The Voice of Fear

In Creativity and Inspiration, Life Is Short, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons by David65 Comments

I tell my students at the Vancouver Gatherings that fear is the greatest barrier to creativity. I tell them to bring their fears into the light, to give their fears a chance to say their piece, then to call bullshit and move on. I tell them this because the alternative is to leave our fears muttering to us from the shadows, the unknown places of our lives. They tell us we’re not good enough, or more reasonably, that we’d be better off waiting until we are ready, whatever that means. And so we occupy ourselves with the tasks our fears set for us, all of them benign enough that we rarely sit up and notice we’ve gone days, months, even years without doing our work, our art.

In the more intimate conversations about this stuff I acknowledge my own fears, only to get that confession brushed aside as often as not, as though the cumulative voices of 40 years of my own fears can be silenced by a few published books, 25,000 Twitter followers, and the fact that in the eyes of others you’ve “made it.” Our fears don’t lie down that easily.

I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’ve shot my last good photograph. I’m afraid I’ve written my last compelling sentence, that my words don’t touch as deeply or resonate as honestly as I hope. I’m afraid I’m repeating myself. I’m afraid my harshest critics are right. I’m afraid the muse, from whom I make my life and my living, will abandon me and my ideas run dry. I’m afraid my work won’t measure up to even my own standards. And I’m afraid (listen up, Alanis Morisette, because this is truly ironic,) that fear will hold me back.

So because I will never be the man that lives without fear, I give those fears a chance to be heard. I let them run, once in a while, like children on the back lawn, loud and cacophonous, until they wear themselves out. And as they do so I listen to their voices. Small. Shrill. Fueled more by imagination than truth. If not by imagination, then by memories; how many of us still hearing the voice of a kid at school who mocked us for being different, or the voice of an adult, who should have known better, telling us to grow up? Down that kind of tunnel those voices only amplify.

And so I tell my students that it’s true. That if they risk and fail, they will, most likely die. Or wind up horribly maimed. And they stare at me blankly until the absurdity of it makes them laugh.

If the studies are to be believed, more North Americans fear speaking in public than they fear death. If you ever needed an illustration of the absurd power of our fears, it’s that. But it’s not that people fear standing up. Nor opening their mouths. It’s the fear of our voice being heard. It’s the fear of rejection. Of failure. And for some, the fear that we’ll succeed and have to do it again.

Where, I wonder, is the fear that we’ll waste our lives, that we’ll go to the grave our voices unheard? Fear’s a poor motivator, but it strikes me odd that it never drives us forward with the same vigour with which it holds us back.

Our problem, I think, is not that we fear. We fear instinctively. It’s as natural to us as breathing. In some cases, it’s that fear that keeps us alive, though more often I suspect it’s what keeps us from truly living. Our problem is that we listen to that fear whispering “What if?” to us and we don’t take that question out of the shadows and hold it to the light. Fear only asks us the questions; it’s not answering that question, letting the uncertainty gain momentum in the silence, that holds us back.

What if people don’t like it?
They won’t. Not all of them. Do it anyways. Do it for you.

What if you fall down?
You will. Pick yourself up. Try again.

What if it’s hard?
It will be. It’s worth it. Do it anyways.

What if I embarrass myself?
You will. Take a bow. Laugh. Do it again. It’s only those on the bleachers, bound by their own fears, who will mock instead of cheer. Pity them. Or hope that your grace will give them the courage to get out of their seats.


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  2. Last night I sat in bed, unable to draw something that I created myself. I rarely need an eraser, yet I found myself using one too often. The problem? A kid too young for first grade commissioned a drawing of a Berd. She paid in advance. A five dollar bill and two singles. She didn’t even request anything special. So why was I too intimidated to do what I can do in my sleep? How could a child make me so afraid?

    Then the lights went out at 3:08 A.M.! We lost power for forty minutes. I was given a reprieve. I didn’t fall asleep until well after dawn. The drawing awaits. It’s upstairs. I am downstairs. The quaking is coming. How can a five year old girl intimidate me like this? Seriously.

  3. This is a great post David. It goes to the bottom of what being creative implies. It means going down the road you fear the most, challenging your own fears and make them work to your advantage. I don’t we should try to get rid of the fears, but embrace them, and not let them take control. As you point out. Interestingly enough I just wrote about this contradiction of creativity in my latest blogpost, and was made aware of your post by one of the comments on my blog. Thank you for the inspiration you always create for the whole community.

    1. I’ve been too afraid of my grief after losing my youngest sister. It’s been six months and I still wish I didn’t have to face the issues her death persist in forcing on me. I hear what you said, but it doesn’t force me to get beyond my fear.

      Thank you

      1. I am sorry for your loss, Limner. I cannot even imagine how it is to lose a sister. Fear originating from a traumatic experience is quite different from the fear related to the creative process. In both cases, though, one will have to face this fear to be able to proceed. But I believe the way to do so is quite different, and differs from one person to another. There is no blueprint for how to do so. Nevertheless I certainly can understand the wish not to have had to face the trauma of losing a sister. I feel with you.

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  5. Words can’t really express just how much this article resonates with me. I have been a ‘follower’ and reader of your books and articles for a couple of years now and it’s about time I confronted my fear by actually posting a response rather than assuming it would mean nothing to you. My teaching career has spanned 30 years and if asked to summaries why I am still passionate about it would have to be that I believe my words and actions can inspire others. The butterfly effect I think it’s sometimes called. Your words have certainly inspired me and I recently shared this article on my FB page. I happen to know that a musician friend of mine who was going through a time of self doubt wrote a song after reading this article. Thank you David for articulating something that is so real to every one of us. Bless you!

  6. Thanks, David, for a great article once again. It certainly is the companion piece to the one you wrote on doubt which, in my experience, preceds fear every time! But I learned from a single book title in the depth of major depression to “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.” All I could do at the time was to lay on my bed in a fetal position all day and often read the book spine from where I lay. I never did manage to read the whole book once I could handle reading and comprehending what I read once again. Later on I encountered the saying to “hug your demons or they’ll bite you in the ass!” by Melodie Beattie. More recently, I have found the Bill Cosby quote to “Decide you want it more than you fear it.” All told, conquering fear has been a very long process for me yet it has resulted an solo show in a gallery right now about which the gallery owner has publically described me as “an exciting emerging artist.” My wildest dreams are coming true at the young age of 62!

    One of the qualities about you that I respect and admire the most, David, is your willingness to share your humanity with all of us!

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  9. I’ve never heard of you before, until my camera club announced you had trouble coming into the country. I was curious about you and found this article about fear profound. I will be reading more about you through your webb site. Good luck!

  10. Thanks very much for sharing this post, something I really needed to read. Just the idea of thinking about what fears I have in my head has given me some much needed clarity.

  11. It is thru this article that i had to acknowledge again my greatest fear and had the courage to face them.

    I almost throw in the towel fearing my works was never good enough.

    Again thanks David for the encouragement to “Take a bow, laugh….and do it again”

  12. Thank you for this post. I have learned through blogging that I must not wait for the perfect art piece to release to the public or only put out what you want to be remembered by. Not much would be released. By letting go of this fear of only showing ‘perfect’ pieces I have shared with and met people from all over the world. It’s a much more rewarding way to live and grow

  13. This column reaches me at a perfect moment. I’m about to start a new project that I am, admittedly, afraid that I’m not “good enough” to be undertaking. Still, onward I trudge! Thanks for putting most of my fearful thoughts into words, while also reminding me that I’m far from alone.

    From 30-plus years working as a writer (magazines) and editor (books), I’m constantly amazed at how consistent and widespread fear is in any artistic endeavor. Actors, musicians, writers, photographers, painters — they all seem to know this beast well. It’s as if the adrenaline that fear stirs up is part of the creative process.

    And it seems to affect novice and master alike. When I was in college way back in the early 70s, the incomparable Eudora Welty visited and served as writer-in-residence for a few weeks. One of the first stories she told about her work habits was how carefully she reworked every story, every article a dozen or more times before she sealed it in a big manila envelope and mailed it from the post office near her home in Jackson, Mississippi to her editor in New York. (This was, of course, long before email and such.) She told us how she would walk the three blocks to the post office, stand around sweating and toeing the dust out front for at least half an hour, and finally work up the courage to go up to the big mailbox right inside the door and put the envelope into it.

    She would then walk home as quickly as possible, feeling the fear rise (again) within her as she worried that she had just mailed the biggest bomb of her career and how she would be unveiled as the imposter she knew herself to be as soon as it was read by a whole office full of editors passing pages around, laughing until they had tears running down their cheeks at what a horrible job she had done.

    She would get almost all the way home, she said, before the fear would overwhelm her. She’d turn, and march right back down to the post office, charge inside, open the big door on the mailbox (the one where you mail packages), and start fishing around inside for her manuscript. Fortunately each postmaster knew her, and they all knew what she was doing.

    Oh, small detail — she had done this for several decades, and this was still her ritual now that she was in her 60s, had recently won the Pulitizer Prize, and was as successful critically and commercially as any author you could name.

    When this very proper, 60-something lady had sufficiently pawed through the mailbox to find her envelope, she’d take it home, read the story inside, and … marvel at what a good job she had done after all. Every time she sent a manuscript — short story, novel, nonfiction article — it was the same routine.

    Her message to us — grubby, long-haired writer wanna-be’s marveling at her every piece of advice — was never, ever hesitate to put your arm back in the mailbox if that’s what it takes to feel satisfied with your work.

    And MY point in overloading your comment space with this story is reiterate what you said — let the fear do what it’s going to do, making sure that you go on ahead and do your art the way you know best. You’ll marvel at what a great job you’ve done.

    Thanks again for such a fine column. I would go so far as to urge you to think about this topic for a longer article somewhere or, perhaps, a book. It’s obviously a universal issue, and from where I sit I think you’ve got a lot of good stuff to share.

  14. So profound. This statement is so true at times: “And so we occupy ourselves with the tasks our fears set for us, all of them benign enough that we rarely sit up and notice we’ve gone days, months, even years without doing our work, our art.” Thank you for writing this encouragement. I might even call it a wakeup call for the fearful. So powerful.

  15. Between Scott’s post yesterday that you referred to, and you post today, I feel like someone is trying to say something to me specifically. Thank you so much for this, I think I’ll be printing it up and posting it somewhere that I’ll have to see it every day.


    1. Author

      Kristina, I love that someone’s trying to say something to you, but who is Scott?

      1. Hi David. I think Kristina was referring to the Scott Bourne quote in my second post, above. You’ve struck a very powerful chord with your sermon on fear — such a universal malady. Please keep these essays coming. They are so much more important than the finer points of gear and software features.

  16. one of your best posts lately … and so on target … it never ends, the fear. I’m a baby in this art world … trying to make it happen, and I battle this nonstop throughout my day when it comes to making art. The latest in my nonstop battle is trying too many trails … only to end up with a piece here, a piece there, and the feeling of chasing something that wont be caught. Would love to hear your words on FOCUS and stilling the voices that scream “this is a cool look”, or “maybe this one”, “oh, no … this one is awesome” … until you realize you arent making YOUR art, you are chasing rabbit trails. Ugh, and endless quest. Thank you for your words.

  17. What about sharing those “harshest critics”? I bet that scares the daylight out of most of us. We tend to carve a beautiful image of ourselves and strive to implement it in other people’s minds. But the truth is that we cannot be complete without embracing our harshest critics. It’s a tough business to take a walk on the wild side. I don’t know if I could do it.

  18. God said we have not been given the Spirit of Fear. Thanks for bringing it to remembrance.

  19. “If the studies are to be believed, more North Americans fear speaking in public than they fear death.”

    For the activity more fearful than death, a college student was telling me the fear of public speaking has been overtaken by the fear of dancing.

  20. I have always been a fan of the novel Dune, I first read it in junior high school. I memorized a saying from it to turn to when I needed it.
    “Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past me I will turn to see fear’s path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” Frank Herbert

  21. Kicking ass words!
    Fears are such a slavery…
    These phrases strike me particularly: “Fueled more by imagination than truth. If not by imagination, then by memories;”
    Thank you for opening our eyes.

  22. Thank you David, this is so timely!

    Just this morning I was considering applying for a part-time job I saw advertised. Not because I particularly wanted the job, but because the security of a regular income appealed to me.

    However, in the current economic climate there are just as many uncertainties to being employed and I would be less than happy to suppress my creativity without ever knowing if I could have made it as a photographer.

    The only way is up!

  23. It may sound trite, but my way of dealing with all this is that I simply tell myself:

    1. Some people will like what you do.
    2. Some will hate it and they will have the loudest voices.
    3. Most people will be indifferent, and not care one way or the other.
    4. So? Why not do what you want to

    Works for me, at least most of the time! 😉

  24. Thank you. That is all.

    Well, not really ALL, but way too much to share here. I’ve been planning some independent ventures for months now, but have been unsure whether to take the plunge due to the very fears you just shred to bits, so perhaps when next you see me, it’ll be in a different guise…. 😉

  25. Thank you. I especially appreciate the conscious realization that there is no point at which fear subsides. It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve written or photographs you’ve taken, it seems the fears are just as real on day 1 as on day 10,000 of our lives as artists. That means we have to learn to acknowledge and work through fear, because it’s always going to be with us. Maybe we need to make friends with it, instead of looking at it as the enemy.

  26. Wow! Well said…again.

    Strange how we’re often so good at seeing these truths as they apply to others, but when we look at ourselves the fear seems more real. Time to re-read the post…daily for awhile.

    Thanks again for your incredible insight. While often frightening in clarity, it is appreciated.

    Eric Turner

  27. I’ve always thought they sounded like dragons, grumbling in the distance, “Do not piss off dragons, for ye are crunchy and good with ketchup!” but you’re absolutely right. They aren’t near as loud when you get up close.

    ” …I’m afraid I’m repeating myself. I’m afraid my harshest critics are right. I’m afraid the muse, from whom I make my life and my living, will abandon me and my ideas run dry….”

    David, #1 You are repeating yourself, remember. Those of us with exceptionally thick skulls need that and thank you. #2 I have a funny feeling, like many of us, your harshest real critic is you. Mine sounds like dragons. #3. If she dumps you for a photographer with a bigger lens or something, there are more muse in the sea. I’m not sure we were meant to be strictly monoga-muse anyway!

    Great post!

  28. Must be something in the air….

    Killing time in the Seoul airport, I was making the rounds of my favorite photo blogs, and Scott Bourne’s Blog at had this to say:

    “Come to the edge” he said,
    “We can’t, we are afraid” they said…
    Blog quote:
    “Come to the edge”
    “We can’t, we will fall”
    “Come to the edge”
    and they came
    and he pushed them
    and they flew.
    Guillaume Appollinaire

    A friend of mine shared this with me recently. I know it’s not new to many of you, but even if you’ve read it before, it might remind you that sometimes you need to take a risk.

    Starting a professional photography business is indeed risky. So is simply sharing your work as an amateur. There’s also risk in doing nothing. So if you’re going to take a risk either way, why not take one that might just pay off big?”

    Keep reading it to the end, and, given my previous post, you’ll understand why his post, in its entirety, resonated with me so strongly. Parachutes and safety nets….

      1. Baart – your observation is a Zen truth – doing “nothing” is doing something – a false dichotomy to be sure.

  29. My God, David! Such powerful and inspirational words. They’ll be resonating in my head for a good long while. I guess we can add “philosopher” and “psychological counsellor” to your “photographer” and “author” job titles.

    I write this from the airport in Seoul, Korea, en route to Nepal, where I’ll be jumping into the void to work on a personal photography project prior to your Kathmandu Within the Frame Workshop. I feel like I’ve just jumped out of a plane with plans to assemble my parachute on the way down. Fears run wild in my head like little temple monkeys, disturbing my composure at every turn. And yet, it feels so right. Funny how that works, when you feel you’ve found your calling….

    We’ll need to have a long chat in Kathmandu, drinks on me, to explore this further. To paraphrase Kris Ryan (see above), I could use your help in surveying the mental wreckage, and cleaning the place up a bit… ;o)

  30. Strong words David and reality is sometimes tough by our own fear factory which produces a lot of fear products .

    I’ve seen some videos from Jay Maisel last week and one of his remarks was…..

    As soon as you embrasse fear, it will not hurt you………

    I think it is so truth and not only applicable within art but in everydays reality. Even in my work I discovered this week.

    And…it didn’t hurt me!


  31. True. I think sometimes we are too serious in what we do. Sometimes you should put the camera on a day, a week or two weeks and fed a pure longing for photography. Then grab your camera and go . You will be motivated like never before, no fear can stop you.

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  33. Uh, wow! I plan to reread this a couple times a day for awhile! You really hit it on the head…Thanks!

  34. Mon Dieu du chemin! Thank you. Love to know what music you were listening to when you wrote this.

  35. I love reading your insights. I want to read this everyday. It’s a truth that’s been hiding in my mind for a while now…but…you’ve sprung it lose. I’ll have to look it in the eye, hold it to the light and talk back. Thank you.

  36. Really appreciate this post from the heart.

    You prove each day that we can live our dream.

    Thank you for the inspiration.

  37. “Fear only asks us the questions; it’s not answering that question, letting the uncertainty gain momentum in the silence, that holds us back.” Wow. Well said. Thank you.

  38. So true, it is absurd the way that fear holds us back.

    I’ve recently been putting myself out there, facing my fears of not being good enough, of being a faker and imposter, calling myself an artist and writer and declaring my work to have value beyond a “that’s nice”.

    I’ve fought through those fears, not fully conquered them (indeed still far from!) but pushed past them just enough to see them for an illusion. To have people suddenly acknowledge your work (“wow, didn’t realise you had such a talent!”) and enjoying your writing, it’s like stepping out of the shadow having been wrapped in it for a lifetime.

    …and yet, you can feel the fears, both old and new, rushing back in like the tide, filling the void created by your new found confidence. The pressure to keep producing, to resonating with more people, to raising your game. You realise, as you say, that they will always be there trying to pull you back.

    Need to keep going and working, push past it just enough to see it as another set of illusions thrown up in our minds. And so the cycle continues…

  39. I have been making it a point to do exactly this lately (not just in regards to photography) and it’s been working. It’s uncharted territory for me so sometimes I just want to abandon this and hide, like today, but I know I have to keep going. And even if I do decide to hide for a bit, I know I have to get back out there again soon.

  40. Thank you! I’ve had a day dominated by doubts and fears so I really needed to read that today. Not just the sentiment, but the heartfelt and intrepid tone with which it was delivered. I’ll be back to this post, many many times – probably daily 🙂

  41. Holy hell…you really are in my head, again…! So, maybe it is a necessarily evil, a part of the creative life; fear, and with it, doubt…imagine all the crap in the offerings if we didn’t hold ourselves accountable to only what we deem our best! The trick is, as you say, to use the fear to move us forward rather than holding us back…turn fear into one source of motivation (thought certainly not the only source) instead of “letting the uncertainty gain momentum in the silence” (beautiful words, poetically said).
    I am struggling to find that motivation in fear now, rather, suffocating in it at the moment…but I so appreciate you bringing it out into the light.
    Now pick up a dust rag, would ya…as long as you are in my head, you could clean it up a bit?!

  42. and nothing quite like staring fear down a few times to gain confidence for the next round…

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