing, I was terrified. I had no idea what I was doing. I had never been trained in marketing. I had never worked in publishing. I was constantly afraid that everyone would finally figure out that I had no business doing this for a living.
So I set out to become the best book marketer on the planet. I figured once I was the best, then I wouldn’t be afraid anymore. And after 10 years of doing this, I can confidently say that I am one of the best in the world at this craft.
However, I ran into two problems as I traveled down this path of becoming the best.
First, I worked with people that were at the top of their field and they were still scared.
I stood in the kitchen of a #1 New York Times bestselling author who was completely blocked on her next book because she was scared she wouldn’t have the same success again.
In Elizabeth Gilbert’s first TED talk, she described what it was like to try to write the book after her wild, crazy, unrepeatable success with Eat, Pray, Love.
“It’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me. That’s the kind of thought that can lead a person to start drinking gin at 9:00 in the morning.”
What I kept seeing over and over was that success actually bred more fear.
The second problem I had was a new yearning for adventure.
What is success like?
I came to this place where I am comfortable in book marketing. I can talk about it easily. I rarely get asked a question I haven’t been asked ten times before. I’ve written two books about it. I teach it constantly. I get hired for a lot of money to run book launches.
I was safe now.
It was as if I had been dropped into a forest at the darkest time of night and, through years of hard work, had built myself a big, roaring campfire. I was warm. I was safe. The light and the heat kept the monsters that hide in the forest at bay. I could walk around safe and comfortable as long as I stayed close to the fire.
The problem arose when I started thinking about other, new things I wanted to do. I started glancing over my shoulder, peering into the darkness, wondering if there was a new adventure to be had.
So I started doing things that, business-wise, were kind of dumb. I started the Story Grid Podcast with Shawn Coyne so I could learn how to write fiction. I started working on Running Down a Dream.
Any good business coach would have told me to double down on book marketing. Write a third book on the subject. Book some more speaking gigs. Work with more high-profile authors.
Keep adding fuel to that campfire that was already burning so well.
But instead, I walked to the edge of the light of that campfire, picked up my foot, and stepped back into the darkness.
This is why the fear never leaves
Creativity, by definition, is doing something that has never been done before. If you are pushing yourself as an artist, you are constantly leaving the safety of the thing you know and understand, and stepping out into the blackness anew.
Elizabeth Gilbert, thankfully, kept writing after Eat, Pray, Love. She wrote fiction, she wrote about creativity, she wrote about marriage. She kept stepping out into the darkness.
But this leads me to a new question.
Why do this?
The creative life is hard. It’s weird, in every sense of that word. It’s unpredictable. Often, unprofitable.
And nobody will ever know if we hide our gift and never pursue it. Plenty of people fill their lives with things other than their creative gifts. We could go our entire lives living safely by whatever fires we have built for ourselves.
So why do this? Why take the risk?
It is a rough episode to listen to as Chuck tells many graphic, dark stories.
To be honest, I’ve never really understood writers like Palahniuk. I’ve always wondered why their stories were so graphic. Was it just for shock value? Was it just to watch people be appalled or grossed out?
And then Chuck tells a story about an event he did where he read one of the more graphic stories from one of his novels. After the event, a woman came up to him and shared a very personal, haunting childhood story about her mom and a heating pad and brutal physical abuse and shaming.
She had never told anyone else her story. It was a secret she kept buried deep and it kept her from experiencing any pleasure or joy in her life.
And after she shared the story with Chuck, she said:
“If you can tell [your story], then I can tell my heating pad story, and I can tell that story until I can make it funny. Then maybe someday I can go back to my mom and say, ‘Do you remember that heating pad we used to have?’ and it’ll be complete.”
Then Chuck goes on to explain:
“See, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to create the opening for people to tell these stories that they never thought that they could tell.”
This is why we risk
There are two fundamental ways we can look at the world.
The first way is pretty simple. The world is bad and getting worse. It’s pretty easy to look around and point to all of the atrocities and despair that we are all just polishing the brass on the Titanic. This world is going down and we’re just trying to make the best of it.
However, there’s a second way to look at things. If we zoom up higher than our current problems, you can get a better perspective on things.
200 years ago, the vast majority of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty. If you weren’t a 1 percenter, you were barely surviving. By the early 1980s, the percentage of the world population living in extreme poverty had shrunk to 44%. Now it is 10%.
In the early 1800s, almost half — 43% — of the newborns died by the time they were 5 years old. Now that number is 4.3%.
There are more people getting an education now than ever before. There are more people living in a democracy than ever before. We no longer watch slaves getting eaten alive by lions as a form of entertainment.
There is a long chain of people behind me who have worked to make the world a better place. And there is a long chain in front of me that will raise us up to enlightenment or heaven or whatever you want to call it.
My job is to do my work. To be the next link in the chain. To give other people the courage to be who they are supposed to be.
Sure, it’s like I’m an ant trying to push a piece of sand another inch down a football field, but that’s ok. That’s my work to do.
The reason we risk to do our work and tell our stories isn’t just for ourselves. It’s to play our part. It’s to make the world just a little bit better. To give other people the courage and tools they need to do their work.
This is why it’s worth the risk.
What is your truth?
What is your soul silently screaming to say?
Your job is to keep digging, keep working until you find it. Then step into the darkness and share it. Be the next link in the chain for all of those who come after.