For as long as I can remember, my relationship to my creative endeavors has been marked by a strong desire to recoil. This is especially true of writing projects, past and present, and very well may include this blog post, which I might never look at again after I hit “Publish” (although, truthfully, this type of content isn’t particularly cringe-inducing). It’s a feeling that I understand is fairly common among writers and other artists. That instinctive need to turn one’s back on a project after releasing it to the world. The urge to hide from it, to shrink away from the thing you’ve made, as if you’ve created something monstrous, something menacing, something that has the power to wound. It may even include a desire to cleanse, to erase, or to eradicate a feeling, a moment, or a former part of ourselves that a particular piece represents. It is a gauge of uncomfortability. It is a compulsive flinch. And it can be an obstacle, if not managed.
For a long time, I considered the flinch to be a source of weakness. Indeed, I thought my own discomfort with the creative process meant I was “doing it wrong.” I thought I was being overly self-critical (because I can be sometimes). Perhaps my work was revealing an aspect of my personality that made me uncomfortable (always possible). Or maybe I am perennially insecure (Nah. Then again…what if I AM?). If I am to look at the flinch as a sign of weakness, as an opponent that must be conquered, then, surely I am setting myself up for failure. Because, while all of the factors I just listed may, to varying degrees on different occasions, contribute to that feeling, I don’t believe that any of them is sufficient to explain the phenomenon that is the flinch.
Because it isn’t all bad. For as strongly as I may feel the need to recoil from my work (or, say, to hit “Delete” on a certain post), I am every bit as motivated to market it to the world. I want everyone to read what I have written because I do believe it has merit and that it’s executed with a sufficient degree of finesse. And yet, there remains a part of me that can’t bring herself to go back and read it again because Oh my God, how could I have written that?! What was I thinking? DELETE. DELETE. DELETE.
That’s the flinch. It’s love-hate. It’s confidence coupled with browbeating insecurity and self-doubt. It is fear. Most importantly, it can be a recognition that your most abundant talents are also your greatest vulnerabilities and, as such, require a bit of reckoning. Your creativity continually beseeches you to lay yourself bare. It summons you, in all of your imperfections and inner turmoil, your chaos and strangeness, to let whatever force is inside of you out. For yourself and for the world. Because it’s what we all need.
Here are some thoughts on grappling with the flinch.
Don’t let it push you around.
I think the worst thing you can do when faced with the urge to bury your work in the back yard is to actually bury it. Don’t do it. If you look back at an old blog post and feel pangs of self-doubt, embarrassment, or awkwardness, don’t hit delete (unless it is truly damaging to your reputation or someone else’s, you’re radically revising your concept, or you have another equally compelling reason to do so). If you’re feeling the flinch, then leave your work where it is and how it is. Remain exposed. It is a way of training yourself to deal with being uncomfortable. You’ll learn to muster courage—to act in the face of fear. The harder you train, the better you will be. And the size of the flinch will shrink in proportion to your courage to stare it down. Think: eye of the tiger.
Look forward, not back.
As noted above, my desire to recoil from my work is predictably coupled with an urge to shout it out to the entire universe. So, I channel my energies into the latter. I focus on marketing: on networking, building a brand, and an audience. That keeps me from concentrating on how vulnerable I may also feel. Recognize the flinch when you feel it, but don’t dwell on it. Keep moving forward in a focused direction.
Make it useful.
I no longer think of the flinch as a measure of my shortcomings or as a signal for radical self-improvement. Because I am not certain that I could make it disappear no matter how hard I tried. Perhaps that is a result of my own imperfections. Or perhaps the flinch actually serves a purpose.
Indeed, I now prefer to think of the flinch in terms of its usefulness, primarily as a gauge of quality. Over the years, I have noticed that the more uncomfortable a particular piece of writing makes me, the better it tends to be. The converse it also true: pieces that are easier for me to digest tend to lack in power and authenticity. Learning how and under what circumstances you feel the flinch can help you gain valuable insight into what that feeling is trying to tell you. As a measure of quality, despite its unpleasantness, the flinch never fails to let me know when I’ve done good. It’s just got a funny way of showing its approval.