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Showing – the (Mostly) Finished Stage of Creativity

I recently I finished a new choral composition. When I say “finished,” I don’t mean “finished” finished. I mean more like “mostly” finished. In my catalogue, I’m not so sure anything is ever “finished” finished. But I digress. (Look! A squirrel!!!)

This new piece is another in a recent string of more through-composed choral music, an area of composition that is a little new to this songwriter. And so, upon completion (but not “finished” finished), I sent the work off to a trusted colleague to look over. Up until then, the music had existed only in my head (and my computer). Now it would be seen by someone else. What would he think about it? I was about to show this work for the first time, and some old fears began to crop up. Perhaps this sounds familiar to your own situation…

Moments before I fired off the the new piece to my friend, I was confident the work was good. I had played through it dozens of times and I still liked it. (That’s something in and of itself.) But the moment I pressed “send,” I was overcome with regret and doubt. (“What have I done? Crap! How can I undo that???”) In an instant, I was certain I had sent a half-baked composition to someone who, upon reviewing it, would lose all respect for me as a musician and as a human being. My only hope for stopping this pending debacle was for a world-wide failure of the Internet. But no such luck.

Any of this sound familiar to you? (C’mon… Can I get a witness?) I’ve been doing this work for nearly fifty years. I’ve shown my music to hundreds upon hundreds of people. So, why is this part of the gig still so scary? And I know for a fact I’m not alone in this fear. Why do so many of us tremble and shake when it comes to letting others see our work for the first time?

I think it’s because most of us are a big bundle of insecurities. We desperately want to be appreciated, but secretly believe we don’t deserve it. If you’re of a certain age, you might remember Sally Fields’ famous acceptance speech at the Oscar Awards. (“You like me! Right now you like me!”) She had built her career on fluffy teen-aged sitcom roles. Years later, when she was recognized for her serious work, she needed to convince herself she deserved the award. I totally get it. I want everybody to love what I write, but I’m uncomfortable when I receive compliments for my work. Deep down I’m afraid someone will discover I’m an imposter – just some doofus posing as a songwriter, or worse – as a composer. (If I’m a composer, we might need a new word for Beethoven and Mahler.)

In his book, FEARLESS CREATING, Eric Maisel separates the creative process into six stages, with the final stage being Showing. In Maisel’s estimation, you’re not really done with whatever you’re creating until you show it to others. What’s more, he offers that Showing can be the most frightening part of the process. I think he’s right. Showing can be excruciating even.

In the early stages of creating, when I’m alone in my cave, writing and recording away, I don’t have to be concerned if anybody else will like my work enough to buy it, sing it, read it, or perform it. In my cozy solitude, I can convince myself that what I’ve written is nothing short of awesome, and the world will thank me for it. This is self-delusional, of course. But then – what artist can survive without a little self-delusion?  (Discuss this amongst yourselves.)

Inevitably, though, the moment comes when we must show our work to somebody: a friend, a colleague, a publisher, or even an audience. And we have to endure the eternity it takes for them to respond. That eternity may be only the three minutes needed to listen to the song. Or it may be the six months it takes a publisher to review your novel or choral work. However long your particular eternity may last, during that time you’re all alone, exposed to the critic that resides inside every human heart, facing the fear of being who you truly are in front of others. It’s the sort of fear that can tie your stomach in knots, and make you doubt every creative idea you’ve ever had in your entire life.

So let me ask, what about you? Have you ever thought, “Any day now the world is gonna see I’m a fraud.” Or, “I don’t have anything left in the creative tank. I’ll never write again.” Or, “Why would anyone want to hear what I have to say?”  Let’s face it, most of us are a little neurotic. If it makes you feel better, a touch of neurosis is practically a requirement for being an artist of any sort. To make matters worse, as you improve at your craft, you’ll become more aware of your shortcomings. As your skill level rises, your confidence may go down and your fears may go up! Crazy, isn’t it? But like I said, a little crazy is a good thing for an artist.

So back to my new choral piece. My current eternity has stretched beyond a week now. I still haven’t heard back from my friend as to what he thinks of the work. He’s a very busy guy with an insane schedule. There are dozens of plausible reasons he hasn’t responded. But by now, I’ve convinced myself he hates the music and has spent the last several days trying to figure out how to tell me I chose the wrong field of work, and maybe I should go interview for the night shift at Whataburger. (“I hear they’re hiring.”)

Yeah, I know – that’s more than a little neurotic. But hey, it’s not easy being me. And I’m willing to bet you can identify with that, or you wouldn’t be reading this still. So – let’s all embrace our fears. Let’s all choose to be our very own unique creative selves.  Let’s create art we believe in, art that is true to who we are, art that speaks to the things that have been laid on our hearts. And let’s pray that our work speaks to others, even when it’s scary to show it to others.

But I think I’ll grab a job application at Whataburger – just in case.


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