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Creativity and Anxiety: Making, Meaning, Experience
 3031213548, 9783031213540

Table of contents :
1: Definitions and Connections
Part 1
Defining Anxiety
Fear and Anxiety
Causes of Anxiety
Against Fearlessness
A Meaningful Life
Part 2
Defining Creativity
The Standard Definition of Creativity
Questioning Effectiveness
Creative Experience
Part 3
Anxious Creativity and Creativity Anxiety
Works Cited
2: Anxiety and the Creative Encounter: Rollo May Revisited
Encounter and Meaning
Giacometti: The Anxious Ideal
The Tortured/Mad Genius Stereotype
Mental Health and Creativity
Form and Anxiety
Kierkegaard, Mara, and Antifragility
The Observing Self
Encounter and Acceptance
Works Cited
3: Winnicott’s Potential Space and the Anxiety of Authorship
Playing and the Origins of Creativity
Facilitating Environment
Adult Culture
Anxiety and Conformity
Creativity, Anxiety, Flow
Insight, Anxiety, and Positive Mood
Cognitive Flexibility
Rethinking Free Association and Free Writing
The Cultural Environment
Tradition and the Anxiety of Influence
The Anxiety of Authorship
Feelings and Culture
Works Cited

Citation preview

Creativity and Anxiety: Making, Meaning, Experience Gavin Goodwin

Palgrave Studies in Creativity and Culture

Series Editors Vlad Petre Glaveanu Department of Psychology and Counselling Dublin City University Dublin, Ireland Brady Wagoner Communication and Psychology Aalborg University Aalborg, Denmark

Both creativity and culture are areas that have experienced a rapid growth in interest in recent years. Moreover, there is a growing interest today in understanding creativity as a socio-cultural phenomenon and culture as a transformative, dynamic process. Creativity has traditionally been considered an exceptional quality that only a few people (truly) possess, a cognitive or personality trait ‘residing’ inside the mind of the creative individual. Conversely, culture has often been seen as ‘outside’ the person and described as a set of ‘things’ such as norms, beliefs, values, objects, and so on. The current literature shows a trend towards a different understanding, which recognises the psycho-socio-cultural nature of creative expression and the creative quality of appropriating and participating in culture. Our new, interdisciplinary series Palgrave Studies in Creativity and Culture intends to advance our knowledge of both creativity and cultural studies from the forefront of theory and research within the emerging cultural psychology of creativity, and the intersection between psychology, anthropology, sociology, education, business, and cultural studies. Palgrave Studies in Creativity and Culture is accepting proposals for monographs, Palgrave Pivots and edited collections that bring together creativity and culture. The series has a broader focus than simply the cultural approach to creativity, and is unified by a basic set of premises about creativity and cultural phenomena.

Gavin Goodwin

Creativity and Anxiety: Making, Meaning, Experience

Gavin Goodwin Department of English and Creative Writing Aberystwyth University Aberystwyth, UK

Palgrave Studies in Creativity and Culture ISBN 978-3-031-21354-0    ISBN 978-3-031-21355-7 (eBook) © The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors, and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the publisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, expressed or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made. The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations. Cover illustration: Pattern © Melisa Hasan This Palgrave Macmillan imprint is published by the registered company Springer Nature Switzerland AG. The registered company address is: Gewerbestrasse 11, 6330 Cham, Switzerland


I’ll start by thanking all my friends and colleagues at the Department of English & Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. I feel very lucky to be part of such a supportive academic and artistic community. In the writing of this book, I benefited from a six-month period of research leave. For this I am grateful to Louise Marshall and Richard MarggrafTurley. Tasha Alden, Neal Alexander, and Jacqueline Yallop all read draft chapters of the book, and the text has benefited from their comments and suggestions. Any remaining errors and shortcomings are my own. I would like to thank the Creativity and Culture series editors, Vlad Petre Glăveanu and Brady Wagoner, and everyone at Palgrave Macmillan and Springer Nature who helped bring this book into being, especially Isobel Cowper Coles and Grace Jackson, Asma Azeezullah and G. Nirmal Kumar. I am grateful for the feedback from three anonymous readers for Palgrave Macmillan. Thanks too to Ronald Beghetto. Many thanks to my family for all their love and support, and to Willeke and Kees van der Wiel. My greatest thanks go to my wife, Reina. This book is dedicated to her, with all my love.



1 D  efinitions and Connections 1 2 Anxiety and the Creative Encounter: Rollo May Revisited39 3 Winnicott’s Potential Space and the Anxiety of Authorship65 I ndex87


1 Definitions and Connections

Abstract  This chapter begins by defining anxiety as a future-orientated emotion that manifests in psychological, physiological, and behavioural ways. It explores the tendency, in both philosophy and psychology, to differentiate anxiety from fear, and highlights some of the difficulties in doing so. This chapter then moves on to a consideration of creativity. It problematises aspects of the ‘standard definition’, interrogating notions of effectiveness and originality, before presenting an alternative understanding where creativity can be thought about in terms of action, intention, and experience. This chapter closes with a discussion of some of the ways anxiety and creativity can impact each other, and the role uncertainty can play in both. Keywords  Creativity anxiety • Creativity and uncertainty • Anxiety and fear • Anxiety and invunerabilism • Making and experience Anxiety is perhaps the defining psychological malady of our age. As Graham Davey reports, ‘one in nine people worldwide will experience a diagnosable anxiety disorder in any one year—that’s over seven million people in the UK and over thirty-five million people in the USA alone’ © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 G. Goodwin, Creativity and Anxiety: Making, Meaning, Experience, Palgrave Studies in Creativity and Culture,



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(Davey, 2018, p. ix). For many of us, experiencing anxiety from time to time will be unpleasant but not particularly problematic; it might well even be useful. For others of us, however, anxiety can exert an outsize impact on our lives. When experienced on a severe and chronic level, it can seriously curtail our existence, causing considerable distress and posing significant obstacles to the living of a fulfilling and meaningful life. Creativity, on the other hand, is seen as an almost unassailable good.1 Its importance is heralded and promoted in a range of disciplines and domains—from education to mental health, from science to industry— and the special importance assigned to it is only likely to increase given that it is the human ability that Artificial Intelligence (AI) appears least able to accomplish (Daker et al., 2019, p. 42). Moreover, for some theorists, creativity is seen as an essential component of living the kind of fulfilling and meaningful life that anxiety can so disturb. Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that a number of diverse thinkers have tried to unpick the relationship between anxiety and creativity. In this book, I want to explore some of these ideas, to place different disciplines in dialogue, with a view to increasing the understanding of how creativity and anxiety might impact one another. This investigation also has a personal dimension for me. I have spent almost all of my adult life committed to some form of creative practice, whilst also suffering from chronic anxiety (which has, over the years, manifested in different ways and with varying degrees of severity). This experience has no doubt influenced the focus and shape of the arguments in this book. The relationship between creativity and anxiety is complex, and the implications of this investigation are potentially wide-ranging. Does anxiety act as a spur or a hindrance to creativity? Might creativity alleviate or accentuate anxiety? In the existing literature, we find seemingly contradictory answers. The focus of this short book, however, will be necessarily  Almost. Though creativity, as a term, is viewed positively in multiple domains, creativity can, of course, be far from good. Indeed, the consequences (both intended and unintended) of certain creative acts can be unspeakable suffering. We might think, for instance, of the ‘creativity’ involved in inventing new methods of torture. Creativity which is expressly aimed at causing suffering is often referred to as ‘malevolent creativity’, though there is debate as to whether we should call it creativity at all (Glăveanu, 2021, pp. 46–47). 1

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narrow. Though some of the arguments presented will be of relevance to other fields, the creativity I am interested in here is artistic creativity. The book aims to explore how anxiety can affect the process and experience of making—and vice versa. Anxiety and creativity are complicated and contested terms, however, and their meanings often context dependent. Therefore, I will begin this book by defining how I intend to use these terms and offer some justifications for my choices. Firstly, this chapter will explore the tendency, in both philosophy and psychology, to differentiate anxiety from fear, and highlight some of the difficulties in doing so. It will also look at how attempts to transcend anxiety and fear entirely might impact our ability to live meaningful lives. The understanding of anxiety presented in this chapter is that of a future-­ orientated emotion that manifests in psychological, physiological, and behavioural ways. It is connected to a sense of impending catastrophe, but the specifics of the threat can often be elusive, which is why the anxiety experience is often objectless and amorphous. The chapter will then move on to a consideration of creativity. It will first problematise aspects of the standard definition (Runco & Jaeger, 2012), interrogating notions of effectiveness and originality, before presenting an alternative understanding where creativity can be thought about in terms of action, intention, and experience. A crucial aspect of how creativity is conceptualised in this book is that it occurs as an interaction between self and world. The chapter will explain in more detail what I mean by this, but creativity happens in an intermediate area between subject and object. Finally, having defined and explained how I intend to use the terms ‘anxiety’ and ‘creativity’, the chapter will close with a discussion of some of the ways in which they can impact each other. This relationship will then be explored in more depth and detail in the two chapters that follow.

Part 1 Defining Anxiety The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines anxiety as:


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Worry over the future or about something with an uncertain outcome; uneasy concern about a person, situation, etc.; a troubled state of mind arising from such worry or concern.

And here is the definition from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM): The apprehensive anticipation of future danger or misfortune accompanied by a feeling of dysphoria or somatic feelings of tension. The focus of anticipated danger may be internal or external.

In both the common (OED) and clinical (DSM) definitions, anxiety is described as future-orientated: it is propelled by a concern with what could happen rather than what is happening. The word in English is derived partly from Middle French—anxieté (meaning worry, disquiet)— and partly from Latin—anxietāt-, anxietās—where its meaning included ‘over-carefulness’ and, in post-classical Latin, ‘discomfort in the chest’ (OED). So, already in the Latin, we see anxiety as having multiple dimensions: psychological (worry), behavioural (over-carefulness), and physiological (chest pain).2 These were formally codified in 1968  by the psychologist Peter Lang, who argued in his three-system model that anxiety reveals itself in: 1. What we say and how we think: for example, worrying about a problem, or voicing fear or concern. 2. How we behave: avoiding certain situations, for instance, or being constantly on guard against trouble. 3. Physical changes: for example, elevated heart beat or faster breathing, and facial expression. (Freeman & Freeman, 2012, p. 10) The term ‘anxiety’ has been in English usage for at least 500 years—we find it (as anxietie), for instance, in the work of Thomas More, c. 1522.  On the question of etymology, Freeman and Freeman add that the word can be traced back to the ancient Greek angh ‘which can be found in ancient Greek words meaning “to press tight”, “to strangle”, “to be weighed down with grief ”, and to “load,” “burden,” and “trouble”’ (Freeman & Freeman, 2012, p. 2). 2

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But quite often what we refer to today as anxiety would have been referred to by other terms in the past. Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman note that ‘[f ]eelings of panic and fear, and the physical changes that often accompany them such as trembling, palpitations, and faster breathing, are regularly described in literary, religious, and medical writings throughout the centuries’ (Freeman & Freeman, 2012, p. 3). The word anxiety, however, was rarely used to describe them. These experiences tended to be understood as resulting from ‘moral or religious failings’ or as having a purely physical origin (3–4). It was the emergence of psychoanalysis and particularly Sigmund Freud’s 1895 paper, ‘On the Grounds for Detaching a Particular Syndrome from Neurasthenia under the description “Anxiety Neurosis,”’ that changed this. In this paper, Freud identified a cluster of symptoms by which he differentiated Angstneurose (translated by James Strachey as anxiety neurosis) from other illnesses of the nervous system. The symptoms of anxiety neurosis included general irritability and vertigo, as well as a chronic sense of ‘anxious expectation’—that is, a persistent tendency to jump to the worst possible interpretation of a stimulus (Freud, 2001, pp. 92–93). This state of anxious expectation is ‘freely floating’, writes Freud, ‘always ready to link itself with any suitable ideational content’ (93). But this anxiety can also break through, seemingly out of nowhere, ‘without being aroused by a train of ideas’ in the form of an ‘anxiety attack’ (93). These can manifest in heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, sweating, and diarrhoea, and are often accompanied by the impression that one is dying, having a stroke, or being threatened by ‘madness’ (93–5). Over a century later, the poet Les Murray described this experience as ‘The body ha[ving] a nightmare. Awake’ (Murray, 2006, p. 81). It is common practice in the psychology of the twenty-first century to secern Freud’s list into more discrete disorders (e.g., generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)). The symptoms he identifies, however, are broadly speaking still very much those we associate with anxiety today. Though the question of translation is a vexed one, after the publication of Freud’s paper, references to anxiety (Strachey’s translation of Angst) increased exponentially in the psychological and psychiatric literature of the English-speaking world. Moreover,


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throughout the twentieth century, it came to occupy a central and enduring place in the concerns of these disciplines, and increasingly the culture at large.3

Fear and Anxiety In everyday discourse, the terms ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’ are often used interchangeably. Both are species of the body’s survival instinct, however maladapted, and both involve ‘a combination of tension and unpleasant anticipation’ (Rachman, 2020, pp. 2–3). In the psychological literature, however, it is customary to distinguish these terms—fear and anxiety— based on causes, duration, and the nature of the experiences themselves (2–3). A typical point of distinction was first identified by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. In The Concept of Anxiety (1844) he posited that fear is a response to ‘something definite’, whereas the cause of anxiety is more ambiguous and difficult to ascertain (Kierkegaard, 2014, p.  51). For Kierkegaard, to be anxious is, seemingly, ‘to be anxious at nothing’ (52).4 Though the physiological experiences of fear and anxiety are alike and sometimes identical, fear is often considered a proportionate and useful response to a known and specific threat. Anxiety, on the other hand, is more diffuse—we experience apprehension and unease but cannot readily identify a cause. Or if we can identify a cause, our response is disproportionate in terms of intensity or longevity (Goodwin, 1987, pp. 3–4). ‘The rise and decline of fear tends to be limited in time and space’, writes the psychologist Stanley Rachman, ‘whereas anxiety tends to be pervasive and persistent, with uncertain points of onset and offset’ (Rachman, 2020, p. 3). That is to say, we can expect fear to diminish in intensity the more we distance ourselves (physically or temporally) from the feared object. In contrast, anxiety can seem ever-present, a sense of  The term’s use in the culture more widely, especially in the early to mid-twentieth century, was also impacted by Existentialist philosophy, notably the ideas of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre. The aspects of this philosophical tradition most relevant to the present discussion will be addressed later. 4  We find a similar division observed in later Existentialist works such as Heidegger’s Being and Time as well as in the literatures of psychology (see May, 1994; Goodwin, 1987; Rachman, 2020). 3

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amorphous foreboding that colours all our experience. Another related but distinct difference between fear and anxiety is that when we experience the former, we typically aim to avoid or extinguish whatever it is that threatens us—a truck rounds the corner, and we leap back from the road. With anxiety, however, there can be inner conflict, pulling us in two directions at once (R. May, 2015, pp. 38–39). The sufferer of social anxiety, for instance, might both want and not want to go to the party; the OCD sufferer both does and does not want to stop checking the cooker. This conflict can make the experience of anxiety not only agonising but paralysing. As Rachman has pointed out though, in practice, fear and anxiety are far less easy to differentiate and disentangle than the theorising given earlier suggests. Episodes of intense fear can be followed by protracted periods of anxiety, and the experience of chronic anxiety can in turn induce fear, as Sophocles wrote: ‘To the man who is afraid, everything rustles’ (Sophocles in Rachman, 2020, p. 31). Though panic is often seen as ‘one of the purest expressions of fear’, panic attacks can occur seemingly out of nowhere, with no discernible trigger (a trait we usually associate with anxiety). And even if our first impulse might be to avoid that which we fear, in certain circumstances, such as entering a burning building to save someone, we also have a desire to act despite such fear—and this is the origin of courage (Rachman, 2020, p. 10). Rachman admits that ‘[t]here is no distinct transition from fear to anxiety and at times it is not possible to distinguish between the two’ (4). Things become more complicated still when viewing these divisions and transitions over historical time and through the lenses of economic and political interests. The cultural historian Joanna Bourke argues: The uncertainty of anxiety can be whisked away by processes of naming an enemy (it may be a plausible or implausible enemy), converting anxiety into fear. The ‘work’ of fear is commercial work: converting anxieties into fears is the function of a range of new professionals and, in pharmaceutical terms, big business. It also has a political function: scapegoating, for instance, enables a group to convert an anxiety into a fear, thus influencing (for instance) voting preferences against an ‘outsider’ group. (Bourke, 2005, p. 190)


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According to Bourke, there is a tendency towards social withdrawal when experiencing anxiety. On the contrary, fear can bring people together ‘either for comfort or to defend themselves more effectively against danger’ (191).5 It is not difficult to see how such tendencies might be exploited for political ends. During the Cold War, for instance, it was in the interests of various governments to convince their citizens that disturbing thoughts of nuclear Armageddon were ‘irrational’ anxiety, as opposed to ‘rational’ fear, therefore ‘discouraging the impulse to unite with other fearful persons against the common threat’ (191). Nonetheless, despite this fluidity and interrelation, it is still useful, I think, to distinguish between a fear which is object focused and an anxiety that is seemingly objectless. The latter quality, I would argue, is what gives anxiety its peculiar and disturbing potency, and it is worth thinking a little further about this. Influenced by the German neurologist Kurt Goldstein, the Existential psychologist Rollo May theorised that when anxiety is at its most overwhelming, there is a breaking down of the self-­ world relationship. In the grip of anxiety, May argues, we cannot separate ourselves from that which threatens us. Anxiety infects the very act of looking, impairing, and undermining our judgement. This fraught destabilisation of subject and object is not psychologically liberating, as it is figured in some spiritual traditions such as Buddhism; it is a condition of overwhelment and crisis, wherein a person finds themselves immobilised. For Goldstein, we become arrested by anxiety when presented with a situation which, in one way or another, we perceive as catastrophic. The most obvious and primal catastrophe we face like every other organism is, of course, physical death, but a situation need not be life-threatening to be catastrophic. We can understand catastrophe in psychological terms too as a threat to the meaning of one’s existence—‘a threat to some value that the individual holds essential to his existence as a personality’ (R. May, 2015, p. 199)—or as a threat to one’s social existence (which I will discuss further below). Though anxiety is often characterised less by  Bourke notes, however, that is just a ‘tendency’; there are notable historical exceptions. For example, ‘in political terrorisation within dictatorial regimes, fear may also separate people from one another, as in Chile during Pinochet’s regime and Argentina during the 1976–83 dictatorship of Galtieri’ (Bourke, 2005, p. 419). 5

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‘emergency reaction’ and more by ‘a state of heightened vigilance’ (Rachman, 2020, p. 3), the perception of catastrophe (rational or not) is the engine of this emotion.

Causes of Anxiety The causes of anxiety are complicated. Studies of identical twins separated at birth suggest that there is also a genetic component to our propensity, or otherwise, for anxiety (Freeman & Freeman, 2012, pp. 36–38).6 Environmental factors, however, probably play the most decisive role. The care or lack thereof which we receive in our early years, for instance, as well as the example our parents set—in terms of their attitudes and behaviours—exerts a strong influence. I will discuss parental care and early environment further in Chap. 3. Regarding the importance of example-setting, however, it is worth briefly noting an experiment conducted by psychologists Friederike Gerull and Ronald Rapee. The mothers of thirty toddlers were asked to feign opposing reactions to toy snakes and spiders—responding with either fear and disgust or calm and happiness. The researchers found that the toddlers, perhaps unsurprisingly, tended to follow the parents’ lead and mimic their reactions (Freeman & Freeman, 2012, p.  44). Indeed, for Behaviourists, and the Cognitive-­ Behaviourists that followed them, anxiety is understood primarily as a learned response. It is the result, in one way or another, of our conditioning, and a number of therapeutic treatments—including exposure therapy and CBT—are based on this thinking. However, it is not just the experience of our early years that can impact on our levels of anxiety. Our social environment more broadly—even in adulthood—can also play a role. Society presents us with certain models and values. It teaches us what qualities and behaviours are admirable and  The genetic question is a complicated one. Freeman & Freeman note that anxiety disorders are said to have ‘moderate heritability’—that is, between 20% and 40% (Davey writes that ‘most twin studies of anxiety in children and adults come up with a heritability estimate of 30 per cent (Davey 2018, p. 100)). However, even if ‘a person may be genetically susceptible to anxiety problems’, write Freeman & Freeman, such problems still need to be ‘triggered by particular life experiences’ (Freeman & Freeman, pp.  36–38).  Social anxiety has a slightly higher level of heritability (see Davey 2018, pp. 293–4). 6


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acceptable. If we fail to measure up to these ideals, argues the clinical psychologist David Smail, we ‘are not likely to conclude that it is the norms themselves which are wrong’ (Smail, 1997, p. 7). Instead, ‘[u]nless you have a lot of courage and a strong belief in yourself, you will more probably conclude that there is something wrong with you and experience feelings anxiety and shame’ (7). Understandably but problematically, according to Smail, if I feel this way, I will probably try to conceal it; and it is such concealment that helps perpetuate what he calls the ‘myth of normality’: It is of course likely that you are not the only one to be nursing a secret fear that you do not come up to the standards set by our society, but because other people too keep their shame to themselves, it becomes impossible to share the experience of ‘inadequacy’, and it looks as though just about everyone is normal except you. (7)

Smail was writing this in the UK in the 1980s. In some ways we are more open now in the 2020s about our vulnerabilities and mental health. In other ways, however, social media allows us to ‘curate’, and thus conceal, our lives like never before. Smail saw a society that encouraged people to live up to a highly unrealistic set of ideals promoted by advertising. Now, of course, we are all advertising ourselves, presenting online versions of our lives that are often impossible to live up to (even for us).7 Smail argues that when the values of a culture or society ‘are not such that they could be positively achieved by everybody, or even by most people: they are bound to generate failure and distress more than comfort and happiness’ (Smail, 2018, p. 16). In The Anxiety Epidemic, Graham Davey discusses how the increase of income inequality in countries like the UK has ‘given rise to a relatively new form of anxiety, known as  For instance, drawing on surveys from thirteen US college campuses, Donna Freitas concluded that the students (in the words of Graham Davey) ‘face continual pressure to present themselves as being perfect online. […] This is inevitably a thankless task, doomed to failure, and most young people become anxious lest they portray themselves as being less than perfect or unwittingly post something online that they’ll come to regret’ (Davey, 2018, p. 75). 7

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“status anxiety” ’ (Davey, 2018, p. 89). A Growing Inequalities Impact (GINI) project report ‘found that income equality was associated with higher levels of status-seeking, suggesting that people are more anxious about their position in the social and economic hierarchy where income inequalities are high’ (89–90). Unemployment has been shown to be a cause of anxiety (82), but our position in a stratified workplace might also impact us negatively, as a study looking at fibrinogen levels in civil servants shows. The physical experience of anxiety is linked to the production of hormones and chemicals designed to protect the organism from physical threat. Fibrinogen is a blood clotting factor; its levels elevate as a stress-­ response, allowing blood to coagulate more quickly if injured: In a study of almost 3,300 middle-aged men and women working in the British civil service, fibrinogen levels were found to be higher in both sexes at each step down the office hierarchy. The blood of subordinate civil servants appeared to be prepared for the kind of attacks which, for example, a subordinate baboon might risk from dominants. (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2018, p. 45)

If I find myself low in the hierarchy of a win-lose society that is ostensibly meritocratic (such as the UK or US), then I am likely to feel inferior (Sandel, 2020) and, as the study above suggests, insecure. Moreover, if I occupy a subordinate, low-status role at work (and lack any other economic resources), then I will also likely lack the agency and control to significantly alter my experience or situation. This poverty of agency is another crucial element in the maintenance of anxiety, as Sally Dickerson and Margaret Kemeny have shown. In their meta-analysis of 208 studies on anxiety-producing situations (as measured by participants’ levels of cortisol), Dickerson and Kemeny found that cortisol levels were the highest in two particular situations: those which involved ‘social evaluative threat’ (i.e., the potential for humiliation or degradation of esteem) and those over which participants could exert no control (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2018, p. 35).


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Against Fearlessness Whatever the cause or confluence of causes, when our lives are beset by chronic anxiety and fear, we might quite understandably have the desire to be rid of these emotions entirely. A number of recent book titles seem to tap into this desire: Fearless! How to Be Your True, Confident Self (Hackett 2020), Live Fearless (Robertson 2018), On Becoming Fearless (Huffington 2007), Fearless Living (Britten 2002).8 Such promises though are not a new phenomenon, nor just a product of publishers’ marketing departments. We find them too in the ancient spiritual and philosophical texts of both East (e.g., Buddhism) and West (e.g., Stoicism). There is good reason to question, however, how appealing living a life free of anxiety and fear would really be.9 In Peter Weir’s 1993 film Fearless, the protagonist Max Klein, played by Jeff Bridges, is one of a small group of survivors of a devasting plane crash. The event, unsurprisingly, is a life-altering one for Max, but not in the way one might expect. A nervous flyer before the crash, a ‘neurotic’ his business partner calls him, Max does not become more fearful after the disaster. On the contrary, he becomes fearless, and it is this change in Max’s state of mind that sets the narrative in motion. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, this extraordinary calm is an asset, as Max leads his distraught fellow survivors from the wreckage to safety. The day after, however, it inspires him to do something more reckless. Lunching in a diner with an old friend, he orders a bowl of strawberries for desert— even though he is fatally allergic to them. When Max eats the fruit, though, he suffers no ill effects. As long as he can maintain a mind free from fear, he is, it appears, invulnerable. What should kill him—a plane crash, walking into traffic, consuming strawberries—does not. Bridges plays the post-crash Max as aloof and detached, but his character is paradoxically also spontaneous, truthful, and intensely present to what he  I cannot speak to the content of these books (I have not read any of them); my interest here is just in the appeal of the word ‘fearless’ in their titles. 9  While a significant proportion of this chapter so far has examined the differences between anxiety and fear, in this section I will use these terms more interchangeably. My reasoning for this is that many of the texts and ideas I refer to here are concerned with transcending the fear response in general, which I take to include anxiety. 8

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calls ‘the taste and touch and beauty of life’ (Weir, 1993). There is, as Matthew Sharpe points out, a sage-like quality to the film’s post-crash protagonist; he is ‘a kind of maximally enlightened, psychically invulnerable, or “fearless” figure’ (Sharpe, 2017, p. 138).10 As such, anyone who has suffered with anxiety in its more severe and chronic manifestations might find something deeply attractive about Max’s altered state.

Invulnerabilism It is this desire for fearlessness which the ancient doctrines of Stoicism and Buddhism appeal to. These schools of thought advise the cultivation of what the philosopher Todd May calls invulnerabilism. An invulnerabilist believes that: we can—and according to many, we should—develop a place of peace in ourselves, a place of detachment that ultimately cannot be touched or shaken. This becomes our core. It is the development of this core which makes us ultimately invulnerable to the misfortunes that befall us. It allows us to secrete a certain distance between us and what happens to us such that, although we might be affected to a certain degree (invulnerabilist views differ on this point), we remain unmoved at the core of our being. (T. May, 2017, p. 6)

For the Stoic, this is a question of control. We cannot, by and large, control what happens to us, but we can control how we react. According to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, the key question to ask of any situation is whether or not it is ‘in our power’ to alter—and if it is not, we must, he writes, ‘be ready to say, that it does not concern you’ (Epictetus in T. May, 2017, p. 89). The Stoic overcomes fear and achieves tranquillity by letting go of the desire for things to be other than what they are. This means accepting even the most tragic losses with equanimity. As Marcus Aurelius advises in his Meditations: rather than beg ‘“Spare me the loss of my precious child,” beg rather to be delivered from the terror  I only discovered Sharpe’s article after writing this section of the book, but there is considerable overlap between Sharpe’s reading of Fearless and my own. 10


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of losing him’ (Aurelius in T. May, 2017, p. 93). May acknowledges that these philosophical and religious traditions have much to offer us, in terms of both understanding our experience and managing our suffering. He cautions, however, that we might think twice before fully committing to the pursuit of Stoic equanimity or, similarly, the Buddhist goal of non-­ attachment, lest we wilfully eradicate the very things and relationships which make our lives worth living. Over the past decade or so, the popularisation and therapisation of mindfulness (a practice derived but not inseparable from Buddhist tradition) has tended to emphasise the benefits of observing, rather than investing in or fusing with, our thoughts and feelings. This, the theory goes, allows us to carefully respond rather than rashly react to both external events and internal experience. Mindfulness practice aims to create a modicum of mental breathing space, as it were, wherein we can choose how to behave in response to our thoughts and feelings rather than being slavishly led by them. However, even in so far as this is possible and useful (which, to an extent, I think it is and I will return to this in Chap. 2), it is a big leap from this to the kind of non-attachment we find in the foundational Buddhist texts, and which is necessary, according to such teachings, to banish fear. For instance, in the Dhammapada we find this verse: From what is dear, grief is born, from what is dear, fear is born. For someone freed from what is dear there is no grief —so why fear? (212–16 n.d.)

It is our holding things dear that is the problem; this is what makes us emotionally vulnerable and frightened. How then can we be free of what is dear? By a process of deliberate abandonment. In another text, the Abhaya Sutta (abhaya meaning fearless), the Buddha teaches that in order to be fearless in the face of death, one must abandon ‘passion, desire, fondness’ (Thanissaro, n.d.).

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A Meaningful Life However, what we are fond of, passionate about, or care for are often the very things—relationships, people, activities, and causes—that give our lives meaning. In fact, the philosopher Susan Wolf would argue that this element of subjective attraction is an essential component of living a meaningful life. Wolf rejects the hedonistic view that a meaningful life consists simply of following one’s bliss—that is, of committing one’s life to activities one enjoys, irrespective of other concerns (Wolf, 2012, p. 6). (One might thoroughly enjoy doing Sudoku, for instance, but a life devoted largely to this pastime is one few would regard as meaningful.) She also rejects, however, the view that a meaningful life can be determined wholly by a commitment to something ‘larger than oneself ’ or a devotion to something which is seen, by the lights of the era, as morally good (10). It is quite possible, Wolf argues, to devote oneself to morally good work, but if we are not ‘emotionally engaged with the people or things or activities that make what [we] are doing valuable’, then there is a limit to how meaningful our experience of life will be (21). Instead, Wolf takes a view of meaning that borrows, with modifications, from both schools of thought. For Wolf, a meaningful life is one in which a person ‘cares fairly deeply about some thing or things’ which are worthy of this care and with which she engages in a ‘positive way’ (9)—that is to say, there must be some kind of active relationship with the loved object— whether a person, a cause, or a work of art.11 This is, I grant, a contentious view of human meaning. The question of what is a worthy object of one’s concern and investment is (quite rightly) endlessly debatable. And one could also argue against Wolf ’s stipulation for personal fulfilment. Just because a person’s life does not feel meaningful to them, does that mean that it is not meaningful using some other measure (e.g., how meaningful it is to others)? But I think it is likely that the kind of life that most of us would like to live is one that we find meaningful—as opposed to alienating or emotionally empty. Of course, once we care about a particular person or project, we become invested in that person’s flourishing, in that project’s success, and 11

 I am quoting directly from Wolf here, but all of this is part of Todd May’s argument, see 180–2.


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anxious about the possibility of things going wrong. To care, then, is to fear. The invulnerabilist might argue that the practices and philosophies they advocate do not preclude one from being committed to moral endeavours of justice and progress, or looking out for the welfare of others (in fact, many encourage it). But one can do this without anxiety regarding the outcome of these actions. We can behave ethically without being profoundly perturbed when things go wrong, when losses and tragedies ensue. It is possible to be both compassionate and equanimous, to be kind but, ultimately, unmoved. Again, for those whose lives are marred with anxiety, there might be something deeply appealing about this proposition. At least initially. But the more one thinks about it, or at least this is my own experience, the prospect of such a state of being becomes increasingly unsettling—a sense of losing something quite central to one’s humanity (indeed there is a way of conceiving of Buddhahood in particular as something super- or post-human). Such a state or mode of being may or may not be achievable. Todd May, at least, thinks that for most of us it probably isn’t. But even if it were, would we really want it? Would we want to be the kind of people who are emotionally disconnected from the outcomes of our projects, the flourishing of those we’re engaged with, or even the continued existence of those projects themselves? Would we want to be the kind of people who do not grieve at important losses? (T. May, 2017, p. 184)

Returning to Fearless, although Max’s altered state is useful, even life-­ saving, during and immediately after the disaster, his new-found fearlessness proves incompatible with his previous life. All that has previously (presumably) given his life meaning—his family, his work—is abandoned. Max’s relationship with his son deteriorates, and his marriage all but collapses. His truth-telling can be indiscriminate and hurtful, and when the finest shadow of fear creeps back into his consciousness, he must compulsively do something death-defying in order to vanquish it. Such actions—like balancing on the edge of a skyscraper—endanger not only his own life but also the lives of others. He spends most of his time in the film not with his family, but with another survivor, Carla (played by Rosie Perez), who is deeply distraught by the loss of her child and the

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guilt that she could have saved him. In their traumatised states, Max and Carla, detached from the world of other human beings, bond with each other in a strange, liminal world. ‘We are ghosts’, Max tells Carla, because ‘we died already’—not physically ‘but in our minds’ (Weir, 1993). The narrative reaches its crisis point when Max attempts to prove to Carla that she could not have saved her son—that it is was, in fact, physically impossible for her to have done so. With Carla sitting in the backseat—clutching a toolbox as if it were her infant son—Max drives as fast as he can into a concrete wall. Despite her efforts to keep hold of it, the impact forces the toolbox from Carla’s arms, and the camera shows it flying through the windshield. Max is seriously hurt in the incident, but this dangerous act does liberate Carla from ghosthood; her guilt assuaged she becomes able, despite her grief, to live again, to find meaning in the ordinary world. Max’s trauma, however, is related not to guilt but to fear. The way back for Max is admitting his own fragility and dependence, and, crucially, allowing fear back into his life. In the movie’s final scene, Max, his face scarred, his expression open and vulnerable, asks his wife Laura (played by Isabella Rossellini) to save him. After spending the majority of the movie pushing Laura away, this asking for help opens the door back into a world of loving bonds and meaning—and also vulnerability. This is symbolised by Max again eating a strawberry. Only this time, when Max eats the fruit, he goes into anaphylactic shock, and Laura must resuscitate him with the kiss of life. Love and meaning, fragility and anxiety, are, the film suggests, mutually dependent and inseparable. It is Max’s reattachment to familial bonds and also to the value of his own life—and the fear that he might lose it—which brings him, gasping, back to the world.

Summary When I use the term ‘anxiety’ in this book, I am referring to a future-­ orientated emotion that has psychological, physiological, and behavioural manifestations. The frequency and intensity by which I might experience this emotion are impacted by a range of interrelated factors both biological and environmental (and both past and present). It is at root a survival


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instinct, triggered by a threat we perceive to be in some way catastrophic. Though the boundaries between fear and anxiety are, to a degree, porous, the former is often a proportionate and useful response to a known and specific threat, whereas the latter tends to be more pervasive and amorphous. However, though the origin of anxiety can appear to be objectless, by colouring our whole perception, it can paradoxically attach itself to an evolving variety of objects (both internal and external). Feelings of fear belong to the process of living and caring for the things of this world— fear can even alert us to that which is most meaningful to us. Anxiety can also operate in this way if we are able to determine an underlying cause (and I will explore this further in Chap. 2). However, due to its free-­ floating and shape-shifting nature, anxiety can often exceed usefulness; it can, at its most chronic, severely distort and disrupt our ability to live a meaningful life, to care for others and ourselves, and respond creatively to the world around us.

Part 2 Defining Creativity According to the OED, the first appearance of the English noun creativity is in 1659, with George Lawson’s reference to ‘God and his Creativity’ in Theo-politica (Lawson, OED). The word is predated by cognates such as create, creator, and creation, though in the medieval period, all these terms too were used exclusively to refer to the Judaeo-Christian God and the Biblical creation story. By the Elizabethan period, a human capacity to ‘create’ had tentatively entered the literary discourse (Rob Pope (2005) points to examples in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors c. 1594, Hamlet c. 1600, and Macbeth 1606). It was not till the eighteenth century, however, and the work of the early Romantics that the productive energies of the human imagination became heralded in a way we would recognise today. Though human creation during this period was still often associated to a greater or lesser extent with divinity (Pope cites William Blake’s Jerusalem (1804–1820) and Samuel Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817)), being ‘creative’ from here on in was no longer the sole province

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of the deity (Pope, 2005, pp. 37–39). The word creativity is first used in relation to human activity in 1875, with A.  M. Ward’s reference to Shakespeare’s ‘poetic creativity’ (Ward, OED).12

The Standard Definition of Creativity In the field of Creativity Studies, the ‘standard definition’ of creativity is that it ‘requires both originality and effectiveness’ (Runco & Jaeger, 2012, p. 92). This bipartite understanding of creativity can be traced back to a 1953 paper by Morris Stein called ‘Creativity and Culture’, wherein he argues that: The creative work is a novel work that is accepted as tenable or useful or satisfying by a group in some point in time. (Stein in Runco & Jaeger, 2012, p. 94)13

In this model, novelty alone is not enough to qualify as creativity. It must also have a quality of ‘appropriateness’ or ‘fit’ (Runco & Jaeger, 2012, p. 92). An architect might construct something quite novel—say, a house made of microchips. But such a building would not be effective at providing a home for humans. The choice of materials is original but not appropriate—thus, it is not, according to the standard definition, an example of creativity.14  Ideas about and attitudes towards ‘inspiration’ follow a similar trajectory. Derived from Latin, meaning to breathe in, inspiration ‘involves a subject who composes by encountering something outside common human experience, a force of alterity’, and this alterity was traditionally of divine origin (see the role of the Muses in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (ca. 800 BCE) and Hesiod’s Theogony (ca. 7000 BCE)). However, ‘[l]ate 17th-c interest in Longinus’s 1st-c treatise Peri hypsous (On the Sublime) demystified inspiration, recasting it as an aesthetic and rhetorical effect of the sublime. This secular brand of inspiration sprung from the poet’s own mind, rather than arriving from the outside, through external forces (i.e., the Muses, God). Inspiration became the product of native genius and imagination, the mark of expansive human creative potential’ (Cushman et  al., 2012, p. 709; emphases added). I will discuss the idea of inspiration further in Chap. 2. 13  Though this line of thinking has a much longer history—see Runco and Jaeger (2012) for an overview. 14  However, if such a building was designed not as a home but as a work of art, aiming to comment, say, on the increasing technologised nature of our homes, then the measure of effectiveness would, of course, be different. 12


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Questioning Effectiveness Such a definition has the appeal of brevity and (apparent) simplicity. We could take issue with it on a number of grounds, however. Effectiveness is far easier to identify, measure, and quantify in some fields (such as technology) than it is in others (such as the arts). As Anthony Brandt argues: ‘creative assessment in the arts is problematic because experts can disagree, judgment can be faulty or biased, and opinions can change’ (Brandt, 2021, p.  85). The arts are generally low-consensus fields and have been especially so since the twentieth century. Controversies and disagreements are common; reputations wax and wane. Moreover, as Robert Sternberg points out, creativity is often propelled by ‘defiance of—active assertion against—conventional views in favour of a new view’ (Sternberg in Brandt, 2021, p. 87). That is to say, even when there is a cultural consensus regarding what is fitting, appropriate and valuable in a given art form, the most original works of that period will quite likely define themselves against that consensus. The paintings of the Impressionists, for instance, parted so significantly from the dominant academic style of the time, that they were often rejected by the jury of the Salon de Paris. To allow people to see their work, Pissarro, Monet, and Renoir had to put on their own show, the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Rejects). Though Impressionism is now seen as one of the most important and influential artistic movements of the nineteenth century, ‘Impressionist’ was originally a term of derision (Januszczak, 2022). Moreover, it is not just aesthetic disagreement that can cause works to be neglected and overlooked, social prejudices (such as sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia) can also impact a work’s reception and evaluation. Research published in 2015 by the psychologists Devon Proudfoot, Aaron Kay, and Kristy Koval found that ‘men were rated as more creative than women for equivalent work’ (Brandt, 2021, p. 84). It should perhaps come as no surprise, therefore, to find that a research study published in 2019 found that ‘of artists featured in prominent permanent exhibitions’, 87% were male—and 85% were white (Evaristo, 2022). When there is an intersection of prejudices—such as sexism and racism—cultural neglect can be intensified. As Bernardine Evaristo points out, in the UK, though the inaugural Turner Prize was awarded in 1984,

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it was another thirty-three years before Lubaina Himid became the first Black woman to win in 2017 (Evaristo, 2022). And in the literary sphere, it was fifty years after the award’s inception that Evaristo herself became the first Black woman to win the Booker Prize in 2019. Any weight given to acceptance based on consensus needs to take account of conscious and unconscious bias. A work can also be subject to the judgement of multiple juries—who might vigorously disagree. The movies of Michael Bay tend, on the whole, to be very poorly received by critics, but are very popular with moviegoers. His Transformers: The Age of Extinction, for instance, receives a score of just 17% on the review-aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, but it took $245.4  million at the box office (Rotten Tomatoes). With such divisive work, is it the critics or the public who decide its merit—and thus whether it is deemed creative or not? With more ‘experimental’ filmmaking, the reverse is often true: the films might be well reviewed but struggle to finding an audience beyond this. Moreover, experiments—in any art form—go wrong; works of great technical ambition and imaginative freedom sometimes fail (by every standard—including the creator’s own). But does not all creativity proceed by trial and error? Experiment and failure are integral to the creative process, especially to those of the nonconformist (Brandt, 2021, p. 89). Though a consideration of a work’s reception will likely always be factored into this process (Clark, 2001, discussed further below), whether a work or experience is deemed creative or not should not be dependent on a product’s reception. We can think instead in terms of action and intention. If one moves from merely thinking about writing a story to actually writing one, with an intention for that story not to simply be a copy of a pre-existing text, then we can say that said person is involved in a creative act—irrespective of whether or not that story is well received or even if it ever leaves the laptop of the writer.

Originality Less obviously, perhaps, we might rethink the extent to which creativity must involve originality. The injunction is that it should goes back to the eighteenth century—see, for instance, Edward Young’s Conjectures on


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Original Composition (1759), and Wordsworth’s letter to Lady Beaumont (1804), wherein he claims ‘every great and original writer […] must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished’ (Young and Wordsworth, both cited in Pope, 2005, p. 38). The cultural critic Raymond Williams, however, argues that an experience of great art is not always predicated on it being radically ‘new’: Our experience includes the apparently different quality of ‘recognition’: that this, literally, is what we have always known. Now there need be no difficulty in this, if we look at the history of art. In many societies it has been the function of art to embody what we can call the common meanings of the society. The artist is not describing new experiences, but embodying known experiences. There is great danger in the assumption that art serves only on the frontiers of knowledge. It serves on these frontiers, particularly in disturbed and rapidly changing societies. Yet it serves, also, at the very centre of societies. It is often through the art that the society expresses its sense of being a society. The artist, in this case, is not the lonely explorer, but the voice of his community. (Williams, 1961, p. 30)

For Williams, art is an act of communication, and as such the extent of its novelty is dependent on the distance between what he calls ‘personal meanings’ and ‘common meanings’ (31). When the distance between an artist’s vision and a society’s values is great and locating a suitable means of communication from available models is difficult, then the result will likely be the creation of work—considered by the lights of its era—as avant-garde. We see this most obviously in modernism. Produced in the wake of Darwin and Freud, whose ideas so unsettled previous certainties, as well as the trauma of the Great War, modernist works radically experiment with form in an effort to explore and express the difficulties in making sense of their early twentieth-century world (Peck & Coyle, 2002, p. 7). However, when the relationship between the personal meaning of an artist and the common meaning of the audience is close, then the artist is able to utilise more familiar modes of creative expression. And the former, according to Williams, is in no way necessarily superior to the latter:

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So far from this being simply ‘conventional’ art, with the implication that it is less likely to be valuable, it is probable that most great art has been made in these conditions. For the artist, in such a case, is not simply ‘copying’ the common meanings; the meanings are his own, in a deep realization, and yet the conditions for their communication are powerfully available. (Williams, 1961, p. 31)

The novelty requirement of creativity is very much a Western paradigm. A view of creativity as ‘conceptual rupture’—showing a decisive and significant break with the past—is not an idea we find, for instance, in many Eastern countries (such as China, Japan, and Korea). Todd Lubart has argued that in these cultures, creativity is often thought of in terms of ‘starting off from an existing idea, perfecting it, and then gradually improving it’; creativity is characterised by ‘hard work, dedication, and even respect for tradition and the “old”’ (Celik & Lubart, 2016, pp. 39–40). Here is the Japanese ukiyo-e printmaker, Hokusai, discussing his development as an artist: From the age of six I was in the habit of drawing all kinds of things. Although I had produced numerous designs by my fiftieth year, none of my work done before my seventieth is really worth counting. At the age of seventy-three I have come to understand the true forms of animals, insects and fish and the nature of plants and trees. Consequently, by the age of eighty-six I will have made more and more progress, and at ninety I will have got significantly closer to the essence of art. At the age of one hundred I will have reached a magnificent level; and at one hundred and ten each dot and each line will be alive. (Hokusai in Kozbelt, 2016, p. 581)

Here artistic achievement is addressed in terms of a life-long process of learning to see—‘to understand the true forms’ of things in order to render them. And even this rendering—when imagined to be successful—is not described in terms of great novelty or formal rupture, but with each dot and line simply being ‘alive’. Broadly speaking, whereas notions of creativity in the West tend to prioritise the individualistic and the novel, in the East ‘creativity emphasises adaptive value and continuity with tradition’ (Kozbelt, 2016, pp. 580–581).


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Taking a pan-cultural view, based on his analysis of the world’s creation myths, Rob Pope argues that what we call creation should more accurately be referred to as re-creation: [C]ontrary to initial appearances, every creation myth involves creation from something (whether a prior state of order, chaos, the void or notionally ‘nothing’); for even ‘no-thing’ requires that we imagine ‘some-thing’ in order to negate it. In this sense, so-called ‘creation from nothing’ (ex nihilo) is a rhetorical trick and a sleight of the mind. (Pope, 2005, p. 139)

And this is true of creativity more broadly: it never emerges from nothing. No idea arrives from ‘out of the blue’, even if it seems to. Creativity is responsive and dialogic, to use Bakhtin’s term (Pope, 2005, p.  95). There is no art that is not in some way indebted to what preceded it. Creative works always, to a greater or lesser extent, build on, refine, refashion, repurpose, reimagine, or deconstruct what has gone before.

Creative Experience Here is Harry Wilson of the Ashington Group (1934–1984)—sometimes known as the Pitmen Painters—on how it feels when he paints: When I paint as we do in our Group, I have a feeling of freedom; here I find an outlet for other things than earning my living; there is a feeling of being my own boss for a change and with it comes a sense of freedom. When I have done a piece of painting I feel that something has happened not only to the panel or the canvas, but to myself. (Wilson in Feaver, 2010, p. 28)

Ashington is an old coal-mining town in Northumberland. The group Wilson was a part of began as a Workers Educational Association (WEA) class. Not all of its members were pitmen (Wilson, unable to mine after being gassed in the Great War, was a dental mechanic), but none were professional painters. The art they produced provides us with a vital insider’s depiction of a mining community, but it also, as Wilson’s comments show, engendered profound and liberating experiences for the

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artists themselves. In light of this, besides questioning the criteria of effectives and originality, we might also take issue with the ‘standard definition’ for its failure to consider creativity as experience. Vlad Glăveanu and Ronald Beghetto argue that the standard definition ‘consider[s] creativity almost exclusively in terms of products and product-directed processes’ (Glăveanu & Beghetto, 2021, p. 75). It leaves out a consideration of the experience of creativity and all the ways in which such experience might actually occur outside of a product-centred conception of creativity. The roots of this line of thinking can be traced at least as far back as Pragmatism (Glăveanu & Beghetto, 2021, p. 76), though it arguably goes back further to Rousseau and Emerson (Pope, 2005, p. 53). It is also central to the psychoanalysis of D. W. Winnicott (2006), who, along with Rollo May (1994) sees creativity as occurring in an intermediate space between subject and object.15 Winnicott does not cordon off the experience of creativity into discreet realms of endeavour (such as art, science, and technological invention). Rather, he subscribes to the idea that all human experience has the potential to be creative. For the Pragmatists William James, John Dewey, and Charles S.  Pierce, ‘human experience marks the encounter between person and world’, and as Glăveanu and Beghetto point out, in negotiating this relationship we are all improvisers, constantly inventing and problem-solving in response to a series of unpredictable obstacles (Glăveanu & Beghetto, 2021, pp.  75–76). At the same time, however, not every experience or every contact with our world is creative, so how does one define those that are? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2002) observed that those involved in creative activity tend be unselfconscious and their attention fully absorbed— that is to say, there is little capacity to attend to anything else. Though the process is goal focused, as an experience it is intrinsically satisfying. This kind of ‘flow’ state, about which I will say more in Chap. 3, can be achieved outside of specifically creative endeavours, however. Therefore, in an attempt to define what constitutes a specifically creative experience, Glăveanu and Beghetto have proposed a number of interconnected criteria. They conceive of creative experience as a meaningful interaction with  I discuss this intermediate space and the ideas of Rollo May and Winnicott in more depth and detail in Chaps. 2 and 3 respectively. 15


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the world, that is in some way ‘novel’ and marked by four key principles: open-endedness, nonlinearity, pluri-perspectives, and future-orientation (Glăveanu & Beghetto, 2021, p. 75). By open-endedness, they mean that the experience is characterised by a certain flexibility and receptiveness, by ‘a willingness to explore emerging directions and to move away from a dogged pursuit of specific, pre-determined outcomes’ (77). This creative process is likely to be nonlinear in that it rarely proceeds smoothly from A to B. It tends to involve a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, and is actually quite ‘messy’—even if it doesn’t appear so to those observing it (77). An ability to entertain a multiplicity of perspectives is also characteristic of this experience, and it is in dialogue between these that new possibilities often reveal themselves. This is perhaps most obvious in (though certainly not limited to) any creative collaboration such as staging a play or co-writing a song. We might also think of this though not just in terms of the creation of a work of art, but in the experience of that work by another. To paint involves creative experience, but so does viewing that painting because the work, if enduring, is constantly offering new meanings in response to new eyes (78). Finally, though humans tend, psychologically, to be future-orientated anyway, Glăveanu and Beghetto argue that this is especially true of creative experience. At first, this might seem at odds with the being-in-the-moment-ness of creativity, the aforementioned sense of flow conceptualised by Csikszentmihalyi. Even when fully absorbed in creative production, however, one is actualising, bringing into being that which was not there before (Glăveanu & Beghetto, 2021, p.  75). Moreover, part of our internal feedback system—essential for flow—might involve imagining the future reception of such productions (Clark, 2001). More broadly though, creative experience is future-­ orientated in the sense that, in one way or another, it requires venturing into the unknown or uncertain—we can never guarantee the outcome of our creative endeavours. It is useful to distinguish these different markers for purposes of discussion, but they cannot really be separated. They overlap and intervolve. The ability to entertain multiple perspectives is of a piece with being able to reconceive one’s project as it develops, and one is only able to move into the future via a substantial amount of re-­treading and redrafting.

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Re-definition The above discussion is included here to justify and explain why, when I refer to creativity in in what follows, I am not referring to the standard definition. Instead, creativity, as I use the word in this book, is most helpfully thought about in terms of action, intention, and experience. When it comes to art making, creativity requires action. This is how we can distinguish it from merely daydreaming.16 Though thinking is an essential component of creativity, it is when one moves from just thinking about writing a play to actually writing one that the creative act proper begins. Such an act is motivated by an intention to bring some new thing into the world (and by thing I include that which is ephemeral like an unrecorded performance or improvisation). I don’t mind labelling this as an intention towards novelty, as long as we keep the bar relatively low for what counts as novel. A work might be very derivative without being an exact replica. Such a work is original in so far as it is different from existing works (it is just not very different). I don’t think this derivativeness is necessarily any mark of failure: reproduction with minor augmentation might be just what a creator intends. As long as there is some aspect of the work that is new, and as such has ventured or is venturing into the unknown or uncertain, then this, in my view, qualifies it as creative. The third criterion is that of experience. The creative experience arises through interaction of the conscious mind (or minds) with objects and ideas pre-existing in the world. It involves, by turns, absorption and reflection, and is characterised by a certain cognitive flexibility and receptivity. This experience is, for the large part, intrinsically rewarding and meaningful, irrespective of the end result, yet having a clear goal or aim (even if this becomes modified along the way) can be an important facilitatory factor in the process (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).


 I discuss this in greater detail in Chap. 2.


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Part 3 Anxious Creativity and Creativity Anxiety Having defined and explained how I am using the terms ‘anxiety’ and ‘creativity’, in the final part of this chapter I will discuss various ways in which they can impact each other, with particular focus on how the former can arrest the latter. As outlined above, one of the defining characteristics of anxiety is it nebulousness and ability to attach itself to any susceptible object. These can be external—such as sights and sounds—or internal—like thoughts and memories. When our mind is in a state of heightened anxiety, anything that enters our field of awareness, whether a social interaction or a mental recollection, is likely to be interpreted through the distorting lens of that anxiety. There is no reason to believe that the creative process would be immune to this. The creation of art involves a complex of thought and action, of intuition and reflection, of introspective imagination and anticipation of reception. There are plenty of potential stimuli here for the hair-trigger cognitions of a fearful mind, as I will discuss in more detail below. However, in other instances, it might not be that the act of creativity becomes coloured and disrupted by a pre-existing anxiety. Rather it can be the creative act itself, or the prospect of being called on to think creatively, which is the cause of alarm. This is what Richard Daker et al. have called ‘creativity anxiety’ (Daker et al., 2019). Daker is interested not only in identifying anxiety specific to creativity, but also to distinguish this from anxiety related to craft and technical proficiency. In order to do this, he and his research team developed a new measurement, the Creativity Anxiety Scale (CAS). The CAS presents participants with a variety of imagined situations and tasks across a range of potentially creative disciplines—such as visual art, music, science, and gastronomy—and asks them to ‘choose the response that best describes “how much it would make you feel anxious”’ (Daker et al., 2019, p. 45). Each item on the scale is paired, so participants are presented with one situation requiring creative thinking and a corresponding control item, contextually similar, that emphasises ‘following instructions or

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established procedures’ instead (43). For instance, ‘Having to come up with a unique way of doing something’ in music is coupled with ‘Having to precisely follow an established method of doing something’; ‘Having to think about something from a novel perspective’ in visual art is paired with ‘Having to think about something according to a fixed system’ (45). This helps the researchers identify anxiety which is specific to creativity, as opposed to anxiety arising from the particular technical demands of a creative domain. I might feel anxious about taking up the saxophone, not due to any creative cognition that might be required of me, but because of the technical and physical difficulty of learning to play. Conversely, a professional saxophonist might display exceptional technical mastery, but still become very anxious if asked to improvise or write their own composition (Daker would refer to such a musician as an ‘uncreative artist’ (53)).17 It is possible for someone to be involved in, and even be at the pinnacle of, a creative domain—such a music or dance— whilst still suffering from a significant amount of anxiety in relation to their own capacity for novelty or innovation. The Creativity Anxiety Scale then is designed to distinguish ‘the conceptualization of creativity based on what a person does from the conceptualization of creativity as how a person thinks’ (53; emphases added). Things are not as simple as this binary suggests, however, because how a person thinks can also impact what that person does. The study found that people with high levels of ‘creativity anxiety’ were far less likely to have pursued and thrived in a creative pursuit in their everyday lives. ‘Even controlling for other forms of anxiety’, Daker comments, ‘creativity anxiety was predictive of people’s real-world creative achievements’ (Daker in Robson, 2021).

 The distinction Daker makes here is useful, but I think one needs to be careful with this label ‘uncreative artist’. Though some working in creative domains, such as Daker’s violinist acquaintance, might ‘approach their craft as a technical pursuit more than a creative one and […] not consider themselves particularly creative’ (53), others working in similar domains might take a different view, highlighting the creativity that can be involved in performative interpretation. Writing about pop singing, for instance, Tracey Thorn argues that ‘[d]ecisions are being made all the time, ones which require attention and focus—settling on the range in which you’re going to sing, which part of your voice you’re going to use, your pronunciation, accent, inflection, sense of rhythm, volume, dynamics […]. And the question of “taste”—not only in what songs to sing, but how to sing them—brings an aesthetic consciousness to the process of singing’ (Thorn, 2016, p. ix). 17


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Future-Orientation Another way in which anxiety and creativity are connected is in terms of future-orientation—a defining characteristic of both. Conscious or not, undergirding all experiences of anxiety is a fearful anticipation—the mind projecting forward to a potentially catastrophic future. Creativity, whether in the form of making or problem-solving, also involves projecting into the future. However, whereas the anxious mind is scanning for threats, the creative mind is searching for possibilities. I argued above that judgement of a work’s creativeness should not be determined by its reception; that is not to say, however, that a consideration of reception is not an important component of creative process and experience. For the literary theorist Timothy Clark, this is a crucial part of creativity, for ‘the scene of composition is already a prolepsis of reception’ (Clark, 2001, p. 29). Clark argues that a writer’s experience of being inspired—that is, when a certain combination of words engender a sense of ‘excitement’ and ‘power’ and a recognition of ‘value’—can be comprehended, at least partly, as the writer’s ‘sense of, or even conscious anticipation of, the possible impact of the emergent text on a notional or ideal audience’ (29–30). That is to say, when I read back to myself a line of poetry I have written, any feeling I might have that it is good arises partly from my imagining an audience’s favourable response to it. This anticipation of audience response, however, might be debilitating rather than inspiring—or both by turns. Here is the novelist, Zadie Smith, describing her writing/revision process: [I]t’s self-doubt that makes me go over a sentence an OCD amount of times. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If I had less self-doubt I’d just leave it. And that sentence would be bad. Although, if you have too much of it, it can stop you working altogether. (Smith in Jones, 2017)18

When teaching creative writing, we often speak of the usefulness of conceiving of the writing process as having two distinct phases, involving  Smith has discussed her mental health in relation to what she calls ‘melancholy’. I’m presuming, however, that Smith is using OCD in the colloquial rather than clinical sense here. 18

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two quite different attitudes. The first phase is all about ‘getting something down’, constructing a rough first draft. This involves turning down the volume of our inner critic and giving as little thought to reception and evaluation as possible. In the second phase, we turn the volume of our inner critic (or inner editor) back up and try to look at the work as a reader—that is, with more objective and critical scrutiny. The problem with this advice, of course, is that it can be remarkably difficult to turn down the volume of our inner critic, and even if we manage it, this often-­ bullish voice is reluctant to stay quiet for long. Moreover, though discernment in the execution of one’s craft is essential to creating art, our inner critic is often neither discerning nor objective. On the contrary, as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes: [I]t is remarkably narrow-minded; it has an unusually impoverished vocabulary; and it is, like all propagandists, relentlessly repetitive. It is cruelly intimidating […] and it never brings us any news about ourselves. […] Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. (Phillips, 2015)19

If we encountered such a figure socially, we might be inclined to treat what this person says with some degree of scepticism and suspicion, but when this voice is inside our head, as it were, we tend to take it very seriously indeed. Moreover, when we think that not heeding this inner critic’s warning will result in something catastrophic occurring, then anxiety—and subsequently avoidance—will likely ensue, putting a stop to our creative practice entirely. This is why creative writing teachers have developed practices aimed specifically at bypassing the inner critic. One of these is ‘free writing’. This involves allocating a short time (ten minutes, say) fairly regularly to write without pause or revision. The pen, pencil, or laptop keys should remain in motion for the duration, and the writer should not look back or correct anything. When engaged in this exercise, the writing need show no concern for spelling, punctuation, or grammar. If the mind goes  I am using this quote in relation to the creative process, but Phillips is writing here about how our inner critic functions generally. 19


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blank, the writer can just write ‘I can’t think of anything’ (or something along those lines) or simply repeat the final word they wrote (Elbow, 1998, p. 3). The exercise is devised to bypass—or to provide some temporary relief from—our internal critic/editor. As Zadie Smith points out above, editing and revision are a requirement of good writing. ‘The problem’, Peter Elbow explains, ‘is that editing goes on at the same time as producing’. The editor is, as it were, constantly looking over the shoulder of the producer and constantly fiddling with what he’s doing while he’s in the middle of trying to do it. No wonder the producer gets nervous, jumpy, inhibited, and finally can’t be coherent. It’s an unnecessary burden to try to think of words and also worry at the same time whether they’re the right words. (Elbow, 1998, p. 5)

A crucial component of free writing is that ‘it must never be evaluated in any way’ (Elbow, 1998, p. 4). When I run this exercise with my own students, I assure them that I will not be asking them to share this writing. They are free to throw it away or delete it as soon as they have written it. But they can also use what they have written as the beginning of, or contribution to, a piece of writing proper. They might find in this ramble of words the beginnings of a poem or an image they can incorporate into a short story they are currently working on. If, as Clark argues, composition is guided partly by ‘a prolepsis of reception’ (Clark, 2001, p. 29), techniques such as this can help prevent anxiety about that reception becoming entirely debilitating and, as Smith says, ‘stop [us] working altogether’ (Smith in Jones, 2017). Of course, this only allows a writer to make a start. As the creative process is nonlinear, requiring much back and forth between phases and attitudes, between flow-like absorption and critical reflection, there are various different stages where doubt and anxiety can creep back in and become inhibiting. Sometimes, our inner critic can be so difficult to appease because what it demands is certainty— to be sure that that something is good or right; that it is the best it possibly could be; that it will achieve the effects and elicit the responses the creator desires. Such demands, however, are in conflict with the idea that creativity always involves stepping into the unknown.

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Uncertainty Ronald Beghetto defines uncertainty in the following way: Uncertainty refers to a state of doubt. It connotes a lack of determinateness, sureness, stability, control, and predictability. Although uncertainty typically refers to one’s own experience of doubt in the present moment, it also includes past- and future-oriented doubts about others, features of the environment, and the interrelationship among self, others, and context. It thereby refers to a present state of not knowing, a future oriented inability to confidently predict what will happen in the future and a potential lack of clarity of how to make sense of past events. (Beghetto, 2020, p. 1)

Uncertainty is not a pleasant state, or certainly is not often thought of as such. It is usually something that we seek to be free from. When we are certain about something, we feel confident, secure in our knowledge. Indeed, to return to the OED definition of anxiety that this chapter opened with, it is the nervous anticipation of an uncertain outcome. So it should perhaps come as no surprise that Intolerance of Uncertainty (IU) is associated with a range of anxiety disorders (Davey, 2018, p. 197). Being able to tolerate uncertainty has long—at least since the Romantics—been considered an important component of creativity. Perhaps the most well-known version of this is Keats’ concept of negative capability (1818)—‘that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’ (Keats, 2009). Negative capability was, in Keats’ view, the quality that Shakespeare possessed in abundance and was for him a defining characteristic of an artist of great ‘Achievement’ (Keats, 2009). Almost a century later, the American Pragmatists were reiterating the importance of this. John Dewey in How We Think (1910) wrote of the importance of ‘acquiring the attitude of suspended conclusion’ and ‘maintain[ing] the state of doubt’ in order for new thoughts to emerge (Dewey in Beghetto, 2020, p. 3). This is why Beghetto, echoing the language of Kierkegaard, calls uncertainty ‘a gateway to the possible’ (Beghetto, 2020, p. 5). However, Beghetto argues that not all forms of uncertainty are likely to act as such gateways. He acknowledges that our existence is


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fundamentally uncertain, but that such uncertainty can be divided into different categories: the mundane, the profound, and the actionable. What he calls mundane uncertainties refer to things of which we are uncertain but that do not bother us too much and thus do not occupy much of our attention. Profound uncertainties, on the other hand, might be distressing, but they are, in one way or another, beyond our powers of resolution—thus we must learn to live with them (Beghetto, 2020, p. 6). (The most obvious of these is perhaps that we and everyone we love will one day die but we do not know—and cannot know—where or when.) There is a third kind of uncertainty though, which is particularly important to a consideration of creativity, and this is what Beghetto calls actionable uncertainty: ‘a state of doubt that rises to a level of awareness whereby we find ourselves at an impasse and feel the need to explore and enact new possibilities’ (2). It is this type of uncertainty that both Pragmatist philosophers—like Dewey and C.  S. Pierce—as well as contemporary theorists of creativity—such as Christopher Bardt and Vlad Glăveanu— consider a motivator of ‘new modes of inquiry and new possibilities for thought and action’ (Beghetto, 2020, p. 2). Regarding how new possibilities might emerge from uncertainty in the artistic sphere, perhaps the obvious example  would be improvisation. Indeed, the jazz musician and academic John Mackey argues that ‘[t]he difference between a master improvising jazz soloist and an amateur is revealed through the creative response to uncertainty and certainty’ (Mackey, 2008, p. 111). When improvising, certainties are present—in terms of the musician’s knowledge of chord sequence and performance practice. Co-terminus with these, however, is the uncertainty generated by the profusion of melodic and rhythmical options available in any given moment (108). Though there are various methods a player can use to reduce this uncertainty (see Mackey, 2008, p. 110), it is the very ‘spontaneity and uncertainty’ involved in improvisation that produces the experience of exhilaration in both performers and their audience (108). When anxious there is often a desperation for certitude, for the known, whereas, the jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim says, improvisers like him play ‘without knowing where we are headed. This makes us free. We don’t fear situations that we don’t know’ (Ibrahim, 2017). Moreover, uncertainty in jazz improv can, Mackey argues, ‘generate a feeling of proactivity to help

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find solutions and therefore gain further knowledge’ (Mackey, 2008, p.  109)—an idea very much in harmony with Beghetto’s concept of actionable uncertainty. Beghetto’s idea of actionable, as I understand it, is not about looking irritably for the quickest way to get rid of uncertainty, but rather involves engaging deeply and patiently with it. Doing so might lead us to creative, insightful ‘actions’ (Beghetto, 2020, p. 3), to ways forward, but any ‘solutions’ should only ever be seen as temporary. Uncertainty is, as it were, the water we all swim in, and the process of art making brings this truth intensely into focus. As much as our anxious inner voices demand it, we can never be sure, just as we can never entirely eliminate the possibility of the catastrophic. We are fragile, finite creatures, aware of our own mortality and capacity for creativity. Each of our works, like each of our lives, is an experiment—no matter how seemingly derivative. Though we can and should study to master our chosen craft(s), we will still err and fail. Thus, anxiety will always likely be with us, at some point and to some extent, during our creative endeavours. How we might prevent this anxiety from entirely closing down our ability to create, or stopping us from discovering and developing that ability in the first place, however, is the focus of the rest of this book.

Works Cited Abhaya Sutta, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu. (n.d.). Fearless Buddhist: Overcoming Fear and Becoming Gesar: How to Overcome Fear in Uncertain Times, According to Pali Sutta, Mahayana Sutra and Tantra. Buddha Weekly. Retrieved July 27, 2022, from becoming-­gesar-­fearless-­buddhist-­overcome-­fear-­uncertain-­times-­according-­ pali-­sutta-­mahayana-­sutra-­tantra/ Beghetto, R.  A. (2020). Uncertainty. In V.  P. Glăveanu (Ed.), The Palgrave Encyclopedia of the Possible (Living ed.). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi. org/10.1007/978-­3-­319-­98390-­5_122-­1 Bourke, J. (2005). Fear: A Cultural History. Virago. Brandt, A. (2021). Defining Creativity: A View from the Arts. Creativity Research Journal, 33(2), 81–95.


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Celik, P., & Lubart, T. (2016). When East Meets West. In V. P. Glăveanu (Ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Creativity and Culture Research (pp.  37–56). Palgrave Macmillan. Clark, T. (2001). The Theory of Inspiration: Composition as a Crisis of Subjectivity in Romantic and Post-Romantic Writing. Manchester University Press. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness. Rider. Cushman, S., Cavanagh, C., Ramazani, J., & Rouzer, P. (Eds.). (2012). The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Fourth Edition. Princeton University Press. Daker, R.  J., Cortes, R.  A., Lyons, I.  M., & Green, A.  E. (2019). Creativity Anxiety: Evidence for Anxiety that Is Specific to Creative Thinking, from STEM to the Arts. Journal of Experimental Psychology General, 149(1), 42–57. Davey, G. (2018). The Anxiety Epidemic: The Causes of Our Modern-Day Anxieties. Robinson. Dhammapada. (n.d.). Fearless Buddhist: Overcoming Fear and Becoming Gesar: How to Overcome Fear in Uncertain Times, According to Pali Sutta, Mahayana Sutra and Tantra. Buddha Weekly. Retrieved July 27, 2022, from­g esar-­f earless-­b uddhist­overcome-­fear-­uncertain-­times-­according-­pali-­sutta-­mahayana-­sutra-­tantra/ Elbow, P. (1998). Writing Without Teachers. Oxford University Press. Evaristo, B. (2022). They Are Totally Smashing It! Bernardine Evaristo on the Artistic Triumph of Older Black Women. Guardian. April 28. Retrieved July 27, 2022, from bernardine-­evaristo-­on-­the-­artistic-­triumph-­of-­older-­black-­women Feaver, W. (2010). Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934–1984. Northumbria Press. Freeman, D., & Freeman, J. (2012). Anxiety: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. Freud, S. (2001 [1895]). On the Grounds for Detaching a Particular Syndrome from Neurasthenia under the description “Anxiety Neurosis”. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. III (1893–1899): Early Psychoanalytic Publications (pp. 85–117). Vintage. Glăveanu, V. (2021). Creativity: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. Glăveanu, V. P., & Beghetto, R. A. (2021). Creative Experience: A Non-Standard Definition of Creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 33(2), 75–80. https:// Goodwin, D. (1987). Anxiety. Ballantine Books.

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Ibrahim, A. (2017). Improvised Life. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://­ibrahim/ Januszczak, W. (writer). (2022). The Impressionists: Painting and Revolution. BBC. Jones, A. (2017). Stylist Chats to Zadie Smith About Self-doubt, Socialising and Her New Novel Swing Time. Stylist 134. Retrieved February 18, 2022, from h t t p s : / / w w w. s t y l i s t . c o . u k / p e o p l e / z a d i e -­s m i t h -­c o n f i d e n c e ­s elf-­d oubt-­s ocialising-­b ook-­n ovel-­s wing-­t ime-­a uthor-­l iterature/ 30476 Keats, J. (2009 [1818]). Selections from Keats Letters. Poetry Foundation. Retrieved July 27, 2022, from­from-­keatss-­letters Kierkegaard, S. (2014 [1844]). The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orientated Deliberation in View of the Dogmatic Problem of Hereditary Sin (A. Hannay). Norton. Kozbelt, A. (2016). Creativity and Culture in Visual Art. In V.  P. Glăveanu (Ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Creativity and Culture Research (pp. 573–594). Palgrave Macmillan. Mackey, J. (2008). Musical Improvisation, Creativity and Uncertainty. In G. Bammer & M. Smithson (Eds.), Uncertainty and Risk: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (pp. 105–113). Earthscan. May, R. (1994 [1975]). The Courage to Create. Norton. May, R. (2015 [1977]). The Meaning of Anxiety. Norton. May, T. (2017). A Fragile Life: Accepting Our Vulnerability. University of Chicago. Murray, L. (2006). Panic Attack. In The Biplane Houses, 81. Carcanet. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Peck, J., & Coyle, M. (2002). Literary Terms and Criticism (3rd ed.). Basingstoke. Phillips, A. (2015). Against Self-Criticism. London Review of Books, 37(5). Retrieved July 27, 2022, from adam-phillips/against-self-criticism Pope, R. (2005). Creativity: Theory, History, Practice. Routledge. Rachman, S. J. (2020). Anxiety (4th ed.). Routledge. Robson, D. (2021). The Anxiety that Limits Your Creative Genius. BBC. Retrieved July 30, 2022, from article/20210513-­the-­anxiety-­that-­limits-­your-­creative-­genius Runco, M. A., & Jaeger, G. J. (2012). The Standard Definition of Creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 24(1), 92–96. 9.2012.650092


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Sandel, M. J. (2020). The Tyrrany of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Allen Lane. Sharpe, M. (2017). Fearless?: Peter Weir, The Sage, and the Fragility of Goodness. Philosophy and Literature, 41(1), 136–157. Smail, D. (2018). Illusion and Reality: The Meaning of Anxiety. Routledge. Thorn, T. (2016). Naked at the Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing. Virago. Weir, P. (Dir.). (1993). Fearless. Warner Bros. Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2018). The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being. Allen Lane. Williams, R. (1961). The Long Revolution. Chatto. Winnicott, D. W. (2006 [1971]). Playing and Reality. Routledge. Wolf, S. (2012). Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. Princeton University Press.

2 Anxiety and the Creative Encounter: Rollo May Revisited

Abstract  This chapter explores Rollo May’s contention that creativity takes place in an intermediate zone, between subject and object, with an act of encounter at its centre. This chapter interrogates the role anxiety plays in this process, and questions some of May’s attitudes towards it, before going on to discuss different ways in which this anxiety might be managed in relation to form and value. This chapter provides some philosophical context for May’s thinking, and places it in dialogue with secular Buddhist thought, mindfulness studies, and ideas from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Keywords  Encounter and creativity • Mental health and creativity • Meaning and creativity • Anxiety and form • Anxiety and value • Mindfulness and creativity In his 1975 chapter, ‘Encounter and Creativity’, Existential psychologist Rollo May posited that creativity is not an activity or state that arises entirely from within the subject. Nor does it arrive wholly from without, as in Classical conceptions of inspiration. Rather, creativity takes place in

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 G. Goodwin, Creativity and Anxiety: Making, Meaning, Experience, Palgrave Studies in Creativity and Culture,



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an intermediate zone, with ‘an act of encounter’ at its centre (May, 1994, p. 77). To get a more concrete sense of what he means by this, May offers the following example about Paul Cezanne: Cezanne sees a tree. He sees it in a way no one else has ever seen it. […] The arching grandeur of the tree […] the delicate balance as the tree grips the earth—all these and many more characteristics are absorbed into his perception […]. These are part of the vision he experiences. This vision involves the omission of some aspects of the scene and a greater emphasis on other aspects and the ensuing rearrangement of the whole; but it is more than the sum of all these. […] The painting which issues forth from this encounter between a human being, Cezanne, and an objective reality, the tree, is literally new, unique and original. Something is born, comes into being, something that did not exist before—which is as good a definition of creativity as we can get. (77–78)

For May, creativity happens between two poles: the subjective (the artist) and the objective (external reality). Cezanne’s ‘vision’, like that of any artist, is what May calls the ‘intermediate determinant’ between these poles. ‘The greatness of a poem or a painting’, he argues, lies not in its portrayal of ‘the thing observed or experienced’, but in its rendering of the particular vision of an artist or writer ‘cued off by his encounter with the reality’ (79). For May creativity is not wholly a product of the human imagination; nor is it exact mimesis. It emerges through the alchemy of interaction. May departs from a classical view on art-making, where it is seen— whether in poetry, painting, or dance—as an act of ‘imitation’, leading Plato to make the damning assertion in Ion that it ‘is the worthless mistress of a worthless friend, and the parent of a worthless progeny’ (Plato in Williams, 1961, p.  5). And though Aristotle takes a more positive view, arguing in Poetics that imitation is an important part of human learning, he too understands art primarily as mimesis (Aristotle in Williams, 1961, p. 5). But May also rejects the notion that creativity is purely a product of human imagination or, like Rob Pope (2005, p. 139, discussed in Chap. 1), that it emerges from ‘nothing’.

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May trained as a psychoanalyst (before switching to Existential psychology), and part of his emphasis on the importance of the objective, and on what he calls encounter, is in distinction to ‘one of the most serious errors in the psychoanalytic interpretation of creativity’ (May, 1994, p. 79). That is, in May’s view, attempts to explain a work of art as a projection of ‘something within’ or of ‘some early experience’ of its creator. May concedes that childhood experiences shape ‘how artists will encounter their world. But these subjective data can never explain the encounter itself ’ because this involves not merely self-expression but a way of perceiving the world (79–80). May does not mention in his critique of psychoanalytic approaches to creativity the work of his contemporary D. W. Winnicott. First introduced in 1967, Winnicott’s idea of potential space—‘an area that is intermediate between the inner reality of the individual and the shared reality of the world that is external to individuals’ (Winnicott, 2006, p.  86)—has obvious affinities with May’s thinking, but, as I will explore in Chap. 3, there are also significant differences. A more recent parallel can be found in the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. Arguing against a reductionist view of the origin of creativity being simply encoded in our genes or located in a specific neural network, he states: the sort of brain activity that leads to creative behaviour involves three functional levels: a genome-specified level of brain circuitry, an activity-­ specified level of brain circuitry, and then something that results from the interactions of the brain with physical, social and cultural environments. (Damasio in Pope, 2005, p. 114; emphasis added)

Through Damasio’s neuroscientific lens, the subjective pole itself is stratified into different neural networks (based partly on our DNA), but art (and creativity more generally) is still produced through an encounter between those particular brain activities and the external world, ‘from the interactions of individuals and environment’ (114).


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Encounter and Meaning Regarding the nature of this interaction, May’s choice of the word ‘encounter’ is telling. An encounter is a meeting—but one that’s unexpected; it suggests the unpredictable nature of creativity. But the word also has connotations of hostility. It is derived from the Old French encontre meaning not just ‘meeting’ but ‘fight; opportunity’. In its earliest use in English (c. 1300) it referred to a ‘meeting of adversaries’, a ‘confrontation’.1 May borrows, via Archibald MacLeish, terms from the fourth-century Chinese poet and critic Lu Chi (261–303) to explain the poles of the encounter in another way: as a struggle between Being and Non Being. He quotes Lu’s description of the creative process approvingly: ‘We struggle with Non Being to force it to yield being. We knock on silence for an answering music’ (Chi in May, 1994, p.  79). MacLeish describes the translated verbs ‘struggle’, ‘force’, and ‘knock’ as ‘eloquent’ (MacLeish in May, 1994, p. 79). The more obvious, yet unremarked upon, link between them is that they are violent. But what—in the act of creation—is this confrontation with? The answer, for May, is a kind of Existential catastrophe. The world as it presents itself is mute and without meaning. This is what the artist must stand toe to toe against. Therefore, it requires courage to create, the courage to face the world—in all its chaos and caprice— and through sound or shape, paint or print, subdue the ‘meaninglessness and silence of the world until he can force it to mean’ (MacLeish in May, 1994, p. 79). This encounter, perhaps unsurprisingly, is accompanied by anxiety. Trepidation is, of course, a component of any confrontation. But more than this, anxiety infuses creativity because each encounter involves, or aims at, an upheaval and transformation of the ‘self-world relationship’ (May, 1994, p. 93). May is not alone in recognising the occurrence of  May was not the only Existential thinker to favour this word. Interestingly, given the Cezanne example, Martin Buber also uses the word translated as ‘encounter’ to describe a profound and reciprocal contemplation of a tree. ‘What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree is nor a dryad, but the tree itself ’ (Buber, 1996, p. 59). ‘When we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human’. Encounter here is being used positively—and as a way to indicate authenticity. Something of this obtains in May’s use of the word too. 1

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such a change. For instance, the poet Gwyneth Lewis writes: ‘The poet doesn’t know how to exist without undergoing change by successive poems. Words left on the paper are the byproduct of the main event, which is this transformation’ (Lewis, 2015, p. 17). And Maurice Blanchot argues, in a tone closer to May’s, ‘[w]riting is nothing if it does not involve the writer in a movement full of risks that will change him in one way or another’ (Blanchot in Bennett & Royle, 2014, p. 93). For May, to see the world in a new way is also to see the self so. As a consequence, my sense of who I am is destabilised, and I experience a ‘temporary rootlessness, disorientation; it is the anxiety of nothingness’ (May, 1994, p.  93). In sum, May conceives of creativity and its experience as the expression of a singular vision, cued off by an encounter with the material world, which engenders anxiety and psychological destabilisation in the practitioner. In order to test (and contest) aspects of May’s thesis, I am going use it to examine the text and composition of Swims (2017), a book-length poem by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, ‘documenting wild swims across the UK’ (Burnett, 2017, p. 7). Burnett conceives of each swim as an ‘environmental action, which questions how (or whether) individuals can effect environmental change, while also foregrounding the importance of pleasure, leisure, and optimism in the undertaking’ (Burnett, 2016, p. 1). In some ways the poem and its composition correspond quite closely with May’s theory, as the text describes various encounters with rivers. Section four, ‘The Ouse’, begins:           sun slides buttery over the rushes           water softens and stills           elsewhere, events           I, the rhythm of river           part-nature, part-poem, part-kin   GAZA       I, the collaboration   May you not be a war    part nature—parts nature  May you not be a war   zone        collapses            zone (Burnett, 2017, p. 29)

The speaker describes how the ‘water softens and stills’, how ‘the sun slides buttery over the rushes’, and later how the ‘static’ of the river


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‘heaves’ her body (31). The poem is a product of an encounter between the poet (the subjective pole) and the river Ouse (the objective pole). The swim—in its physical experience and the confluence of environmental and political ideas through which that experience is processed—is the ‘intermediate determinant’, which is then rendered or conceptualised linguistically in the form of poem (I will return to the question of form below). The poem is not just an act of mimesis but is not entirely an invention of human imagination—the experience of the external world, the river, is essential to it construction. There is, however, a collaborative element to this poem that complicates its authorship and, consequently, the application of May’s theory to it. This section of the poem is prefaced with an email Burnett sent to friends inviting them ‘to write [their] […] hopes and fears’ on the swimsuit she will wear in the Ouse: I’ll be doing a swim wearing a swimsuit on which I’ve written some hopes and fears on current environmental issues. I’m inviting you to write your own hopes and fears on my swimsuit which I will take with me as I swim, writing the water with our collective thoughts. Your writing can be as brief or long as you like, as the space of the swimsuit permits. You may have a few lines, or a single word. I may sink with the weight of them or rise with their purpose. (29)

The idea of wearing these words and thoughts in the water, having them at the forefront of her consciousness, likely impacts the poet’s experience of the swim itself (in fact, she foresees and intends this: ‘I might sink with the weight of them or rise with their purpose’). Thus, the subjective pole of this creative encounter is somewhat pluralised. More than this, though, as the words themselves are printed as part of the poem— the reference to, and hope that, Gaza may not be a war zone—we read these words in relation to the words in the main body of the poem. They speak to and inform each other, drawing links between the ecological and the geopolitical, as well as, with its reference to the 2014 Gaza War, situating the poem historically. There is also a chance element involved in the composition. The column to the left of the main body of text (referencing Gaza) is a message

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which was written onto the swimsuit. The column on the right is the text left on the suit after the swim—that is, what has not been washed off by the river. The author does not know what will be left on the swimsuit after she has finished swimming. This aspect is determined neither wholly by Burnett nor wholly by her collaborators—it is determined by the water. The river itself is partly—through the process of erasure—writing/ collaborating in the composition of the poem. This opens up some interesting avenues vis-à-vis ecopoetics, but what I want to draw attention to here is the nonintentional aspect of this. Though Burnett’s creative process, like May’s view of Cezanne’s, involves omitting and emphasising particular ‘aspects of the scene’, there are parts of this text which are deliberately designed to be beyond the control of the poet’s decision-­ making process. The pioneer of such impersonal approaches to creating art was composer, poet, and visual artist, John Cage. Like many twentieth-century avant-garde artists, he used collage and found materials; his defining compositional device, however, was the use of what he called ‘chance operations’. ‘Music of Changes’ from 1951, for instance, is a composition for solo piano, which Cage wrote using the I Ching, the ancient Chinese oracle. He was not pursuing insight into the esoteric, but merely used the I Ching as ‘a compositional procedure which allowed him to reduce personal intention’, ‘to reconfigure’, as Peter Jaeger puts it, ‘subjective intention by limiting choice’ (Jaeger, 2013, p.  4; emphasis added). Cage explained in an interview: ‘I use chance operations instead of operating according to my likes and dislikes’ (Cage in Jaeger, 2013, p. 96). These procedures were Cage’s attempt to get away from and overcome the ‘interfering’ ego. Rather than agonising over a decision about the right word or note or stroke of paint to exactly capture and represent his particular inner vision or sound (as May interprets the practices of Cezanne and Giacometti, discussed below), this procedure leaves almost all of this to chance.2 The composition of Burnett’s poem has many more intentional elements than Cage’s work, but it does, in its collaboration with

 Of course, it is still Cage who decides what will be left to chance and on what mechanism—e.g., the I Ching—will be used. 2


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the water itself, have a chance/nonintentional aspect too. This again complicates the operation of the subjective pole in May’s schema. Another issue we might examine is May’s characterisation of the emotional experience of creativity. That is, as an experience characterised by intense anxiety, where nothingness is confronted and forced to yield human meaning. This is not the language in which Burnett describes her project, where she foregrounds ‘the importance of pleasure, leisure, and optimism in the undertaking’ (Burnett, 2016). Her creative process involves collaborating with friends, swimming in rivers, and writing down impressions immediately after. These actions, despite the sometimes grave subject matter of the poem, are all carried out in the spirit of optimism—at least according to the author. This all seems a far cry from the disorientation and crisis described by May. This is not to say that this process does not involve an alteration of the self-world relationship. The extract of the poem quoted above suggests that it does: ‘I, the rhythm of river / part-nature, part-poem, part-kin / I, the collaboration’ (Burnett, 2017, p. 29). The syntactical ambiguity of the text here allows us to read the self as well as the river as ‘part-nature, part-poem, part-kin’, and also the self as collaboration. But these reflections and explorations, as serious and self-interrogating as they sometimes are, do not (again, according to the author) seem to occur within the emotional framework defined by May (or at least not wholly within it).

Giacometti: The Anxious Ideal For May, however, when it comes to the creative encounter, anxiety is a central component of this experience, and his attitude to this anxiety is not perhaps what we might expect from a therapist. Rather than advocating for its alleviation, he lauds it as the mark of the true artist. He offers the work practices and personality of the Swiss painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti as an instructive example. In A Giacometti Portrait (1965), James Lord’s description of sitting for Giacometti, the author observes the artist’s anxious reluctance to start actually painting, and then when he does begin, his fears and frustrations are vocalised:

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‘Your head is going away!’ he exclaimed. ‘It is going away completely! ‘It’ll come back again,’ I said. He shook his head. ‘Not necessarily. Maybe the canvas will become completely empty. And then what will become of me. I’ll die of it!’(Lord in May, 1994, p. 82)

Giacometti’s anxiety is the result, in Lord’s view, of the artist’s inability ‘to express in visual terms a perception of reality that had happened to coincide with my head’, that is, to ‘express what he subjectively experiences in response to an objective reality’ (Lord in May, 1994, p. 83). This, it seems, for Lord and for May, is the ongoing struggle of every artist. When commenting earlier in his chapter about how ‘[t]he greatness of a poem or a painting’ lies in the efficacy by which an artist portrays their vision ‘cued off by his encounter with the reality’ (May, 1994, p. 79), the greatness we must assume is recognised only by the viewer rather than the artist herself. And for the true artist, the recognition of others matters little. Lord observes: This, I thought, was the true Giacometti, sitting alone at the back of a café, oblivious to the admiration and recognition of the world, staring into a void from which no solace could come, tormented by the hopeless dichotomy of his ideal yet condemned by that helplessness to struggle as long as he lived to try to overcome it. (Lord in May, 1994, pp.  83–84; emphasis in original)

Giacometti’s anxieties are, in Lord’s view, not related to the work’s reception; he is only concerned with whether his encounter has led to a satisfying expression of his specific vision. But it is important to emphasise here that the artist is not at his easel but in a café. The scene Lord depicts suggests that anxiety is not something which just attends the creative encounter itself but permeates the whole life of the individual. May finds Lord’s use of the term ‘condemned’ quite fitting. This challenge gave [Giacometti’s] life meaning. He and his kind seek to bring their own visions of what it means to be human, and to see through that vision to a world of reality, however ephemeral, however consistently that reality vanishes each time you concentrate on it. (May, 1994, p. 84)


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May casts the artist here as a kind of martyr, an almost Christ-like figure who suffers on our behalf, suffers to bring us a new, albeit partial, vision of reality that the artist himself cannot appreciate. And in this miserable conception of the creative life, the purity of Giacometti as an artist is confirmed for May by his unhappiness.

The Tortured/Mad Genius Stereotype The origin of the tortured genius or mad artist stereotype (to which May’s view of Giacometti conforms) is not settled. It possibly has its origins in Ancient Greek notions of inspiration and enthousiasmos (furor poeticus in Latin)—poetic frenzy—where a person is possessed by a divine force that profoundly enhances their artistic capabilities (Cushman et al., 2012, p. 709; Silvia & Kaufman, 2010, p. 384). It was Romanticism, however, that perhaps most firmly imbedded this notion in the cultural imaginary. Lady Caroline Lamb famously declared Byron ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ (Lamb in McGann, 2019), and Wordsworth said of Blake: ‘There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott’ (Wordsworth in Ezard, 2004)—a comment which interestingly contradicts Lamb’s assessment of Byron. In the nineteenth century, the Romantics set themselves in opposition to the scientific rationalism of Isaac Newton and philosophers such as Adam Smith, and this conflict between ‘science and feeling’ was personified by the now familiar stereotypes of the ‘overly rational scientist and the artist as misunderstood genius’ (Runco & Albert, 2010, p.  10). As Vlad Glăveanu comments, ‘[m]adness was not a curse anymore, but the very key to accessing one’s creative potential and unleashing it fully’ (Glăveanu, 2021, p.  21). Romanticism ‘initiated a quest for “authentic” forms of creativity, the ones that go beyond the impositions of our rational mind and against all cultural norms and values’ (21). The legacy of this kind of thinking can be observed in the poetics of the French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud from 1871:

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The poet makes himself a seer through a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences. This is an unspeakable torture […]. He reaches the unknown, and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! (Rimbaud, 1962, pp. 10–11; emphasis in original)

Though Rimbaud’s model does not exclude rationality and science, the emphasis on sensory derangement, torment, and madness marks it as a clear descendent of Romantic thought. And Rimbaud himself was influential on a number of high-profile twentieth-century artists—Dylan Thomas, the Beats, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Patti Smith—who themselves became very influential figures. It is interesting to consider whether the correlation, where it exists, between creativity and mental illness may in part, at least in some instances, be a consequence of would-be artists thinking they must commit to a Rimbaudian programme of suffering and derangement (or some variation of it) in order to be ‘true’ artists.

Mental Health and Creativity This issue, among others, is acknowledged in Paul Silvia and James Kaufman’s selective overview from 2010 of the research on creativity and mental illness, debates around which are long-standing. As I discuss in the next chapter, D. W. Winnicott saw creativity (in the broadest sense) as an expression of health. But creativity, and especially artistic creativity, has long been associated in the culture at large with suffering and even madness. The science on this matter is inconclusive and sometimes contradictory, with some arguing that there is a strong relation between creativity and mental health, and others claiming that there is no connection at all (Silvia & Kaufman, 2010, p. 381). The lack of clarity arises partly through problems of methodology. For instance, investigations into mental health and creativity can be framed as two different questions of probability: ‘What is the probability of a mental illness given that someone is creative?’ and ‘What is the probability of being creative given that someone has a mental illness?’ (385–386). The trouble, Silvia and


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Kaufman argue, is that researchers into this area have often confused the two, which is especially problematic given that it is quite possible for these to be in opposition. They offer the following hypothetical example: [A] study of schizophrenia may find that adults with a diagnosis of schizophrenia have more creative accomplishments than people with no clinical disorder. This finding is ‘if disordered, then more creative.’ A study of creative accomplishment, however, may find that adults who are highly accomplished in creative domains are less likely to be schizophrenic than people with no creative accomplishments. This finding is ‘if creative, the less disordered’. (385–386)

A further problem is posed by the use of case studies. Firstly, it is possible to cherry-pick examples. If I want to make a case for writers being depressive or alcoholic, I can find numerous examples to support this. Another researcher, however, wanting to argue for the resilience and problem-solving abilities of writers might choose a different set of examples. Or, in some instances, this second researcher might choose some of the same examples but interpret the data differently. This is the second problem with case studies: they often involve just one person’s judgement. I choose the artist to focus on and subsequently make judgements about their mental health, artistic achievements, and the relationship between them. But another person might arrive at quite different interpretations of one or all of these (Silvia & Kaufman, 2010, p. 382). In her more recent overview of the creativity/mental illness research, however, Shelley H. Carson, while acknowledging the criticisms and methodological flaws of some of the research in this field, argues that ‘a convergence of so much evidence from such a large variety of scientific approaches’ does point to ‘some form of connection between high levels of creativity and a risk for certain types of mental disorder’ (Carson, 2019, p. 306). ‘Studies do not support the idea that all—or even most— highly creative individuals suffer from mental illness’, writes Carson, ‘but that they merely have a somewhat greater risk for disorder than the general population’ (306). Given the concerns of this book, however, research by Matthijs Bass et al. looking at creativity and mental illness in terms of

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behavioural approach and avoidance systems is particularly interesting. ‘Their model suggests that creativity is positively associated with disorders of the approach system (including bipolar disorder, positive schizotypy, and ADHD) and negatively associated with disorders of the avoidance system (including unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, and negative schizotypy)’ (Carson, 2019, p. 307). That is to say, the work of Bass et al. suggests that anxiety is associated with reduced creativity.

Form and Anxiety Whatever one’s attitude to the tortured artist stereotype, it is the case that anxiety can be present during the creative process and can become an obstacle to the meaning-making functions of art. Therefore, it is pertinent to ask whether May’s interrogation of this relationship, beyond its lauding of anxious suffering, directs us to ways in which an artist might negotiate this problem. One way of thinking about how to manage the problem of anxiety as it is related to artistic creativity is through form. Let’s return for a moment to May’s initial creative schema: creativity happens between two poles, the subjective (the artist) and the objective (external reality), with the artist’s ‘vision’ the ‘intermediate determinant’ between them. What is conspicuous by its absence in this discussion is any reference to the physical materials of composition, as well as the inherited traditions of representation. I would argue that it is truer to say that the ‘intermediate determinant’ in Cezanne’s case is the paint and canvas, and the conventions of landscape painting.3 Every artistic vision is modulated and transformed by the materials of its creation (one might think of the impact of Prussian blue on Hokusai’s ‘vision’, for instance). Likewise in literature, we might think of the ‘intermediate determinant’ as the form of the sonnet, for instance, or even language itself. Though May makes little specific mention of form in ‘Creativity and Encounter’, in another chapter of The Courage to Create, ‘The Limits of 3

 With thanks to Neal Alexander for prompting this reflection.


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Creativity’, he addresses it at length and, interestingly, sees it as a way of controlling anxiety, opposing the tradition of form to individual imagination: As imagination gives vitality to form, form keeps imagination from driving us into psychosis. This is the ultimate necessity of limits. Artists are the ones who have the capacity to see original visions. They typically have powerful imaginations and, at the same time, a sufficiently developed sense of form to avoid being led into the catastrophic situation. (May, 1994, p. 122)

May figures form as a meaning-producing restriction, persistently forcing the writer ‘to search in [their] imaginations for new meanings’ (119). He goes on: ‘Form is not a mere lopping off of meaning that you don’t have room to put into your poem; it is an aid to finding new meaning, a stimulus to condensing your meaning, to simplifying and purifying it, and to discovering on a more universal dimension the essence you wish to express’ (119). Form here is figured as a collaborator, but not quite an equal one. It is ‘an aid’ to meaning-making through creativity (it is a refiner of the artist’s ‘vision’ as well as the vessel of its expression). It is a constraint that forces the artist into ever greater levels of creativity and ingenuity. May’s position still assumes though that all meaning, in the end, comes from the writer. He does not go as far Maurice Merleau-­ Ponty, for instance, in saying: ‘My own words take me by surprise, and teach me what to think’ (Merleau-Ponty in Clark, 2001, p. 18). Language and form, for May, do not alter the ‘essence you wish to express’, only the way in which it is expressed. May writes of ‘find[ing] the particular form required by your creation’, implying that vision always precedes form, precedes language, without taking adequate account of thought itself being linguistic (May, 1994, p. 123). Timothy Clark’s revisionary understanding of inspiration, however, offers us a different way of thinking about this process and the very ‘otherness’ of artistic form. The traditional depiction of inspiration is of a subject infused and creatively enabled ‘by encountering something outside common human experience, a force of alterity that can be integrated into a [creative] process’ (Cushman et al., 2012, p. 709). This force, in the Greek classics, is of supernatural origin: the Iliad and the Odyssey both begin by invoking

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the Muses, and Hesiod’s Theogony begins with ‘the Muses’ breathing (empneo) a divine voice into the poet’ (709). Clark, however, suggests that we can think of the force of alterity as artistic form and, in literature, as language itself. May acknowledges this possibility in his essay, quoting a remark made to him by W. H. Auden in conversation: ‘The poet marries the language, and out of this marriage the poem is born’ (Auden in May, 1994, p. 85). May goes on to say that ‘[i]t is not that language is merely a tool of communication, or that we only use language to express our ideas; it is just as true that language uses us’ (May, 1994, p. 85). But he doesn’t consider the ways in which this might itself be a source of anxiety. Clark argues that literary creation occurs through a process of self-­ reading or self-listening. That is, in an act of composition ‘the writer must try to read, not what he or she wrote, but what there is to be read’ (Clark, 2001, p. 17). Here it is the receptivity to the unpredictable and transformative nature of the very materials of language and literary form that suggests the ultimate ‘vision’ of a work. [T]he chance addition of one word to an incomplete sentence, stanza or line may—just before it is almost crossed out—alter the possible orientation of the whole in which it appears, projecting simultaneously a new vector in the work’s future becoming, one which, in turn, may perhaps alter the beginning in an exciting way. Even the very last sentence of a work can do this. (23)

When the intermediate determinant is a writer’s own ‘vision’, then anxiety would seem to arise from a kind of inner knowledge that is difficult to articulate and communicate. That is, the frustration and fear of not being able to materially actualise a known mental construct. If the intermediate determinant is the medium itself—language say—then there will always be an element of uncertainty and unpredictability regarding how a work will develop. Therefore, given the discussions presented in Chap. 1 regarding the link between anxiety and Intolerance of Uncertainty, form could be as much a source of anxiety as an instrument of its assuaging. Another potential cause of anxiety relates to reception. An author or artist has little control over how a work will be interpreted or used once


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it is released into the world, and as the work of Dickerson and Kemeny (discussed in Chap. 1) has shown, some of the situations which provoke the highest level of anxiety are those over which we have no control (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2018, p. 35). Lord might claim of Giacometti that he was ‘oblivious to the admiration and recognition of the world’, and Stephen King might advocate writing primarily to please oneself, but art happens between the object and the viewer, between the reader and the text—it is in this in-between space that art lives. Marcel Duchamp argued: ‘the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act’ (Duchamp, 1957). Furthermore, Clark would question the possibility of a temporary bracketing of a consideration of audience, because, as noted in Chap. 1, a dimension of the exhilaration of inspiration is, in his view, triggered by projecting forward to a work’s reception (Clark, 2001, p. 29–30). These interrelated unknowns or forms of otherness in the creative process have the potential to be sources of anxiety and represent something of a blind spot in May’s thinking. How then to deal with anxiety in the creative process when containment through form is not the answer?

Kierkegaard, Mara, and Antifragility Here it might be useful to turn to the thought of a key influence on May’s view of anxiety and creativity—Søren Kierkegaard. I referenced in Chap. 1 the influential distinction Kierkegaard makes between fear and anxiety—where the former is a response to ‘something definite’ and the latter is ‘to be anxious at nothing’ (Kierkegaard, 2014, pp.  51–52). For Kierkegaard, this nothing is actually ‘the anxious possibility of being able’—that is, being able to freely choose a course of action and thus be responsible for it (54). This is why animals might experience fear, but do not experience anxiety (51). Only humans recognise that life involves a variety of possibilities; and our awareness of volition in regard to these possibilities is the origin of anxiety: ‘freedom’s possibilities reveal anxiety, that to be human is to be free, and to be free is to be anxious’ (Ferreira,

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2009, p.  78). We as a species do not only act according to a pre-programmed set of responses; we can creatively respond to and engage with the world. We have both imagination (the ability to envisage that which is different or new) and the capacity to actualise such possibilities. But for ‘possibility to pass over into actuality’, Kierkegaard argues, ‘an intermediate determinant is necessary’, and this determinant is anxiety (Kierkegaard in May, 2015, p. 35—note May’s borrowing of terminology). In May’s reading of Kierkegaard, ‘selfhood depends upon the individual’s capacity to confront anxiety and move ahead despite it’ (May, 2015, p. 36; emphasis in the original). Moreover—and I think this is the basis on which May’s admiration of Giacometti’s psychology is built—a person’s ‘“self-strength” develops out of the individual’s successful confronting of anxiety-creating experiences. This is the way one becomes educated to maturity as a self ’ (46). We find a similar view posited by the secular Buddhist thinker Stephen Batchelor, in his reading of Mara from Buddhist mythology. Mara is a devil-like, trickster figure. In the most famous story, Mara repeatedly visits Siddhartha Gotama whilst he, pursuing awakening, meditates under the Bodhi tree. It is in overcoming Mara, the story goes, that Gotama achieves enlightenment and becomes the Buddha, but this is not the last he or we see of Mara. He reappears numerous times throughout the Pali scriptures. For Batchelor, ‘Buddha and Mara are figurative ways of portraying a fundamental opposition within human nature. While “Buddha” stands for a capacity for awareness, openness, and freedom, “Mara” represents a capacity for confusion, closure, and restriction’ (Batchelor, 2004, p. 180). This opposition has obvious parallels with that of creativity and anxiety. Indeed, fear and anxiety are ‘armies of Mara’ (53). This opposition, however, is a productive one. ‘[A] path is kept open’, argues Batchelor, ‘by overcoming the hindrances that prevent freedom of movement along it. If Mara did not get in the way, there would be nothing to give us the purchase we need to propel ourselves out of a crisis’ (122). To reframe this in terms of our current discussion, we might say that our encounters with anxiety can allow us to develop creative ways of working with and moving through that anxiety. These are creativities and insights which we might not have discovered or acquired had we not encountered such obstacles.


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This is in concord with Tracy Dennis-Tiwary’s contention that when it comes to anxiety, humans are antifragile (a term she borrows from Nassim Nicholas Taleb). Antifragility is ‘the quality of growing stronger because of challenges, difficulties, and uncertainties’ (Dennis-Tiwary, 2022, p. 164; emphasis in the original). Our immune systems, for instance, are antifragile: without encountering pathogens, they cannot develop immune responses (164). Likewise, if we attempt to avoid all anxiety and uncertainty, ‘we will be prevented from using our antifragile natures to navigate the challenges of life to the best of our ability’ (165). This navigation is enabled not through any Romantic sensory derangement or deliberate cultivation of ‘madness’, but through clarity of thought, by being able to discern when anxiety is valuable and when it isn’t. With such discernment, Dennis-Tiwary argues, our responses to anxiety can help us live a life of purpose and enlarge our creative capacities.

The Observing Self As I have addressed elsewhere in this book, however, such discernment is difficult to achieve because anxiety at its most diffuse becomes the lens through which we view all our thoughts and sensations. Might it be possible though to occupy a perspective beyond that lens? Here is psychoanalyst and painter Marion Milner on an artistic dilemma comparable to Giacometti’s quoted above—the experience of a disturbing discrepancy between our artistic ideal or aim and the material reality of our work: [W]hat I found now was that, at times, if one could bring oneself to look at the gap, allow oneself to see both the ideal and failure to live up to it in one moment of vision, and without the urge to interfere and alter oneself to fit the ideal, then the ideal and the fact seemed somehow to enter into relation and produce something quite new, something that had nothing to do with being pleased with oneself for having lived up to an ideal or miserable because of having failed to […]. For it was a watching part which, by being able to see the two opposing differences of standard, or ideal, and actuality, in relation to each other, was by this very act to bring about ­integration, a new way of being which somehow combined the essence of both. (Milner in Lewis, 2015, p. 14; emphasis added)

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Unlike Lord’s description of Giacometti, Milner is able to stand slightly to one side of her experience: to observe it. This does not magically allow her to achieve her ideal. Without interference, however, simply engaging this ‘watching part’ of her consciousness allows for a reconfiguration of her relationship to this discrepancy. It brings about an ‘integration’ that creates ‘something quite new’. Cultivating this ‘watching part’ of consciousness is the aim of mindfulness practices. One definition of mindfulness is the act of being ‘fully present, and aware of where we are and what we are doing, without becoming overly reactive or overwhelmed by the present’ (Henriksen et al., 2020, p. 2). Many cognitive skills which mindful practice has been shown to facilitate—such as an increase in the ability to concentrate, an enhancement of ‘open-minded thinking’, as well as a decrease in ‘the fear of being judged’—‘suggest that mindfulness supports the skills associated with creativity’ (4). However, the relationship between the two is not straightforward, partly because of the complexity and multifaceted nature of both mindfulness and creativity. For instance, there is no one mindfulness practice. Two of the practices most often examined in the mindfulness-­ creativity literature—open-monitoring meditation and focused-attention meditation—have been shown to have differing effects on creativity (5). Research suggests that open-monitoring—‘the practice of observing and attending to any sensation or thought without focusing on any specific task or concept’—may have a positive impact on creative thinking. However, focused-attention meditation—which ‘trains the participant to focus their attention and awareness to a particular task, item, thought or stimuli’—may have no effect or even a negative impact (as measured by creativity tests) (5). In their review, Henriksen et al. conclude that more research is needed to fully understand the complicated relationship between mindfulness and creativity, but venture that in open-monitoring the ‘awareness component of noticing may be beneficial for giving the mind space to expand, while also cultivating present moment awareness and observation’ (7). In Milner’s case, the observational mind seems to be transformative in and of itself, but it might also provide us with an inner vantage point from which we can evaluate our anxious thoughts and feelings.


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This watching part of the mind has various labels. In some Buddhist literature it is simply referred to as awareness or pure awareness. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) it is sometimes referred to as ‘self-as-context’ (Hayes et  al., 2016, p.  85) or the ‘observing self ’ (Harris, 2020, p. 72). This is an ‘aspect of self that metaphorically cannot be looked at but instead must be looked from’ (Hayes et al., 2016, p. 85). It demonstrates to us that we are not our thoughts or, at the very least, that we are more than our thoughts. With practice we can get better at inhabiting the observing self and—to again use the terminology of ACT—defusing from our thoughts. Steven Hayes and colleagues describe fusion as ‘the pouring together of verbal/cognitive processes and direct experience such that the individual cannot discriminate between the two’ (Hayes et al., 2016, p. 244). Such fusion can be crucial to creativity. In the composition of fiction, for instance, there will be times when, absorbed in the writing and/or imagining process, a writer will be very much ‘there’ in that fictional world (and this applies to reading fiction too) (245). However, at other points in the creativity process—when we might be subject to the unreasonable and cruel self-critical thoughts discussed in Chap. 1, for instance—fusion can be more problematic. According to Hayes et al., in such situations, with recourse to the observing self, a ‘person can voluntarily step back, separate from the mind, watch its ongoing processes (“I’m aware of thinking X”), and not be caught in its products (“I am a bad person”) (245)—or ‘I am a bad writer’. Such awareness and defusion will not necessarily vanquish our anxieties—as expressed in thoughts and sensations—but they might aid us in deciding how to respond to them rather than managing our emotions with avoidance. When we avoid an anxiety-provoking stimulus our anxiety might decrease, but if that which is producing the stimulus is linked to the creative act itself, then a byproduct of such avoidance might be the exclusion from our lives of such creativity. In some cases, Dennis-Tiwary would argue, it would be better to listen to what the anxiety might be trying to tell us and use its energy to help us focus on solving whatever problem lies behind it. In other cases, however, anxiety exceeds usefulness. The problem, if there is one, might not be identifiable or the anxiety might be a ‘false alarm’, ‘a misfire’ (Dennis-Tiwary, 2022, pp. 196–197).

2  Anxiety and the Creative Encounter: Rollo May Revisited 


The often nebulous, free-floating nature of anxiety means that it can connect itself to any object—external or internal—that enters into our awareness, including, of course, the cognitions involved in art-making. In such circumstances, it might be wiser for us to move ahead despite anxiety, and how one might access the courage and the thinking strategy for doing this leads us back to Rollo May. For May, ‘a person is subjectively prepared to confront unavoidable anxiety constructively when he is convinced (consciously or unconsciously) that the values to be gained in moving ahead are greater than those to be gained by escape’ (May, 2015, p. 358). It is from this ‘frame of orientation and devotion’, to use Erich Fromm’s terms, that a moving through anxiety becomes possible (Fromm in May, 2015, p. 359). May admits that the term ‘values’ is conceptually vague but is deliberately so in order to allow the greatest amount of flexibility—that is, there are a variety of values on which one might call on in order to ‘move ahead’ despite anxiety, and these might differ depending on person and circumstance. Steven Hayes et al. share this view that a connection with one’s values is crucial to acting in the presence of anxiety. In ACT, however, values are defined with a bit more rigour. For Hayes et al. values are constructed (i.e., they might have to be thought-through rather than just uncovered); they are freely chosen (i.e., not arrived at through ‘social compliance or avoidance of guilt’ (Hayes et  al., 2016, p.  94)); and they are active and ongoing processes (i.e., not static). Further, they make a distinction between ‘means values’ and ‘ends values’ (324). A means value, as the name implies, is something we value as a means to an end. Ends values, on the other hand, are related to ‘life outcomes’ that are intrinsically rewarding, not primarily a route to other rewards (324). For many, art-making, will likely result from a mix of both means and ends values. Nonetheless, it is helpful to parse our desires and motivations in this way (i.e., in terms of means and ends) in order that we might locate a suitable ‘frame of orientation’ from which to act in the presence of anxiety and even perhaps recognise how this anxiety might relate to value itself.


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Encounter and Acceptance Though both May and Hayes et al. advocate valued action in response to anxiety as an alternative to avoidance, their approaches to this differ. May heralds an artist like Giacometti because he confronted his anxiety, wrestled with it, subdued it—and the paintings and sculptures are the proof. Hayes et al. take a different approach. Rather than confrontation as an alternative to avoidance, they propose acceptance. Acceptance here is not passive resignation, but an active and intentional openness to difficult experience, aligned to a commitment to move in a valued direction in spite of such experience. By inhabiting the observing self, we have the opportunity to defuse from our anxious thoughts and feelings rather than engaging them in battle. We can notice their appearance, accept their presence, and evaluate the information they provide in relation to some valued creative action. My understanding of how this process might work in practice can be illustrated by a fictional example. Taalika writes fiction motivated by the value that it has the capacity—in the writing and the reading—to widen the circle of our empathy, sympathy, and understanding. Taalika considers this to be both morally and politically important. However, even though Taalika thinks the themes and subject matter of her novel are of pressing contemporary relevance, she keeps putting off the completion of the manuscript. Each time she reads the text through, she is beset with anxious thoughts and intense bodily sensations that include palpitations, a painful tightness in her stomach, and a disquieting mental fuzziness. From the vantage point of her observing self, Taalika notices that her thoughts relate to notions of artistic inadequacy: that the work will be rejected or, if published, ridiculed. These thoughts have particular force because Taalika’s sense of being a writer is quite central to her identity. She realises, however, that the recent revisions of her work are not improving it; they are merely changing it—a process which could continue indefinitely. Taalika knows that abandoning the work—temporarily or permanently—will relieve her anxiety. She knows this because she has done it before. She also knows that this relief eventually gives way to a

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listlessness, agitation, and a returning interest in contributing positively and meaningfully to the discourses of her day. Therefore, this time, knowing the manuscript is as good as she can make it at this moment, she decides to proofread it and send it off. As she proofreads, anxious thoughts and unpleasant sensations are present—sometimes intensely so. She does not fight with them though or worry about them; instead, she accepts them and continues regardless. She is able to move through her anxiety in this way because she realises ‘that the values to be gained in moving ahead are greater than those to be gained by escape’ (May, 2015, p. 358). That is to say, for Taalika, connecting with her value of contributing to a greater understanding of and sympathy for each other gives her the courage to act despite her fear of rejection and public embarrassment. At certain points in Taalika’s creative process, these anxious thoughts might have been helpful. Trying to anticipate negative reactions to different aspects of the novel—plot, say, or characterisation—might have helped Taalika identify potential weaknesses in the manuscript and address them. Moreover, improving the technical craft of the writing might, somewhat inadvertently, have enhanced the moral vision of the text, aligning it more closely with Taalika’s artistic/ethical values noted above. Here is a description by the short story writer and novelist George Saunders of how this might occur: When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,”—I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame. But it is more compassionate. (Saunders, 2017)

Taalika’s anxieties regarding her work’s quality, its reception, and even her own social status are not necessarily detrimental to creativity. That is, of course, until they are. Once any productive actions resulting from


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anxiety have been taken and all positive outcomes exhausted, anxiety can no longer help Taalika, only hinder her in behaving in a way that corresponds to her artistic/ethical values. This is when, according to Hayes et al., Taalika should (as above) acknowledge the anxiety, accept it, and, in May’s words, ‘move ahead despite it’ (May, 2015, p. 36). Even if one were to find such an approach persuasive, however, which to some extent I do, it is all much easier said than done. As we have seen, anxiety affects and is expressed in a combination of cognitions, behaviours, and bodily experiences. And creativity involves a complex array of processes and stages—for example, absorption and reflection, exploration and critique—which can both provoke and be disturbed by anxiety (see Chap. 1). In my view, the very complexity of these phenomena and the subtlety of their interrelation pose a considerable challenge to achieving and maintaining the kind of mindful awareness and clarity necessary to act in the way advocated by Hayes et al.

Conclusion May’s work is both important and thought-provoking regarding any consideration of the relationship between creativity and anxiety. May is right, I think, that the creation of art is related, or can be related, to the creation or discovery of meaning. I would also agree that creativity is a product of the interaction of internal and external, self and world—creativity emerging out of a third space (which I will discuss further in relation to Winnicott in the next chapter). However, in ‘Creativity and Encounter’, May extrapolates from a few examples a view of creativity and its relation to meaning and anxiety which is both restrictive and rather too in thrall to the Romantic concept of the artist as tortured hero. This blinds him somewhat to the multiple ways, exceeding those he identifies, in which anxiety can disrupt and disable the creative process. However, May’s insight that identifying a particular value (or set of values) by which our lives can be orientated and given meaning might help us navigate a way through our anxieties is important. It offers us—whatever our values and creative interests are—a possible way through the

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impasse that anxiety at its worst can cause.4 Nonetheless, for many, especially those who suffer from chronic anxiety more generally, the challenges and difficulties involved in successfully forging such a creative path are likely to be significant.

Works Cited Batchelor, S. (2004). Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil. Riverhead. Bennett, A., & Royle, N. (2014). An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (4th ed.). Routledge. Buber, M. (1996). I and Thou (W. Kaufman, Trans.). Touchstone. Burnett, E-J. (2016). Swims: Body, Ritual, Erasure. Jacket2. Retrieved March 1, 2019, from Burnett, E.-J. (2017). Swims. Penned in the Margins. Carson, S.  H. (2019). Creativity and Mental Illness. In J.  C. Kaufman & R.  J. Sternberg (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity (2nd ed., pp. 296–318). Cambridge University Press. Clark, T. (2001). The Theory of Inspiration: Composition as a Crisis of Subjectivity in Romantic and Post-Romantic Writing. Manchester University Press. Cushman, S., Cavanagh, C., Ramazani, J., & Rouzer, P. (Eds.). (2012). The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Fourth Edition. Princeton University Press. Dennis-Tiwary, T. (2022). Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad). Piatkus. Duchamp, M. (1957). The Creative Act. Retrieved July 29, 2022, from https:// Ezard, J. (2004). Blake’s Vision on Show. Guardian. Retrieved July 27, 2022, from Ferreira, M. J. (2009). Kierkegaard. Wiley. Glăveanu, V. (2021). Creativity: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. Harris, R. (2020 [2008]). The Happiness Trap. Robinson.  Art making might indeed help to clarify those very values and meanings: ‘[b]eing creative’, argues Vlad Glăveanu, ‘gives us not only an opportunity to relate to others, and understand their worldview, but also to give shape to our own (Glăveanu, 2021, p. 89). 4


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Hayes, S.  C., Stroshal, K.  D., & Wilson, K.  G. (2016). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change (2nd ed.). The Guildford Press. Henriksen, D., Richardson, C., & Shack, K. (2020). Mindfulness and Creativity: Implications for Thinking and Learning. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 37, 100689. Jaeger, P. (2013). John Cage and Buddhist Ecopoetics. Bloomsbury. Kierkegaard, S. (2014 [1844]). The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orientated Deliberation in View of the Dogmatic Problem of Hereditary Sin (A. Hannay, Trans.). Norton. Lewis, G. (2015). Quantum Poetics. Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts/ Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures. May, R. (1994 [1975]). The Courage to Create. Norton. May, R. (2015 [1950]). The Meaning of Anxiety. Norton. McGann, J. (2019). Byron, George Gordon Noel, Sixth Baron Byron (1788–1824). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved July 27, 2022, from Pope, R. (2005). Creativity: Theory, History, Practice. Routledge. Rimbaud, A. (1962). Selected Verse (O. Bernard, Ed. and Trans.). Penguin. Runco, M. A., & Albert, R. S. (2010). Creativity Research: A Historical View. In J.  C. Kaufman & R.  J. Sternberg (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity (pp. 3–19). Cambridge University Press. Saunders, G. (2017). What Writers Really Do When They Write. Guardian. Retrieved July 27, 2022, from ­ mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write Silvia, P. J., & Kaufman, J. (2010). Creativity and Mental Illness. In J. C. Kaufman & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity (pp. 381–394). Cambridge University Press. Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2018). The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being. Allen Lane. Williams, R. (1961). The Long Revolution. Chatto. Winnicott, D. W. (2006 [1971]). Playing and Reality. Routledge.

3 Winnicott’s Potential Space and the Anxiety of Authorship

Abstract  D. W. Winnicott argues for the importance of environment to the facilitation of creativity, the provocation of anxiety, and the relationship between them. This chapter explores some of Winnicott’s ideas, relating them to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, and neuroscientific research on creative thinking and positive affect. This chapter goes on to interrogate some of Winnicott’s thinking about the cultural environment, drawing on Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s concept of the anxiety of authorship to show how cultures can operate to exclude certain groups of people. This chapter ends by arguing for the importance of establishing a diverse and inclusive cultural space which everyone can draw from and contribute to. Keywords  Facilitating environment • Playing and creativity • Anxiety of authorship • Anxiety and cultural exclusion • Neuroscience and creativity • Flow and anxiety The psychoanalyst D.  W. Winnicott agrees with Rollo May (May, 1994) (see Chap. 2) that creativity is an activity and experience that provides meaning and that it emerges through an interaction between the © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 G. Goodwin, Creativity and Anxiety: Making, Meaning, Experience, Palgrave Studies in Creativity and Culture,



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subjective and the objective. For Winnicott, however, the defining emotional characteristics of this interaction significantly differ from May’s. Winnicott’s thought reveals to us the importance of environment in the facilitation of creativity, the provocation of anxiety, and the relationship between them. Though his chief focus is on the impact of parental care and the home environment of the child, Winnicott’s ideas have implications for wider considerations of adult creativity and how a given culture might encourage or exclude and inhibit it.

Playing and the Origins of Creativity Like Sigmund Freud, Winnicott saw the origins of adult creativity in children’s play. Freud argues in ‘The Relation of the Poet to Day-­ Dreaming’ (1908) that: Perhaps we may say that every child at play behaves like an imaginative writer, in that he creates a world of his own or, more truly, he arranges the things of his world and orders it in a new way that pleases him better. (Freud, 2009, pp. 44–45)

As people grow up, they stop playing ‘and appear to give up the pleasure derived from play’ (46). What appears to be an act of relinquishment, however, is in fact only an act of substitution: ‘Really we never can relinquish anything’, Freud says; ‘we only exchange one thing for something else’ (46). The adult replaces the public, unembarrassed playing of childhood (the child has one wish, according to Freud, and that is to be grownup; she has no reason to hide this), with the private world of phantasy, of daydreaming. As adults expected to be making our way in ‘a real world’, we are ‘ashamed’ of our daydreams and thus keep them to ourselves (47). Adult creativity—in the form of imaginative writing, which is the specific focus of Freud’s essay—is the transformation of the embarrassing wishfulfilment of daydreams into a public and culturally valued object. By doing so, the writer puts herself and her readers ‘into a position in which we can enjoy our own day-dreams without reproach or shame’ (54).1  Rob Pope refers to this as ‘a “deficit” model of creativity’ (Pope, 2005, p. 71).


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The distinction can be illustrated by the example of author James Thurber and his fictional creation, Walter Mitty. Thurber’s famous story ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ (1939) recounts a shopping trip to Waterbury, Connecticut, taken by the protagonist and his wife. The majority of the text, however, is devoted to the daydreams of high adventure and heroism Mitty experiences on this trip. First, when driving, he imagines he is piloting a ‘Navy hydroplane’ (Thurber, 1939); later, as they pass a hospital, he fantasises about being an expert surgeon, and the story ends with Mitty imagining himself facing a firing squad. In Freud’s view, if Mitty were a real person who decided to share such daydreams with a work colleague, he could expect to be shamed and perhaps told to grow up. In the form of literature, however, we are invited and permitted to enjoy these fictional daydreams. Moreover, the writer, James Thurber, is applauded and financially rewarded for constructing such a narrative. Thurber is heralded as a great comic short story writer rather than an ineffectual daydreamer. Nonetheless, whether considering playing, daydreaming, or adult imaginative writing, Freud opposes them all to the cold fact of the world itself. They are all, in the end, a form of escapism, of consolation; they are attempts to ‘improve[…] an unsatisfactory reality’ (Freud, 2009, p. 47).

Facilitating Environment Winnicott agrees with Freud that play involves an imaginative use and rearrangement of the ‘things of his world’ and that artistic practice is a continuation of playing into adulthood. For Winnicott, however, playing and adult creativity do not represent a turning away from reality but represent a full and healthy engagement with it. They occur in ‘an area that is intermediate between the inner reality of the individual and the shared reality of the world’ and are essential to a meaningful life (Winnicott, 2006, p.  86). Our first experience of this intermediate area—what Winnicott’s also calls a ‘potential space’ (136)—emerges in infancy. This experience, however, is dependent on certain factors. The potential space arises when the environment, provided initially by the parent and the home, is ‘reliable’ (Winnicott, 2006, p. 67); they can be trusted


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and thus engender confidence. When the child feels physically and emotionally safe, they can relax, and it is only from this relaxed, positive state of being that playing and creativity become possible. A parent enables this, according to Winnicott, by initially adapting exactly to the infant’s needs. This provides the illusion that through the infant’s own love or need, they ‘create’ the breast, the bottle, the parental care necessary. What Winnicott calls ‘good-enough mothering’ offers ‘the illusion that there is an external reality that corresponds to the infant’s own capacity to create’ (16–18).2 This is why Christopher Bollas claims that ‘[t]he mother’s idiom of care and the infant’s experience of this handling is the first human aesthetic’ (Bollas, 1993, p. 41). This high level of adaptation, however, should not continue for too long. It must be allowed ‘its natural decrease’, lest external reality become undifferentiated from hallucination (Winnicott, 2006, p.  14). It is through frustration that the infant turns to what Winnicott calls ‘a transitional object’—an object that is ‘not-me’, such as a blanket or soft toy. This object, paradoxically, ‘represents both the unity of the child and his mother (external world) and their separation’ (Schwartz, 1993, p. 59). Such an object acts as ‘a defence against anxiety’, especially when trying to sleep, but it also becomes the first object the infant plays with (Winnicott, 2006, p.  5). This ‘playing’ is not something exclusively ‘inside’ like daydreaming, nor something that is outside, that is, that which is external and ‘can be studied objectively’—the box the child pretends is a boat does not literally transform; it remains a box to those outside that specific instance of playing (Winnicott, 2006, pp. 55–56).3 Instead, playing occurs in a third area between the two, involving ‘a two-­ way process in which self-enrichment alternates with the discovery of meaning in the world of seen things’ (151).

 ‘For Winnicott’, Tamara Bibby writes, ‘the self is forged in relationship with a primary carer. His focus in the first instance is on the last weeks of pregnancy and the first few weeks of infancy, and so he always talked about the primary carer as mother. His suggestion was that where the primary carer was the father (or someone else) at this stage, they are acting as mother’ (Bibby, 2018, p. 5). 3  To qualify this statement Winnicott concedes that ‘objectivity is a relative term because what is objectively perceived is by definition to some extent subjectively conceived of ’ (Winnicott, 2006, p. 88). 2

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Adult Culture Winnicott presumes that the negotiation between our inner and outer worlds is an ongoing, life-long struggle. And we continue to seek and find—if environmental factors are conducive—a potential space which provides both respite from this struggle and the possibility of reengaging with it in creative and meaning-giving ways. The intermediate area is not, for Winnicott as it is for May, defined by encounter—a confrontation, a battleground; it is instead a ‘resting-place’ (Winnicott, 2006, p.  3). In adulthood, such an intermediate area can be found by means of art and other cultural practices which open up spaces for absorption, contemplation, and creativity—these are ‘in direct continuity with the play area of the small child who is “lost” in play’ (18). In adult creativity our transitional objects might be paint or digital software or language itself. For example, words alone and in combination have a public, agreed-upon meaning (e.g., the signifier-signified relationship delineated in the OED). But they also have private meaning(s). The very sound of certain words and combinations of words might (or might not) appeal to us. Words our parents used in particular contexts—of soothing, instructing, or castigating—will give them an inner symbolism which might not be entirely concomitant (might on occasion even be at odds) with agreed-upon signification. Words read or heard at formative periods in our lives—during adolescence, say, the first time we fell in love or the first time we experienced the death of someone close to us—will have special (and not necessarily shared) resonance; they will have a strong subjective meaning, overlaying etymology. Language—when used aesthetically, expressively, exhibiting personal style—is language used in that potential space.

Anxiety and Conformity Playing constitutes the first and crucial step in establishing ‘a relationship between the child and the world’ (Winnicott, 2006, p. 18). It can only occur when the ‘external emotional environment’ is seen by the child to be reliable, trusted, and safe. Such an environment, explains Tamara Bibby,


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provides not only food, warmth and physical experiences of security (being held, a place to sleep and so forth), but also provision for the subjective needs of coming into being: a sense of control, of being visible, valued, loved and cared for within an appropriate relationship. (Bibby, 2018, p. 23)

If this environment is experienced as unreliable—due to unpredictable parenting—then the child, out of fear for its own survival, becomes desperate to meet the needs of the parent (rather than the other way around). This child can become compliant rather than creative, having learned that in order to survive, it must repress or disengage from its own interests. This is so important to Winnicott because it does not just affect our ability to create or enjoy art, but colours ‘the whole attitude to external reality’ (Winnicott, 2006, p. 87): It is creative apperception more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is world living. Contrasted with this is a relationship to external reality which is one of compliance, the world as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation. Compliance carries with it a sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living. (87)

In extreme contexts, such as living under prolonged political persecution—what Winnicott calls ‘the negative of civilization’ (91)—we can see not just inhibition but ‘the destruction of creativity in individuals by environmental factors acting at a late date in personal growth’ (91–92).4 Such contexts are characterised by a chronic—though entirely appropriate and proportional—sense of anxiety. It is important to note that Winnicott is not thinking specially about art here but creative living— that is, the ability to engage with the world in creative ways which we find intrinsically satisfying and meaningful. However, a tendency towards conformity and a disengagement from one’s personal interests and enthusiasms is also, of course, likely to be problematic for meaningful art-making.

 Though Winnicott does wonder whether creativity can be eradicated completely (Winnicott, 2006, p. 91). 4

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In Winnicott’s system of thought, anxiety (originally about the provision and reliability of care) is a retardant of creativity. That is not to say, however, that playing and adult creativity cannot themselves become frightening (Winnicott, 2006, p. 67). As Winnicott observed in ‘Why Children Play’ (1947), ‘[a]nxiety is always a factor in child’s play, and often it is a major factor’ (Winnicott in Abram, 2007, p. 251): the box-­ that-­is-a-boat may find itself at sea in a storm or having to fight off pirates or some other kind of peril. This is partly because there is often a thin line between excitement and fear (we need only think here of the perennial popularity of the rollercoaster), but also because ‘play itself is a psychotherapy’ where fears can be entertained and worked through (Winnicott, 2006, p. 67).5 Playing, though, and by extension adult creativity, is always and above all intrinsically satisfying. If there is a ‘threat of excess anxiety’, this can lead ‘to compulsive play, or to repetitive play, or for an exaggerated seeking of the pleasures that belong to play’ (Winnicott in Abram, 2007, p.  251). Ultimately, too much anxiety simply ‘destroys playing’ (Winnicott, 2006, p. 69).

Creativity, Anxiety, Flow Problems caused by an excess of anxiety are also evident in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research into the flow experience. Csikszentmihalyi developed his famous concept after interviewing a range of creative people (both artists and scientists). In these interviews, he and his fellow researchers found time and again that the experience of creativity was described in similar terms—as a deep absorption wherein ­ ‘[s]  This is supported by a 1984 study looking at the impact of play on the anxiety levels of children (aged three to four) on their first day of preschool. The children deemed anxious (as indicated by their vocal reluctance to leave their parents and levels of palm perspiration) were split into two groups. The first group were given the opportunity to play (alone or with peers) in a room with toys for fifteen minutes. The second group spent fifteen minutes listening to a story read by a teacher. The anxiety levels of those in the first group decreased by twice as much as those in the second group. Moreover, the children from the first group who played alone, rather than with their peers, were calmer than those who played together. ‘The researchers speculate that through imaginative play, which is most easily initiated alone, children build fantasies that help them cope with difficult situations’ (Wenner Moyer, 2017, p. 83). 5


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elf-consciousness disappears and the sense of time becomes distorted’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002, p.  71). Csikszentmihalyi called this ‘optimal experience’ or ‘flow’: ‘[a]n activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake’ regardless of external rewards (e.g. money, fame, social standing)’. In a state of flow ‘[c]oncentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant [to the task], or to worry about problems’ (71). However, in order to access this level of concentration certain conditions must be met. A person needs to feel that their ‘skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand’: if the task is too easy, the subject will be bored; if it is too difficult—exceeding the subject’s perceived abilities— the subject will be anxious (71). Csikszentmihalyi’s research found that the optimal experience of creativity is achieved in the ‘golden ratio’ between boredom and anxiety. In support of Winnicott’s view, Csikszentmihalyi’s research found that too much anxiety disturbs concentration; it makes the subject self-conscious; and it makes the absorption necessary to enter a flow state, an essential component of the creative process, impossible. Winnicott’s idea of playing and Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow are not synonymous. The latter’s emphasis on ‘a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002, p.  71) is seemingly at odds with Winnicott’s idea that playing, at least in the therapeutic context, ‘has to be spontaneous, and not compliant or acquiescent’ (Winnicott, 2006, p. 68). There is though, which will already be apparent from the description above, a significant amount of overlap. The child at play, as described by Winnicott, is very likely in a state of flow, as described by Csikszentmihalyi: they are fully absorbed in their activity, and the imaginative animation and transformation of objects in their world. Worries outside the realm of play are not present. When they become present—for example, if there is a concern about the reliability of care—play is disrupted, just as flow is disrupted when some worry causes us to lose focus on the task at hand. Furthermore, for Csikszentmihalyi and Winnicott, it is flow and playing/ creativity, respectively, that make life worth living. They are not just means to an end but ends in themselves; they are autotelic.

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Insight, Anxiety, and Positive Mood We can also find interesting parallels to Winnicott’s view of creativity and anxiety in studies, from the fields of social psychology and neuroscience, showing how positive mood enhances people’s ability for creative problem-­solving—that is, where solutions are arrived at through insight rather than analytic thinking. Insight is ‘a type of creative cognition’ and is described by Karuna Subramaniam et al. as ‘the process through which people suddenly and unexpectedly achieve solution through processes that are not consciously reportable’ (Subramaniam et al., 2008, p. 415). It is what we commonly refer to as an ‘a-ha’ or a ‘eureka’ moment, after the exclamation (literally: I have found it) of Ancient Greek mathematician and inventor, Archimedes. Laboratory research conducted by social psychologist Alice Isen and others in the 1980s found that ‘when people are in a state of calm happiness, they are better able to solve problems that usually require creative insight rather than analytic thought’ (Kounios & Beeman, 2016, p.  114). These findings were later supported by Teresa Amabile’s workplace studies, which showed ‘an astonishingly strong association between increased happiness on certain days and important breakthroughs at work on the following day or two’ (Kounios & Beeman, 2016, p. 115).

Cognitive Flexibility One explanation of how positive affect facilitates insight is through its enhancement of ‘cognitive flexibility’ (Subramaniam et al., 2008, p. 416). Where anxiety tends to intensely narrow our focus, a more positive, relaxed state allows our attention to broaden and permit an expanded range of possibilities. In experiments conducted to measure the impact of mood on attention, researchers Karen Gasper and Gerald Clore asked participants to recall happy or sad memories. Those participants were then asked to complete a series of pattern-matching tasks, designed to show whether a person was using global or local attention to make their judgements (i.e., whether their judgements were based on the overall


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pattern or just a specific part of that pattern). The researchers found that positive affect increased the use of global attention and negative affect increased the use of local attention (Kounios & Beeman, 2016, p. 119). In a related experiment conducted at Mark Beeman’s laboratory at Northwestern University, participants were asked to solve a problem before and after watching a series of video clips (some of which were laughter-inducing comedy routines and others were fear-provoking scenes from horror movies). Here, the aim was to explore differing modes of ‘conceptual attention’ rather than visual attention, but again the study found that participants solved more problems via insight after watching the mood-enhancing comedy clip (Kounios & Beeman, 2016, pp. 122–124). fMRI scans revealed that the only brain area activated by positive affect and insight preparation was the anterior cingulate. This strongly suggests that this part of the brain is where the connection between positive mood and creative insight capability is made (Kounios & Beeman, 2016, pp.  123–124). One of the roles of the anterior cingulate is to help us process the overwhelming amount of information we receive from our environment. It does this by selective focus, allowing us to concentrate on what is important in any given moment, and to largely ignore the rest. This process of selection, however, is impacted by our emotional state. For instance, a rustle from the bushes is likely to receive more of our attention when we are in a vigilant state, walking a path alone at night, than when we are in a relaxed state, strolling along the same path with a friend in the daytime. The anterior cingulate is also activated when encountering problems that cause internal conflict regarding their solution. If the anterior cingulate isn’t energized enough, then it doesn’t detect nonobvious, weakly activated solution ideas in the brain. In this case, the [analytic] winner-take-all strategy becomes the default. Triumph of the obvious. But if the anterior cingulate is powered up by a positive mood, then it can sense the subtle presence of alternative, creative solutions and direct the prefrontal cortex to […] select an underdog to win. This result is an aha moment. (Kounios & Beeman, 2016, p. 125)

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Rethinking Free Association and Free Writing As neuroscientists John Kounios and Mark Beeman point out though, this is a two-way street: as particular affective states influence thought, so too do our cognitions impact our emotions (Kounios & Beeman, 2016, p.  116). Positive mood increases the likelihood of more free-ranging, associate thinking, but engaging in the latter also enhances the former. Kounios and Beeman’s emphasis on the benefits of this loose-affiliation thinking might, they suggest, cause us to reconsider the mechanisms of a traditional psychoanalytic practice like free association, which involves patients lying down and vocalising whatever passes through their minds (126). In the Freudian model, the aim of free association is to locate a site of psychic conflict from which a patient’s distressing symptoms may stem. Once the ‘root’ is identified, ‘it can be plucked’ (126). However, in light of the relationship between positive affect and associate thinking noted above, Kounios and Beeman suggest that it might be the free associating itself rather than anything that is discovered during this process that actually increases the sense of wellbeing. Thinking with loose associations improves a patient’s mood, which promotes insights about herself or her relationships with others, which further improves her mood, and so forth. […] Free association may contribute to a patient’s improved sense of well-being even without true self-­ discovery. (126)

A related process might be taking place in the practice of free writing discussed in Chap. 1, where a writer writes continuously without looking back or correcting anything (Elbow, 1998, p. 3). In free writing, writers sometimes respond to a specific prompt, but it can also involve just writing whatever comes to mind. Like a therapy session, one engages in this practice for a set period of time, and it is confidential—writers are not asked to share what they have written. Therefore, one can (in theory at least) write without censure regarding either the form or the content of the writing. In Chap. 1, I discussed this practice in relation to the inner critic/editor. A possible  complementary benefit of this kind of writing


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though—following Kounios and Beeman’s reflections on free association—is not only that it allows us to temporarily bypass our inner critics, but that it might move us into a mood whereby creative thought becomes more likely. From a Winnicottian point of view, it is also crucially important that free writing is ‘safe’. As one does not have to show the work to anyone, one is not going to be exposed or judged. This is likely, in some people, to decrease fear, self-consciousness, and inhibition. Indeed, in Charles J. Limb’s research on improvisation (and free writing could be considered a kind of improvisation), fMRI scans show that when jazz musicians and rappers are improvising ‘the lateral prefrontal region [of the brain] shuts down […]. These areas are involved in conscious self-monitoring’ and ‘self-inhibition’ (Limb in Anstead, 2017, p.  38). Though, as far as I’m aware, there is no neuroscientific data available on this, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that similar brain activity might be seen when people are free writing. As with flow, Winnicottian playing and creative insight are not synonymous—they are in some ways quite different. Playing is not about problem-solving (though in adult art-making, problem-solving is often involved). But both playing and insight of this kind involve creative cognition, and both are facilitated by certain positive emotional states. For Kounios and Beeman, this is because emotions ‘such as tranquillity, joy, or love expand a person’s horizons by making things seem relevant and connected’ (Kounios & Beeman, 2016, p.  121). This allows us ‘to set aside habitual responses, explore the environment, and consider new opportunities and ways of thinking’ (121). And for Winnicott, a relaxed state is made possible by an environment which is reliable and trustworthy, wherein we feel safe to imagine and transform. When the context feels unsafe, however, we experience anxiety. Anxiety narrows our focus, which can be vital in genuinely threatening situations and even useful in remaining focused on particular important tasks. But it can arrest creativity because it closes our attention off from possibilities that are not obvious; it prevents our attention becoming more broad and global, just as it, in excess, prevents playing and flow.

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The Cultural Environment Winnicott’s thought reveals to us the importance of environment in the facilitation of creativity and the management of anxiety. So far we have examined this only in relation to the impact of parental care and the home environment on the child. Winnicott’s ideas, however, have implications for thinking about how adult creativity operates or is stifled in a given culture. Like playing, ‘cultural experience is located in the potential space between the individual and the environment’ (Winnicott, 2006, p.  135). By culture, Winnicott is ‘thinking of the inherited tradition’; that is, ‘something that is in the common pool of humanity, into which individuals and groups of people may contribute, and from which we may all draw if we have somewhere to put what we find’ (133; emphasis in original). He sees the interplay between tradition and originality as analogous to the relation between the ‘separateness and union’ we see in playing (133). What Winnicott does not explore, though, is how the inherited tradition itself can be a source of anxiety. Our ability to engage with a cultural sphere is not just predicated on our early experiences and the care (or lack thereof ) we receive. It is also impacted by the inclusivity or otherwise of the tradition itself. Winnicott’s reference to an inherited cultural tradition as being ‘in the common pool of humanity’ fails to acknowledge the prejudice that can inform the construction of such traditions and how they can operate (whether consciously and unconsciously) to exclude a great many people from contributing to them. In the final part of this chapter then, I will look at one particular cultural field—that of literature—and discuss how such operations have impacted, historically and presently, on the creativity and anxiety of certain groups of people.

Tradition and the Anxiety of Influence Perhaps the most famous theory of anxiety as it relates to literary production and tradition—and a theory itself indebted to psychoanalysis—is Harold Bloom’s. Bloom’s work builds on that of Walter Jackson Bate’s,


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whose The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (1970) ‘told the history of the struggles by poets, since 1660, to overcome the inhibitive effect of fear that their predecessors might have exhausted all the possibilities of writing great original poems’ (Abrams, 1993, p.  241). Bloom, in his Anxiety of Influence (1973), argued that ‘[w]eaker talents’ merely imitate or ‘idealize’ the ‘strong’ poets who have preceded them; ‘figures of capable imagination’, though, ‘appropriate for themselves’ (Bloom, 1973, p. 5). This ‘self-appropriation’, however, ‘involves the immense anxieties of indebtedness, for what strong maker’, Bloom asks, ‘desires the realization that he has failed to create himself?’ (5). On the one hand, the canon of English literature provides a writer with a variety of transitional objects, to use Winnicott’s terminology— literary forms and themes which a writer can use and adapt for their own expressive and artistic purposes. On the other, any new writer using such models finds, gnawing away at them, the fear that they are perhaps not being genuinely creative at all, but are just emulating those writers whom they most admire. As a result, as M. H. Abrams explains, a writer’s admiration for his literary precursor is complicated by feelings of ‘hate, envy, and fear of the father-poet’s pre-emption of the son’s imaginative space’ (Abrams, 1993, p. 240). The centrality of anxiety to literary history then is, for Bloom, predicated on an Oedipal struggle between generations of poets. Though weaker poets never, or rarely, escape the yoke of influence, strong poets employ a range of defensive practices (what Bloom calls ‘revisionary ratios’), such as misreading a precursor’s work in order to identify faults.

The Anxiety of Authorship This whole process is described by Bloom in violent and melodramatic terms, where strong poets must ‘wrestle with their stronger precursors, even to the death’ (Bloom, 1997, p.  5). Perhaps not coincidently, this narrative of defeat and displacement is almost exclusively male (and I have held with using the masculine pronoun in the above discussion for this reason). In The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), however, feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar adapt Bloom’s theory to examine

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nineteenth-century women’s writing. In this text, Gilbert and Gubar write not of an anxiety of influence, but rather of an anxiety of authorship. In combination with the economic and social obstacles a woman writer of this period was subject to, she was also afflicted, the authors argue, by ‘a radical fear that she cannot create’ (Gilbert & Gubar, 2000, p. 49; emphasis added). Faced with a literary tradition from which they were excluded, women writers were beset by a creative anxiety that was ‘profoundly debilitating’ (51). Of course, some nineteenth-century women did write and develop strategies for dealing with this anxiety— including various acts of literary impersonation (the most obvious of which being the use of male nom de plumes, such as those adopted by George Sand and George Eliot). But sometimes these strategies could lead to writing in bad faith—constructing narratives that expressed views on how women should behave which were quite contrary to the behaviour of their authors (65–71)—and also to crises of identity. Here is Margaret Fuller, the nineteenth-century journalist and poet, discussing the difficulty of being a female writer: For all the tides of life that flow within me, I am dumb and ineffectual, when it comes to casting my thought into a form. No old one suits me. If I could invent one, it seems to me the pleasure of creation would make it possible for me to write… . I love best to be a woman; but womanhood is at present too straitly-bounded to give me scope. At hours, I live truly as a woman; at others, I should stifle; as, on the other hand, I should palsy, when I play the artist. (Fuller in Gilbert & Gubar, 2000, p. 71)

As Fuller’s comment about finding no existing form to fit her thought suggests, part of the problem for women writers in the nineteenth century was that the majority of Western literary forms were designed by men to tell stories about men: [T]he novel traditionally traces what patriarchal society has always thought of as a masculine pattern: the rise of a middle-class hero past dramatically depicted social and economic obstacles to a higher and more suitable position in the world. […] Similarly, our great paradigmatic tragedies, from Oedipus to Faust, tend to focus on a male ‘overreacher’ whose virile will to


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dominate or rebel (or both) makes him simultaneously noble and vulnerable. […] [F]rom the epic to the historical novel, the detective story to the ‘western,’ European and American narrative literature has concentrated much of its attention on male characters who occupy powerful public roles from which women have almost always been excluded. (Gilbert & Gubar, 2000, pp. 67–68)

This was no less true of poetry, where historically—from the myth of Orpheus to Petrarch’s sonnets—women had been figured as muses, rather than creators themselves. As Norman O.  Brown wrote, a woman ‘can never herself be a poet because she “is” poetry’ (Brown in Gilbert & Gubar, 2000, p. 68). Even during the Romantic period when psychological attributes conventionally deemed feminine were being heralded, the idea of the female creator was explicitly rejected. In the Aristotelian tradition, women had been denigrated for a perceived lack of reason and a surfeit of passion and imagination. Yet, as Christine Battersby has shown, when the aestheticians of the Romantic period began to valourise male writers for just these qualities—that is, ‘for qualities of mind that seem prima facie identical with Aristotelian femininity’—this did not translate into a greater acceptance or appreciation of female creativity (Battersby, 1989, p.  3). For instance, the philosopher William Duff argued that genius is a product of imagination and emotion—which were heretofore seen as ‘feminine’ characteristics. Yet, in his Letters on the Intellectual and Moral Character of Women (1807), he writes explicitly against the idea that women could be creative geniuses (Battersby, 1989, pp. 4–5). ‘The creative woman’, writes Battersby, ‘was an anomaly that simply introduced complications into the patterns of exclusion’ (3). For Winnicott, creativity occurs in the space between an individual and the environment, but this is only a potential space—it is a possibility not an inevitability. For humans, creativity is not assured, only ever latent, dependent on conducive environmental factors to bring it into being. Though for Winnicott creative living is key to wellbeing, it is possible for cultural environments to make certain kinds of creativity for certain groups of people not only difficult but a cause of suffering—as Fuller writes: ‘I should palsy, when I play the artist’ (Fuller in Gilbert & Gubar,

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2000, p. 71). Winnicott refers to a body of cultural resources that belong to ‘the common pool of humanity’, but historically, in terms of English literature, this has only been common to men. Gilbert and Gubar, and Battersby all stress the importance not only of calling out and challenging such historical prejudice regarding attitudes to female creativity, but also identifying and recovering ‘matrilineal traditions of cultural achievement’ (Battersby, 1989, p. 10). Unlike in Bloom’s model, the identification of a lineage of female precursors ‘far from representing a threatening force to be denied or killed, proves by example that a revolt against patriarchal literary authority is possible’ (Gilbert & Gubar, 2000, p. 49). Such figures can become enabling role models, reducing the ‘profoundly debilitating’ anxiety of authorship (51). The anxiety of authorship—and its alleviation through inclusivity and representation—is not a phenomenon that affected women writers in the nineteenth century only. It is a concept relevant to discussions of other ways in which people become excluded from a mainstream culture, whether that be on the basis of class, region, sexuality, or race. For instance, in her discussion of the formation and preservation of the American literary canon, Toni Morrison contests the conservative argument that it is any way ‘free of, unformed by, and unshaped by the four-­ hundred-­year-old presence of first Africans and then African Americans in the United States’ (Morrison, 2019a, p. 140). To argue that this presence, which exerted a defining influence on the political and cultural history of the US, ‘has had no significant place or consequence in the origin and development of that culture’s literature’, is, Morrison argues, absurd (140). Yet, historically, there has often been great resistance to the racial exclusivity of the American literary tradition and to any ‘incursion’ by writers of colour. From the seventeenth century to the twentieth, the arguments resisting that incursion have marched in predictable sequence: (1) there is no Afro-­ American (or third-world) art, (2) it exists but is inferior, (3) it exists and is superior when it measures up to the ‘universal’ criteria of Western art, (4) it is not so much ‘art’ as ore—rich ore—that requires a Western or Eurocentric smith to refine it from its ‘natural’ state into an aesthetically complex form. (Morrison, 2019b, p. 167)


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Morrison highlights the successive ways in which the mainstream literary tradition in the US has by turns denigrated, excluded, and appropriated the artistic works of Africans and African Americans. In so doing, it has reduced the capacity for that tradition to operate, for Black writers, in the way envisaged by Winnicott: that is, as a pool from which people can draw and to which they can contribute. This is another example of a culture acting as a facilitating environment for some, but not for others. And again, representation and identifying important precursors is key. In her eulogy for James Baldwin, Morrison writes: ‘You gave me a language to dwell in—a gift so perfect, it seems my own invention’ (Morrison, 2019c, p.  230). This is not for Morrison, as it would be for Bloom, a source of anxiety. On the contrary, it is a source of enablement, an opening up of possibilities. Speaking of Baldwin’s use of American English, Morrison continues: You went into that forbidden territory and decolonized it, ‘robbed it of the jewel of its naïveté,’ and ungated it for black people, so that in your wake we could enter it, occupy it, restructure it in order to accommodate our complicated passion. (230)

When an artistic tradition—and to an extent the very language from which that tradition is constructed—is perceived as a ‘forbidden territory’, it cannot, of course, also operate as a transitional object—an object that can be used and transformed in the potential space of creativity. And this is why a cultural tradition cannot remain static, held hostage by prejudices and outmoded beliefs. Baldwin helped transform the literary tradition of the US both by his own writing and by the example that writing set for those, like Morrison, who followed. And Morrison’s writing did this in turn for other writers of colour—and not just those in the US. Bernardine Evaristo writes that as a young, would-be writer, she felt that she needed to read not Jane Austen and Virgina Woolf, but ‘writers who foregrounded black women’s lives’ (Evaristo, 2021, p. 158). It was writers like Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, and Ntozake Shange who, she says, ‘gave me permission to write’ (158).6  Though Evaristo does also comment that she found their example intimidating for a time, and this, in a more Bloomian way, can be debilitating too (Evaristo, 2021, p. 158). 6

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Feelings and Culture In identifying the roles feelings play in the cultural process, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio argues that they act as motives for creation: the experience of pain, for example, becomes a spur to create anaesthetic. But they also act as monitors of the success of that creation or intervention: our lack of pain tells us the anaesthetic works. However, in the case of anxiety, especially in its more intense and chronic manifestations, this monitoring system can often no longer be trusted; it is always telling us something is wrong. It is the damage done by this breakdown of the affective monitoring process that the slogan ‘feelings are not facts’ attempts to address. Winnicott’s ideas suggest that developing such chronic anxiety can be related to the kind of care we received as children. Often anxiety of this kind, and how it relates to creativity, needs to be negotiated at a personal level as explored in Chap. 2. However, environmental factors in the adult world can also impact anxiety. I discussed this in relation to economics, work, and social status in Chap. 1. What I have attempted to show in the current chapter is how this can happen in the realm of culture. The problem with the therapeutic model of addressing anxiety is that it tends to locate the ‘solution’ in the person (even if the causes of distress are acknowledged to be environmental). That is not to say that some of our presentday therapeutic interventions would not have helped alleviate the suffering of the nineteenth-century women discussed by Gilbert and Gubar. They might well have done. But the argument put forward by Gilbert and Gubar, in the relation to the anxiety of authorship, is that the cause of this anxiety is not really located in the person but in the culture. As we have seen throughout this book, anxiety can misfire and overreact, become overzealous and relentless in such a way as to prevent us from living fulfilling and meaningful lives. But sometimes there is a genuine, specific problem lurking behind its diffuse emotional miasma. Damasio argues that ‘[t]he consequence of a successful culture response is the decline or cancelling of the motivating feeling’ (Damasio, 2018, p. 27). For there to be a decline in the feelings of creative anxiety explored in the second half of this chapter, changes are most necessary at the cultural level, not the personal level (even if changes at the latter level might also be beneficial to address the psychological damage already done by the exclusionary culture).


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This shows the importance of arguments for initiatives like decolonising the curriculum. As a teacher of creative writing, if I want to create an inclusive, facilitating environment for students, it is important not just that I present them with examples of useful literary techniques, but also that these examples are not derived solely from writers of one colour, sex, sexuality, nationality, or class. As the discussion above demonstrates, when it comes to facilitating creativity, representation matters. Such cultural transformations are not just important for those groups of people who have been historically excluded but relevant to everyone in a given society. I noted in Chap. 1 that an important aspect of creative experience is that it is multi-perspectival. This ability to take on and move between multiple perspectives is only made possible if we have some insight into views, knowledge, and experiences which are other to our own. A healthy cultural tradition is inclusive, defined by difference and multiplicity, not homogeneity. A key insight of Winnicott is that a person’s reality can be transformed, and as Vlad Glăveanu argues, ‘[w]e only envision reality as multiple and changeable if we ourselves can take the perspective of other people and experience the world from their position’ (Glăveanu, 2021, p. 94). However, a society’s attitude and actions regarding the creativity of its citizens speak not only to the creative health of that society but also to its morality. For Winnicott, creative capacity is not the preserve of a select few—‘gifted’ people or geniuses or people of or from a particular class, gender, or place. It is an imaginative, meaning-making potential inherent to the human organism. Therefore, as Glăveanu argues: If one central tenet of ethics is the Kantian imperative of not treating others as means, but recognizing in them our shared humanity, then we need to start from valuing each other as creative, agentic beings. […] Cultivating the creativity of others is not a means for something else, it should be an end in and of itself. Without this other-acknowledging ethos of creative action, we diminish both the humanity of others and our own humanity. (Glăveanu, 2021, pp. 95–96)

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Conclusion ‘Cultural experience’, for Winnicott, ‘begins with creative living first manifested in play’ (Winnicott, 2006, p. 135). As we have seen, playing is facilitated by ‘good-enough’ parenting and a home environment wherein the love, care, and presence of the parental figure are reliable. In adulthood, the importance of environment remains relevant because creativity is always ‘located in the potential space between the individual and [that] environment’ (135). Contra to the tortured-genius stereotype explored in Chap. 2, Winnicott’s view is that creativity emerges from a state of positive affect, of feeling safe and relaxed (and both Csikszentmihalyi’s research into optimal experience and more recent neuroscientific studies on creative insight offer some support for this). Just as unreliable care of an infant can cause a level of anxiety that prevents playing, so too can an exclusive cultural environment—that is, an environment from which certain groups of people feel prohibited, unwelcome, unvalued, or overlooked—impact on adult creativity in a similar way. If as a society we want to reduce this anxiety, and create an environment that fosters creativity, not for just a lucky few, but for everyone, then an obvious starting point, at least in terms of art-making, is the establishing of a diverse and inclusive cultural space which everyone can draw from and contribute to.

Works Cited Abram, J. (2007). The Language of Winnicott: A Dictionary of Winnicott’s Use of Words (2nd ed.). Karnac. Abrams, M. H. (1993). A Glossary of Literary Terms (6th ed.). Hardcourt Brace. Anstead, A. (2017). Charles J. Limb: Inner Sparks. Scientific American Mind, 26(1), 78–85. Battersby, C. (1989). Gender and Genius. Towards a Feminist Aesthetics. Indiana University Press. Bibby, T. (2018). The Creative Self: Psychoanalysis, Teaching and Learning in the Classroom. Routledge. Bloom, H. (1973). The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Oxford University Press.


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Bollas, C. (1993). The Aesthetic Moment and the Search for Transformation. In P. L. Rudnytsky (Ed.), Transitional Objects and Potential Spaces: Literary Uses of D.W. Winnicott (pp. 40–49). Columbia University Press. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness. Rider. Damasio, A. (2018). The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. Pantheon. Elbow, P. (1998). Writing Without Teachers. Oxford University Press. Evaristo, B. (2021). Manifesto: On Never Giving Up. Hamish Hamilton. Freud, S. (2009 [1908]). The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming. In On Creativity and the Unconscious: The Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, and Religion. Harper Perennial. Gilbert, S. M., & Gubar, S. (2000). The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (2nd ed.). Yale University Press. Glăveanu, V. (2021). Creativity: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. Kounios, J., & Beeman, M. (2016). The Eureka Factor: Creative Insights and the Brain. Windmill. May, R. (1994 [1975]). The Courage to Create. Norton. Morrison, T. (2019a). Black Matter(s). In Mouth Full of Blood: Essays, Speeches, Meditations (pp. 140–160). Chatto & Windus. Morrison, T. (2019b). Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature. In Mouth Full of Blood: Essays, Speeches, Meditations (pp. 161-197). Chatto & Windus. Morrison, T. (2019c). James Baldwin Eulogy. In Mouth Full of Blood: Essays, Speeches, Meditations (pp. 229–232). Chatto & Windus. Pope, R. (2005). Creativity: Theory, History, Practice. Routledge. Schwartz, M.  M. (1993). Where Is Literature? In P.  L. Rudnytsky (Ed.), Transitional Objects and Potential Spaces: Literary Uses of D.W.  Winnicott (pp. 50–62). Columbia University Press. Subramaniam, K., Kounios, J., Parrish, T. B., & Jung-Beeman, M. (2008). A Brain Mechanism for Facilitation of Insight by Positive Affect. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21(3), 415–432. Thurber, J. (1939 [Published Online 2013]). The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. New Yorker. Retrieved July 29, 2022, from magazine/1939/03/18/the-­secret-­life-­of-­walter-­james-­thurber Wenner Moyer, M. (2017). The Serious Need for Play. Scientific American Mind, 26(1), 78–85. Winnicott, D. W. (2006 [1971]). Playing and Reality. Routledge.



Abhaya Sutta, 14 Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), 58, 59 Anterior cingulate, 74 Antifragility, 54–56 Anxiety of authorship, 65–85 Anxiety of influence, 77–79 Ashington Group, 24 Austen, Jane, 82

Bibby, Tamara, 68n2, 69, 70 Bloom, Harold, 77, 78, 81, 82 Bollas, Christopher, 68 Bourke, Joanna, 7, 8, 8n5 Brandt, Anthony, 20, 21 Buddhism, 8, 12, 13 Burnett, Elizabeth-Jane, 43–46 C


Baldwin, James, 82 Batchelor, Stephen, 55 Battersby, Christine, 80, 81 Beeman, Mark, 73–76 Beghetto, Ronald A., 25, 26, 33–35 Being/Non Being, 42

Cage, John, 45, 45n2 Carson, Shelley H., 50 Catastrophic, 8, 18, 30, 31, 52 Celik, Pinar, 23 Cezanne, Paul, 40, 42n1, 45, 51 Chi, Lu, 42 Clark, Timothy, 21, 26, 30, 32, 52–54

 Note: Page numbers followed by ‘n’ refer to notes.


© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 G. Goodwin, Creativity and Anxiety: Making, Meaning, Experience, Palgrave Studies in Creativity and Culture,


88 Index

Creativity anxiety, 28–29 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, 25–27, 71, 72, 85

Glăveanu, Vlad P., 25, 26, 34, 48, 84 Goldstein, Kurt, 8 Goodwin, Donald, 6, 6n4 Gubar, Susan, 78–81, 83


Daker, Richard J., 2, 28, 29 Damasio, Antonio, 41, 83 Davey, Graham, 10, 11, 33 Dennis-Tiwary, Tracy, 56, 58 Dhammapada, 14 Duchamp, Marcel, 54


Hayes, Steven C., 58–60, 62 Henriksen, Danah, 57 Himid, Lubaina, 21 Hokusai, 23, 51 I

Elbow, Peter, 32, 75 Eliot, George, 79 Evaristo, Bernardine, 20, 21, 82, 82n6

Ibrahim, Abdullah, 34 Impressionism, 20 Improvisation, 27, 34, 76 Inspiration, 19n12, 39, 48, 52, 54 Invulnerabilism, 13



Fear (difference from anxiety), 3, 6–9, 12n9, 18, 54 Fearless (film), 12, 13n10, 16 Ferreira, M. Jamie, 54 Flow, 25, 26, 71–72, 76, 79 Free association, 75–76 Freeman, Daniel, 4, 4n2, 5, 9, 9n6 Freeman, Jason, 4, 4n2, 5, 9, 9n6 Free writing, 31, 32, 75–76 Freud, Sigmund, 5, 22, 66, 67 Fuller, Margaret, 79, 80

Jaeger, Garrett J., 3, 19, 19n13



Kaufman, James, 48–50 Keats, John, 33 Kierkegaard, Søren, 6, 6n3, 33, 54–56 Kounios, John, 73–76 Kozbelt, Aaron, 23 L


Giacometti, Alberto, 45–48, 54–57, 60 Gilbert, Sandra M., 78–81, 83

Lewis, Gwyneth, 43, 56 Limb, Charles J., 76 Lorde, Audre, 82 Lubart, Todd, 23

 Index  M


Mackey, John, 34, 35 MacLeish, Archibald, 42 May, Rollo, 7, 8, 25, 25n15, 39–63, 65, 66 and encounter, 25, 39–63 and meaning, 8, 42–46, 52, 62, 65 and objective/subjective poles, 40, 41, 44, 46, 47, 51, 66 May, Todd, 13, 14, 16 Meditation, 13, 57 Milner, Marion, 56, 57 Mindfulness, 14, 57 Morrison, Toni, 81, 82 Murray, Les, 5

Sand, George, 79 Self as context (observing self ), 58 Shange, Ntozake, 82 Sharpe, Matthew, 13 Silvia, Paul J., 48–50 Smail, David, 10 Smith, Zadie, 30, 30n18, 32 Stoicism, 12, 13 Subramaniam, Karuna, 73



Negative capability, 33

Uncertainty, 7, 33–35, 53, 56



Observing self (self as context), 58

Weir, Peter, 12, 13, 17 Wilkinson, Richard, 11, 54 Williams, Raymond, 22, 23, 40 Wilson, Harry, 24 Winnicott, D. W., 25, 25n15, 41, 49, 62, 65–85 and anxiety, 62, 65–85 and creativity, 25, 41, 49, 62, 65–67, 69–73, 77, 80, 85 and facilitating environment, 67–68, 82 and play, 66–68, 71, 72, 80, 85 Wolf, Susan, 15 Woolf, Virgina, 82 Wordsworth, William, 22, 48


Phillips, Adam, 31, 31n19 Pickett, Kate, 11, 54 Pope, Rob, 18, 19, 22, 24, 25, 40, 41 Pragmatism, 25 R

Rachman, Stanley J., 6, 6n4, 7, 9 Rimbaud, Arthur, 48, 49 Romanticism, 48 Runco, Mark A., 3, 19, 48


Thorn, Tracey, 29n17 Thurber, James, 67