Anxiety and Creativity

[Note: throughout this piece, I use the term ‘anxiety’ in its original, and not its psychiatric, sense. – Owen]

“Creativity begins with limitations; anxiety begins without them.”

– Me, about ten seconds ago


you’re so like her
in exactly
no ways at all —

I’ve been working in a poetic form that consists of a four-syllable title, then 3 lines of four syllables each. I call the form “444” because I’m original like that. If asked “why not 4444,” it is because the title is frequently (but not always) a repeat of one of the lines of the poem.

The main point is, I am artificially constraining myself by form before even starting on the actual words of each poem.

If I begin writing with an infinitude of possibilities, I have a hard time beginning, so I set arbitrary limits in order to constrain possibilities and limit anxiety. Nothing fosters anxiety quite like having infinite possibilities. This can be seen virtually everywhere in modern life: anxiety has grown as possibilities have multiplied, and our decision-making apparatus is overwhelmed by having to evaluate more than it was designed for.

Take, as an example, listening to music. One can (assuming access to the Internet, which is, indeed, an assumption) listen to almost anything one has ever liked to listen to. This makes choosing rather difficult, as an environment lacking constraints is not where our choosing mechanism is optimized to work. Most people I know don’t just like music, they love it, and the amount of music they love is very great. From the early days of MP3 players, shuffling and randomizing functions became crucial, as it removed the paralyzing influence of having too many choices, and returned things to more of random state — something like radio was, although it is best to remember that radio was a relatively short-lived technological phase. The fastest growing music services are the ones that choose for you, once some “seed idea” is given to it, or that decides based on what you last listened to. We’re happier not having to choose.

For most of history, you typically only heard the music that either you could make, or that people you had access to could make. That kind of limitation is largely gone today. I learned to play the piano to some degree because it allowed me to hear music I could not hear otherwise; I never enjoyed being a performer. Hearing solo instrumentalists has become more of a rarity during my lifetime, as the need (i.e., demand) for them has become considerably less. Many churches, for example, have abandoned single instrument players (pianos and organs) for the sounds their congregants are more accustomed to, namely, bands of players.

It is viewed as a truism to assume that whatever we like, we need more of, and that whatever we like best should be available in infinite supply. I don’t see any way around this tendency, as setting limits on what is enough or too much for people seems beyond the wisdom of any person or group of people. However, given the proliferation of anxiety-ridden people in the modern world, we may need to learn new coping mechanisms.

“Discipline of mind” is the solution most frequently offered; however, it does not work for many of us.

In examining my own life (I’m 55 years old) I find the following oddities about the past versus the present:

  • When I had fewer choices, I read more, and better.
  • When listening choices were more scarce, I enjoyed music more.
  • When they were harder to come by, I enjoyed personal interactions more.

Because each of these things is (to some degree) available without having to make an effort to get them, another part of our innate choosing mechanism is removed, that of what we like well enough to work for.

There’s a big difference between who you’ll be friends with and who you are willing to make an effort to be friends with; if we expend no effort, do we really have friends? If they expend none, are they really friends with us? Perhaps not and perhaps so; however, there is no denying that part of our evaluating mechanism has been undercut, which increases anxiety.

I have been writing, over the last two years, a series of “poems” I call “sketches” purporting to be conversations between my wife and me. These are characterized by four elements, three of which were random choices I made in order to facilitate writing them:

  1. They are always based on actual conversations we have had.
  2. I changed my wife’s profession to that of painter within them. In real life, she is a Christian minister.
  3. “My wife” in these pieces is childless by choice; in real life we have five children between us (albeit none together) and two (with another on the way) grandchildren.
  4. I (almost) always use the model whose picture I have affixed here. My wife looks absolutely nothing like her. I’ve even made a running joke out of the wife in the poems commenting on how this model looks nothing like her.

The last three things are entirely arbitrary, but the constraints they set actually aid the writing process. These pieces are never about our kids, because that’s off the table; that makes them about us. I’m limited to conversations for which I can find a corresponding picture, so everything we talk about is not right for this form. I made her a painter because there was a series of pictures of this model as a painter; however, that allows conversations we have about her career to be seen in a different light. And so on.

I realize that what works for me might not work for any given person reading this, but the principle of using boundaries to aid in creativity and limit the inherent anxiety in the creative process may have some value; at least, that is my hope.


without limits,
so much to choose:
can’t really start