I don’t typically think of myself as an anxious person.
Occasional nausea aside, I can get on a plane no problem. Whenever I get sick, I never assume I have anything more than a cold. I hate small talk as much as the next person, but I can easily show up to a party, slap a smile across my face, and be (relatively) charming all night.
For the entirety of our 15-year marriage, my husband has been the anxious one. He’s the designated worrier of the family, the one who double and triple checks the locks at night. He’s the one who reapplies sunscreen to the children’s faces, manages the home alarm system, the one who makes a comprehensive back-up plan to every back-up plan. When I don’t answer my phone, he assumes I’ve been kidnapped, or worse.
(When he doesn’t answer his phone, I assume he’s busy.)
By sheer comparison, I would tell you I don’t struggle with anxiety because I live with someone who does.
And we are very, very different.
I haven’t been sleeping lately. I wake up most nights between 2-3am with a river of thoughts streaming through my head. Tasks. Deadlines. Looming failures. A list of disappointments I’ve both experienced and caused. Things I need to figure out. Things I need to pray over. Dozens of big and small decisions that need to be made.
I’ve struggled with sleep for years, on and off, always calling it insomnia.
I’m starting to think maybe I should call it something else.
I recently heard something at a writing conference that blew my mind.
When writer and author Eric Maisel took the stage, he touched on many of the same topics others had already mentioned—procrastination, perfectionism, the inner critic, etc.
Halfway through the talk, he declared, “Anxiety is the great silencer.”
And while I have no problem admitting my issues with procrastination, perfectionism, and yes—of course!—the inner critic, I still felt myself shrink away at the word “anxiety.” Like, oh that doesn’t apply to me. I’m not an anxious person.
But then he said this:
“Anxiety must thread through the creative process because creativity is a series of choices and the act of choosing evokes anxiety.”
Picture a cartoon caricature of me, hearing that sentence, and a tiny lightbulb sparking above my head.
Creativity is a series of choices. The act of choosing evokes anxiety.
A hundred puzzle pieces clicked into place at that moment and suddenly I had a new phrase to describe the low hum of unease I so often feel: creative anxiety.
Whenever I sit down to a blank page, I quickly feel paralyzed. I’ve always called this perfectionism—a looming sense of dread that no matter what I do, the words are never going to come out on paper as beautifully as they appear in my head. And while that is certainly a valid struggle of mine, something else is happening, too. A blank page immediately represents impending choices. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Every word is a choice. Every comma is a choice. Every time I hit the delete key, that is a choice. How do I open the scene? Choice. How do I end it? Choice. When, where, how much do I revise? What’s the title? Where should I publish? Choice, choice, choice.
I’ve been photographing families, professionally, for a decade. Yet every single time I show up to a client’s house, I feel a wave of panic before I even turn my camera on. Why? I know how to take pictures. More often than not, I also know the family I am about to photograph. All signs point to: I should feel comfortable in this environment.
Could that wave of panic possibly be connected to the fact that every time I show up to a session, I am forced to make 50 choices on the spot?
Every setting is a choice. Aperture. Shutter speed. ISO. Where I place my subjects is a choice. Should we start here? Or over there? Should I put the light in front of me? Behind me? So many choices, so little time! Should I direct them? Let the interactions unfold naturally? Should I get above them? Beneath them? Straight on? How should I compose the image? What should I include in the frame? Then we move into culling—which photos do I keep, and which photos do I toss? Every edit is a choice. Which Lightroom preset? How should I adjust the exposure, the contrast, the tone? What does this photo need to be the best version of itself?
When I sit here and add it all up, I am astounded to realize I make a plethora of decisions every time I turn my camera on, even when I’m just photographing my own kids, which I do somewhat often.
And then there’s my day job, managing a creative business. I make editorial decisions, marketing decisions, and budget decisions on a daily basis. How should I respond to this criticism? What podcast topic should we tackle next? Who can I delegate x, y, z to? (Can I even afford to delegate x, y, z?!) Which platform should we use to accomplish this goal? What is next for us? Where do we need to pivot to better achieve our mission? How will we pursue that dream? How will we pay for all of it?
This person wants to pick my brain. This person wants their product in our gift guide. This agency wants to pitch this guest for our podcast. Every yes is a choice. Every no is a choice. Every tiny website update. Every email I reply to. Every email I ignore. Choice, choice, choice.
Occasionally in the middle of the night, I find myself dreaming of what it would be like to fold t-shirts at Anthropologie, to clock in and clock out and take home a simple paycheck (along with a store discount). I waitressed for years and assume retail is probably equally un-glamorous, but I’ll tell you what: I never woke up at 3am overanalyzing every single decision I made waiting tables. The job stayed at the job.
I know, I know.
Woe is me, being an artist is hard!
It’s not like I’m saving lives.
Dearest reader, I hope you know: I wouldn’t trade any of this. It is a gift to make art. It is an absolute privilege to do work you love and actually get paid for it.
Having said that, decision fatigue is real, and I’m feeling it today.
Even now, sitting here, I must choose how to land this plane. Should I end with something hopeful? Something profound? Should I come up with a quippy one-liner?
I don’t know. I can’t decide.
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Have you ever considered how making choices plays a role in your creativity? I’d love to discuss ⏬
Every single world of this Ashlee. And I don’t have the same choices about a business but I can’t even seem to make a choice about what to call my Substack when I finally write a word for it 😂🤦🏻♀️
Love this. 🤍