And then it does, for a moment. The suckers unsuck, the tendrils retreat, and you move a little way forward. Then something else crosses your path and the octopus gloms on to that.
As you can imagine, this gets a bit exhausting after a while. Every time you think you've got the octopus under control – you've been through obedience school, you've taught it commands, you remembered to pack your fanny pack with a sachet of Octopus Treats – it reminds you who's actually boss.
Writing (and probably all creative arts) is one of those things that offers an octopus a lot to hang on to. There's loads to worry about: You can fail to get published. You can fail to submit your stories. You can fail to finish your stories. You can fail to have a story idea. You can fail to sit down at the keyboard in the first place, which might save you from the other anxieties but won't make you feel any better. But to put it in other words, every stage of the process is fraught with all kinds of concerns, challenges, difficulties, and anxieties.
And in Mastering Creative Anxiety, Eric Maisel tries to catalog them all. Like Kierkegaard trying to name every example of double-mindedness he can think of in Purity of Heart, Maisel isn't just interested in “creative anxiety” as a topic, he wants to illuminate all the forms it can take.
In the end, Maisel identifies 24 forms of creative anxiety, which include things like the anxieties of identity, individuality, day jobs, failing, promoting, waiting, and success. He dedicates a chapter to describing the hallmarks of each, and ends each section with a few takeaways. Here's a representative example from the end of the book's first chapter, “The Anxiety of Creating and Not Creating:”
“Since both creating and not creating produce anxiety in anyone who wants to create, you might as well embrace the fact that anxiety will accompany you on your journey as a creative person – whether or not you are getting on with your work.”This is pretty much the lesson of each chapter, actually. Regardless of the particular flavor of anxiety you're dealing with, Maisel counsels that the only way forward is to act. From the book's very first sentence – “Anxiety is part of the human condition” – Maisel makes it clear that he isn't promising miracles. His first goal is just to help you accept that there's no healthy way to completely shut off your anxiety. It will always be there in one form or another.
But there is such a thing as unhealthy anxiety, and in those cases it needs to be mitigated. So at the end of the first chapter, Maisel tees up what he calls the “Anxiety Mastery Menu.” These are twenty-two techniques meant to help you navigate the inevitable feelings of anxiety that arise by virtue of being, well, a living person. After introducing the basics of each, Maisel will return to these techniques throughout the book to elaborate on how to put them into practice.
None of the twenty-two techniques will feel radical to anyone who's read about this stuff before. For example, one technique is called “Improved Appraising,” which is a way to reduce anxiety by “refusing to appraise situations as more important, more dangerous, or more negative than they in fact are.” Another technique is “Lifestyle Support,” which asks you to “get sufficient rest and exercise, eat a healthful diet, take time to relax,” and so on and so forth.
Is any of this wildly groundbreaking stuff? Not especially, but Maisel never claims that it is. The most radical point that he makes is that reading his book cannot help you. What helps is putting the techniques into practice. Doesn't matter which! You can try them all, if you like, and see which ones seem to resonate. But what's important here is the daily, deliberate practice of turning these techniques into a habit.
And that's the hard part, of course. Just like sitting down to write, play music, or paint every day is the hard part. For a creative person, then, that much will at least feel familiar.