Creating art requires taking a lot of risks. Every new pose, every new word on the page is a decision you never quite know is going to work. Sure, the more you practice, the better you get at making these decisions. And some decisions are riskier than others. But there is a very real threat that each time you go to do something new, you could mess up.
There’s only one problem with this: when it comes to taking risks, I’m absolutely chickenshit.
Some people get a thrill out of the risk of making art. Me, I’m more of the careful and cautious type. Whether it’s art, traveling, or trying new things, I plan, overplan, and then plan some more before I ever actually do anything. I make outlines of outlines. The idea of improvising is my own personal circle of hell.
Yet I feel like I have to take risks to be a good artist. And to an extent it’s true: my best work happens when I’m outside my normal comfort zone. But when I force myself to take risks, I hate the results. I’m constantly stressed out and miserable. Frankly, it’s just not worth it—making art should be fun!
Occasionally, I’ll hit a sweet spot. I’ll get out of my comfort zone without feeling like I’m taking a risk. It always feels like magic when it happens, and I’d never been able to pin down what makes it work.
But just this last weekend, I posed for a David Limrite workshop. While I was on the model stand, he said something to his class that I thought was brilliant: if you’re one of those people who are afraid of taking risks, that’s okay. Just substitute the word “play” for “risk” instead.
That was something even I could do, Ms. Chickenshit herself. Isn’t it much easier to think of being playful rather than taking risks? Wasn’t that essentially what I was doing when I hit that sweet spot? I was thinking of risks as these dark, serious matters when really they don’t need to be.
The specific example wasn’t what I thought was brilliant, though. It was the idea of turning risk into something I could do. The idea of reframing it.
Because I’m a writer, I like to think of descriptions as a story I’m telling myself. I think we all tell ourselves these narratives in some way or another. The problem is, sometimes we write ourselves into corners. I had written myself into a corner when I told myself “risks” were big and scary, rather than something I could do.
What I forgot is that we can change those stories.
My current Fuck You Project is a suite of piano music called City Dreams. You can listen to a couple of the tracks for it HERE if you want. The latest piece for it fell together in just a few days…except for a few transitions and an ending that sounded too repetitive.
I knew that I needed to take a risk and try something out of the box to make it work. But I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to mess up what was otherwise a good piece of music by trying something new. I was dreading the process of risk-taking.
So I ignored it. I shoved my sheet music under my very thick and heavy copy of Schubert’s Impromptus, and put Chopin’s Etudes on top of it for good measure.
But after the workshop, I went back to my abandoned composition. I shifted aside all those heavy books, and decided to just play.
And lo and behold, it worked! In just a couple of fun sessions, I had a piece of music that was ready to be recorded.
Being playful is a good place to start, but it’s not the only solution. I can use other synonyms too. As a matter of fact, I had to use several to get through City Dreams. All I had to do was find what resonated for me. Maybe risks are stressful, but adventures are fun.
Some of the words that have worked for me are: play, adventure, journey, audacity, bullshit, exaggerate, purposeful, tenacity, practice, chance, change, charge, commit, rhythm, craft, create, organize, compose, surprise.
Just remember: if you’re afraid of risk like me, we can change the story we tell ourselves. We can reframe it into what we need it to be.