Maisel on choosing

I just read the book What is Art and one hundred other questions by Ernst Billgren, which was great.  One of the questions was What should I do? or something similar and then I happened over to DailyOm,  as I want to finish reading Overcoming Creative Anxiety by Eric Maisel, PH. D. Psychology but I really think it should have been in atheism,  and saw the same q&a:  just create and don’t ask questions, because that’s too analytical and just gets in the way of actually creating.

I think that is why you are supposed to just write first and then go back and edit your work.  Everyone from Dorothea Brandt to Chri NaNoWriMo make the same claim. I was impressed that Maisel got this right, half the time he is so smug and full of himself he gets lost in his own musings, …

Eric Maisel on Choosing (unedited)

Choosing provokes anxiety. Even such small matters as choosing which cereal to bring home or which television show to watch can cause a little tendril of anxiety. How much more anxiety is generated by trying to choose between spending two years on this novel or on that novel! Even more significantly, every single mark you make as a painter or word you put on the page as a writer is a choice: when you create you are constantly choosing, which means that a certain amount of anxiety is likely always to be with you as you create.

Should you send your character to Paris or New York? Should you add just a little more red there in the corner? Should you include this lovely scene in your screenplay even though by including it you will be making your screenplay slightly too long? These choices face a creative person continually. Typically artists are unaware of the extent to which this anxiety of choosing is affecting them and causing them to want to flee the encounter. Our first line of defense against the experience of anxiety is to get away and when it comes to creating it is all too easy to get away by not showing up at the blank page or the blank canvas. The anxiety of choosing will do that to us.

Accept that you have a million choices to make as a creative person, one after another after another, and that all of this choosing is bound to provoke real and significant anxiety. The answer is not to avoid choosing!–you must choose and you must commit to your choice for exactly as long as it makes sense to commit to it. You must choose between killing off your heroine’s lover or sparing him and giving her a happy ending: you can’t do nothing as that means you are not writing your novel! Since the answer is not to avoid choosing, it must be the following one: to master the anxiety that wants to well up as, day after day and year after year, you bravely choose and bravely deal with the consequences of your choices.


The activity of choosing provokes real anxiety and a creative person is by necessity and by definition someone who must make one choice after another. If you are not aware of this dynamic and if you are not careful, you will avoid your work or leave it too soon so as to avoid the anxiety that choosing causes.


Explain to yourself that you are obliged to choose and that, while you would love to make the right choice each time, what is more important is that you commit to choosing. The only other choice is to not create!


I will choose. It may make me anxious: still, I will make my choices.



The following teaching tale features Phoebe, a precocious young girl of thirteen who has just begun to write her first novel. Modeled on the Sufi teaching tale, this tale employs naturalistic and fantastic elements and presents a lesson or a moral in fictional form. A teaching tale of this sort may or may not be your cup of tea. If it isn’t, please proceed to your ongoing work of learning and using your anxiety management tools. If it is, please enjoy!



One Sunday Phoebe took a good book and a bottle of water to a pretty park three blocks from her house. The park had a walking path with benches along its perimeter and a dark forest at its center. Phoebe rarely went into the woods, but it was a beautiful, sunny day and the forest looked inviting rather than foreboding. So she went off in search of a tree under which to sit and read her book.

After a bit she came to a clearing in whose center was a painter at an easel. He was an angular, bearded man of about forty wearing clean jeans and a colorful vest. In his left hand was a full palette and in front of him was a blank canvas. He glanced at Phoebe, shook his head, and exclaimed, “What are you supposed to do with all this?” He waved at the scene in front of him, a dense tangle of trees, ferns, and vines.

“Why do you have to do anything with it?” Phoebe replied, drawing closer.

“Well, you have to do things with things!” the painter cried, waving his brush in the air. “That’s creating. If you didn’t do things with sounds, well, you wouldn’t have music, would you? If you didn’t do things with strings–in your mind, of course, strings being very tiny and perhaps nonexistent–you wouldn’t have string theory. Would you? Would you? If you didn’t do things with images, you wouldn’t have paintings, movies, television, or advertising. So, you have to DO things with things. Don’t you see? Now, here is all this stuff, all this NATURE, and I am bound to do something with it–honor bound, you might say. I just don’t know WHAT to do with it.”

“Couldn’t you–” Phoebe hesitated, changed her mind.


“Well, what I was about to say begs the question. I was going to say, can’t you just paint what you see?”

“I’m glad you stopped yourself! Of course that’s too naive an answer. Paint what you see! How pre-modern!”

“You don’t have to be insulting,” Phoebe replied. “Especially since I knew not even to offer it.”

“I’m sorry,” the painter agreed. He put down his paintbrush and palette and sat down beside them. “There’s nothing significant out there,” he continued. “There’s only a person’s RESPONSE to what’s out there that matters. At any rate, that’s the prevailing view.”

“Quite,” Phoebe agreed acidly, her feelings hurt. “But apparently you’re devoid of responses. Maybe that means you’re not interested. Maybe you should be in a coffee house talking with people about painting, instead of being here painting. Or, rather, not painting.”

Tears sprang to the painter’s eyes. “You’ve hurt my feelings,” he said in a small voice.

“Well, you hurt my feelings,” Phoebe replied.

“I’m sorry.” He pursed his lips. “I don’t think it’s that I shouldn’t be here,” he continued. “I love it here. I think it’s that I’ve got so many ideas in my head from other painters that I can’t think for myself. I’m filled up with attitudes.”

“Like what?”

“For instance, maybe I should be looking at the danger here. Constance Mallinson said, ‘My work is the antithesis of Romantic landscape painting, with its notions of a religious sublime.’ Ira Joel Haber said, ‘Nature frightens. No slow early morning walks in the country for me. Mountains collapse, rivers reclaim, skies open up, and caves swallow.’ That makes me think that I should consider nature as dangerous and communicate something about danger.

“I see,” Phoebe said. “That’s interesting.”

“But what about this? Robert Henri said, ‘Rather paint the flying spirit of the bird than its feathers.’ That makes me think that I need to communicate something about motion. Not the motion of animals, but the motion of the vegetation itself, like the way Van Gogh’s wheat fields sway with life.”

“Yes,” Phoebe agreed.

“Or I could tackle formal questions. Arthur Dove said, ‘I have moved from planes to lines. This happened one day when I tried to draw a waterfall: the line was the only thing that had speed enough.’ Ben Shahn said, ‘How do you paint yellow wheat against a yellow sky? You paint it jet black.’ Planes or lines? Yellow wheat or black wheat? I could occupy myself with questions like those.”

“I see.”

“Maybe I’m not supposed to do anything. Eugene Delacroix said, ‘What makes for sovereign ugliness is our mean arranging of the great and sublime thing called nature.’ But what would that mean, not doing any arranging? Should I just copy? But Jean Metzinger said, ‘If we find the width of the river, the height of its banks, intact upon the canvas, we shall have learned nothing about the genius of the painter.’ So that’s the opposite view. Maybe.”

Phoebe’s head began to hurt.

“Maybe I’m just supposed to paint color,” the painter continued. Claude Monet said, ‘When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects are before you. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here is a streak of yellow, and paint it all exactly until it yields your own naive impression of the scene.’ Picasso, too, talked about disgorging color. Then there are the Fauves, with their red trees and blue mountains … ” His voice trailed off.

“Or you can isolate something!” he resumed suddenly. “A rose. A branch. Van Gogh said, ‘If we look at the Japanese artist, we see a man who is undoubtedly wise. What does he spend his time doing? Studying a single blade of grass.’ Jean-Paul Riopelle said, ‘I am not a painter of virgin forests or infinite prairies. A leaf of a tree, that’s enough. It is the whole forest.’ So, I could pick one leaf,” he ended irresolutely.

Phoebe sat down beside him. “You do seem burdened by all these ideas.”

“And what about abstraction?” he resumed. “Mondrian said, ‘I, too, find the flower beautiful in its outward appearance. But a deeper beauty lies concealed within.’ Is that the ideal?”

Phoebe shook her head.

“And what about social action? Connie Jenkins said, ‘My paintings are representational images of rocks on sand. But they are also eulogies to people who have died, victims of political violence.’ I could turn this forest into a political statement!

“Stop!” Phoebe cried. “I don’t think the problem is that you have too many ideas. I think the problem is that you have too few!”

The painter blinked. “Excuse me?”

“I’m sorry. But it’s true!”

“A painter should know art history,” the painter retorted, but without much conviction. “You can’t just paint a landscape from a hundred years ago. What’s the point in that? You have to … go forward. Do the next thing. Lead the way. Right?”

Phoebe shrugged. “You’re thinking like an art historian, not like an artist.”

The painter frowned. “Who ARE you?”

Phoebe got up. “Sorry,” she said. “I’ll leave you alone. I have my book to read.” She started walking away. The painter scrambled to his feet.

“No!” he cried. “I apologize! Don’t go yet.”

Phoebe stopped. “Well. Can I tell you what I’m thinking?”

“All right.”

“I think that you’re just worried that what you paint will get criticized. That people will say, ‘Well, it isn’t this and it isn’t that.’ To forestall that criticism you’re trying to cover every base and take every idea into account. But you can’t. It can’t be done that way. If you paint small, someone will say, ‘Measly. Trivial. Ought to be bigger.’ If you paint big, someone will say, ‘What an ego!’ Just–”

The painter hung on Phoebe’s words.

“Well, you know!” Phoebe laughed.

“No, I don’t! Tell me.”

“Just do it.”

The painter stared at her. His face took on a look of pained disappointment.

“It’s not that simple,” he said slowly. “Sorry. I need ideas, reasons, something to go on in order to paint. I can’t just move my arm and lay down pigment. That would be meaningless.”

“You’re missing something.”

“I must be missing something,” the painter agreed. “Maybe I’m not a painter,” he continued. “Maybe I’m a writer or a musician or something else.”

Lost in thought, Phoebe made no reply.

“Maybe I’m blocked,” he went on. “Maybe my heart is blocked. Maybe I need bypass surgery.”

Suddenly Phoebe snapped her fingers. “I think you should do my portrait!” she exclaimed. “I believe that’s the answer!”

“Your portrait?”


“Your portrait,” he murmured. “All right! Only … where should I put you? I could have you kind of curled up, but that might echo ‘Christina’s World.’ I’ve got to be careful not to mimic Manet or the parodies of Manet, or set you up in the style of Norman Rockwell–”

“Golly!” Phoebe cried. “Golly! You’re making my head ache!” She laughed merrily. “I’m going to sit here and read my book. The rest is up to you. In two hours I’m leaving and getting an ice cream cone. Until then, please be quiet!”

MORAL: You can debate or you can create.

I found this important because for whatever reason I lost hope with the blog.  There are a million reasons to give, but basically it’s the age old bugaboo, of How is this different from someone else and why not just read The Book and forget the commentary?

It’s a bad nihilistic question, I know but it stumped for me for a while and sometimes you look in the Book and the answer evades you.  I was very tired and lethargic at the time, probably my low iron count kicking in,  so on Pascha I started reading non-Biblical books, starting with the latest biography of Rasputin and continuing on.  After a while things made more sense as I realised that The Book is one of knowledge and that keeping notes and understanding context is what learning is all about and so slowly I  could see clearly through the fog and carry one.

I’m going to continue updating the archives until Pentecost, when we resume Judges.

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