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What You Are Afraid Of Is Where The Juice Is- Nancy Hillis MD

What You Are Afraid Of Is Where The Juice Is- Nancy Hillis MD. This updated article ran previously.

What You’re Afraid of Is Where The Juice Is


When I think about creating, I’m reminded of the perils we each face as we say “yes” to our yearning to express ourselves.


In the middle of the road of my life

I awoke in a dark wood

And the true way

Was wholly lost.


These words written by 14th century poet Dante Alighieri speak across the centuries of being at a crossroads in one’s life. This is the moment we awake and feel suddenly lost and afraid.

What scares you?


Are you

  • at a crossroads?
  • avoiding your art because you feel lost, rudderless, without direction?
  • longing to create with aliveness and meaning and yet find yourself mortified by external criticism?


Or worse, is it your own harsh voice that you fear? Do you feel inadequate, not good enough, intimidated? Are you desiring approval from your audience in order to assuage your vulnerability?

Perhaps you’ve been on a roll of painting like your hair’s on fire (read about it here: “Bite Into It Baby“) only to be terrified that the muse will drop you like a hot potato and skedaddle to wherever muses go when they’re bored.

Or does the blank canvas bring up terror……..and avoidance?


The truth: Every Artist Has Fear! 


Don’t despair. The good news is you’re not alone! We’re in this together.



You Can Start Anywhere


Just start! Zero to One.

From nothing (zero) to something (one) is the largest interval mathematically. Going from nothing to something is a bigger step than going from something to something (one to two, two to three and so forth).


The Creative Life Cycle


I’ve had a lifelong interest in creativity. In my television program, Creativity and Consciousness, I interviewed artists, musicians, dancers, composers, actors, and writers and learned that the experience of fear is universal for creators.

It goes something like this: You’re living your life. It’s familiar, it’s known. Yet, you have a deep yearning to create, to experience a feeling of aliveness and meaning. Before long, you are called to answer your heart’s desire, to step into the unknown.


Answering The Call


And one day you accept the invitation.

And you’re immediately plunged into the unknown. There are perils.

Because you answered the call of your longing to create, you are now on your artist’s journey which is akin to the hero’s journey found in great literature and film.


What Are The Perils?


The perils are: fear, vulnerability, self doubt, second guessing, overthinking, self criticism, paralysis, creative block, just to name a few.


Why Would You Knowingly Place Yourself In Harm’s Way?


Because you know that in order to feel alive and to make meaning you must take this journey.


Heeding the call of your heart’s desire to create art is taking action in ways that are meaningful, mysterious, and essential. 


You also know that the deepest meaning is in the experiencing of creation.


Imagining yourself on your death bed regretting that you never allowed yourself to be fully present, exploring the reaches of who you are, would be a tragedy more intolerable than any risks you’ll face on this journey.


In essence, you say ‘yes’ to this perilous expedition because you simply must live your life with aliveness and meaning. 


And Then What Happens?


As in the great old stories, guides show up to help you. Dante, in The Divine Comedy had the Roman poet, Virgil. Luke Skywalker had Yoda. Frodo Baggins had Gandalf. You get the idea. You have mentors, teachers, fellow artists, and even yourself. But……..


You mean there’s more danger?


Yes. Inevitably there’s the dark night of the soul. The moment you must face alone. The hour of your greatest self doubt. “What was I thinking?” you ask yourself.

This is a time when all hope feels lost. You think: I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ll never get there. I’m not good enough. This is a lost cause.

It can look like:

  • Boredom
  • Avoidance
  • Resignation


In painting, this might be the moment when the work seems ugliest and most chaotic.

It’s the middle of the painting and you don’t know what to do.


Some paintings simply don’t work out. We never like or resolve them. Life is like that.


We live with nascent, unfinished paintings and realize later that they are an essential part of our search for meaning.

When we understand that our ‘ugly paintings’ are vital to creating work that is pulsating with aliveness, we get an inkling of the astonishing potency of searching and finding our way as we paint, of raw experimentation.


When it seems like nothing is happening, everything is happening


Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote extensively about the life/death/life cycle of creation in her book Women Who Run With the Wolves and how dying off is as essential as birth in the creative process.


So what is the transformation?


Trusting yourself.

I believe the most profound and essential experience for a creator is to trust yourself. It’s more important than any amount of theory or technique.

To trust yourself is to accept the fact that some paintings don’t work out and that this is a necessary part of the creative process. Only by trusting yourself will you show us what you love, what excites you, what you care about… ultimately who you are.


The world doesn’t need or want more formulaic art.


The world wants and needs you. Show us you.

Only by trusting yourself will you create paintings that are expressively alive and particular to you, your lexicon, your gesture, your personal signature. 


Trust yourself to explore the things that scare you. These are the nascent, unexpressed, unexplored parts of yourself where your un-lived dreams reside. This is the realm of play, improvisation, and pure creativity.

This is where the juice is.


What is your experience of dealing with fear in your painting practice? Where is the juice for you? I would love to hear from you. Please share this post with anyone you know who grapples with fear and may find it helpful.


With gratitude from my studio to yours,



Want to go deeper? Get the books! The Artist’s Journey: Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity is also available in Audiobook.


The Artists Journey books- Nancy Hillis MD

The Artists Journey books- Nancy Hillis MD




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