Setting Creative Goals for the New Year? Let Fear Be Your Guide

Bill Viola, Catherine's Room, 2001. Video installation. Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.

Bill Viola, Catherine’s Room, 2001. Video installation. (Photo © Bill Viola courtesy



It’s the New Year, which means that many of us are taking stock of our personal habits, both good and bad, and resolving to do better.

But how many things on this year’s list of goals also appeared on our list in 2013?

While it’s easy to write down New Year’s resolutions, what’s harder is taking ourselves off “auto-pilot” long enough to re-evaluate our overall direction. We forget to ask a critical question: are we setting our creative goals with clarity and intention, or are we merely coasting and taking the path of least resistance?


Here is an exercise that can help…

Imagine receiving the news that you have only one year to live. You have an illness that will not cause you great pain or suffering, but in a year’s time your life will be over. (Let that disturbing thought sink in for a few moments.)

If you had only one year left, what would you do? Who would you see? Would you stay in your present job or quit tomorrow? And which creative projects would you want to be certain to complete? What artistic legacy would you want to leave behind?


A still from Bill Viola's video installation Catherine's Room (Photo © Bill Viola)

A still from Bill Viola’s video installation Catherine’s Room (Photo © Bill Viola)


Who & What Are Most Important?

Life is impermanent. Thinking about death isn’t morbid. It’s clarifying.

Australian nurse Bronnie Ware spent many years caring for people during the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded her patients’ epiphanies in her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Here are the top five regrets Ware observed, according to The Guardian:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others,” says Ware. “As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

Resolutions are useless if we are living small, mindlessly, and not tending to the larger life-issues on Ware’s list.

When we think about death, priorities snap into sharp focus. Immediately we know what is most important in our work and personal lives, and what distractions should fall away. Our life goals should emerge from this mindful place, and any “resolutions” should be extensions of this larger plan.


A still from Bill Viola's video installation Catherine's Room (Photo © Bill Viola)

A still from Bill Viola’s video installation Catherine’s Room (Photo © Bill Viola)


The Thing that Dismantles Your Own Sense of Yourself

Why is it so difficult to live a life true to ourselves? Why do we expend so much time and energy on petty projects that are unfulfilling, even harmful to ourselves and others? Why do we talk about our most important creative work instead of doing it? The answer is FEAR.

There is so much to be afraid of… The fear of being judged. Laughed at. Fired. Flat broke. Burning in hell. Badly reviewed. Disrespected. Disowned. Unloved. Alone. Shunned by those who expect us to be different. We are afraid to be vulnerable because of these fears.

And yet, the best creative work emerges from these sticky, aching vulnerable places.

Writer Amy Hempel.

Gordon Lish told Amy Hempel and her fellow students to write a story that revealed their own worst secret—something they would never live down. The thing, as Lish put it, that “dismantles your own sense of yourself.” (Photo: Writer Amy Hempel)

One of my favorite short story writers, Amy Hempel, talks about a major breakthrough she had when studying writing with Gordon Lish. Lish told Hempel and her fellow students to write a story that revealed their own worst secret—something they would never live down. The thing, as Lish put it, that “dismantles your own sense of yourself.”

Hempel’s “worst secret”?  That she had failed her best friend when she was dying. It became the subject of the first story she wrote, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” This short story masterpiece would become Hempel’s most anthologized piece of fiction.

Follow the Fear

In the Buddhist tradition, fear is a guide. It is the emotion we must pay closest attention to so we can move toward it. That’s right—move toward it. Anything else is procrastination. It is avoidance in its most damaging form. This was the critical lesson Lish was teaching his writing students: the best art requires bravery and vulnerability.

Fear tells us what is most important. In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes, “Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.”

“The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution,” says Pressfield, “the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”

The Importance of a Creative Practice

This is the reason we must have a regular creative practice. There will always be a reason to avoid the places that scare us: a carpet covered in dog hair, an email inbox overflowing with unanswered mail, a headache or a bad mood, an empty refrigerator, a studio or office that is too small, too loud, or too far away, a soul-sucking day job, or a looming deadline. Ideal conditions do not exist, so stop waiting for them.

Deep work and exploration require space (mental space, not necessarily physical), and this means showing up, whether it is for two hours in the morning before our 9-5 job begins or for an hour at night once everyone else in the house is asleep, or for five hours in the early morning before turning to administrative obligations and freelance work, or for two months every winter or summer when our academic jobs allow time for an artist residency. Without a plan—a commitment—we will gladly allow fear to have its way and take charge of our schedule.

A purposeful daily routine is actually the opposite of oppressive. It’s liberating. It reduces the odds that fear will derail us from our deepest goals and passions.


(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)


Resting in Our Own Experience of Discomfort

I scratched this sentence in my notebook today: routine=practice=working=courage=presence=being=art. For me, all of these actions are connected and are essentially one in the same. Practice is performing an activity or skill repeatedly in order to improve proficiency, but the word has multiple applications. To “practice the piano” is to exercise one’s skills on the instrument, but to have a “musical practice” is to be dedicated to exercising those skills regularly. In other words, routine is essential to having a thriving artistic practice.

In Mary Jane Jacob’s marvelous essay “In the Space of Art” (from the book Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art) she quotes Yvonne Rand: “we need to be able to ‘rest in our own experience of discomfort,'” she says. This is what a mindful artistic practice allows. It gives us a place to rest in our own discomfort.

Process is a safe haven. Whether we are writing, drawing, composing, designing, or performing, the habit of working those artistic muscles routinely allows us to be brave, radical, and brutally honest in our work. Showing up on a regular basis honors this process.


Writer Edwidge Danticat in her office (Photo © John Sprinks via the New York Times Magazine)

Writer Edwidge Danticat in her office (Photo © John Sprinks via the New York Times Magazine)


Get Busy

Imagine having only one year left to live…

Who would you call? Who would you see? What would you say to those you care about most? Where would you go? Which projects would you drop this very minute and which ones would you be certain to finish?

Think about it.

Now, get busy.

Put those people and projects at the top of your list. Make time for them each and every day. And when fear and resistance try to derail you in the guise of Facebook, television, so-called “research,” junk food, drink, sex, anxiety, emotional drama, keeping up with the Joneses, martyrdom, (fill in the blank here), do the work anyway. When 2015 rolls around, you might be surprised.


A still from Bill Viola's video installation Catherine's Room (Photo © Bill Viola)

A still from Bill Viola’s video installation Catherine’s Room (Photo © Bill Viola)


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About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Sigrun January 5, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    thank you! – wish you & Gwarlingo all the best for the year to come!

    • Michelle Aldredge January 5, 2014 at 1:18 pm

      Happy New Year to you, Sigrun. Thanks for all of your comments, emails, and wonderful posts on Sub Rosa. Best of luck with your own writing!

  2. Judy Dunn January 5, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    The best resolution post I have read,…ever. So much truth, so often avoided.

    • Michelle Aldredge January 5, 2014 at 1:17 pm

      Thanks, Judy. That is quite the endorsement! I appreciate it.

      I was as surprised as anyone to find myself writing about New Year’s resolutions. There is so much cliche out there on the topic. We don’t need more lists. We need more intention.

      Thank you for commenting and Happy New Year!

  3. Anna Dibble January 5, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    Great minds think alike! Making and sticking to a schedule is the only worthwhile resolution. The only one that actually works. And the hardest too.

  4. Mark Glovsky January 5, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    Maybe someday my mind will think like your mind. In the meantime, your great mind has given me inspiration and encouragement. Thanks!

  5. Lisa January 29, 2014 at 1:28 am

    Brava! As much as the truth hurts, the realization that I may never be this brave, I do love this.

  6. Amy Dryansky February 6, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    It has taken me until today to read this post, but it’s been in my in-box, staring at me, day after day. But I was too busy, doing everything other than feeding my creative self. Now I’m out of work and afraid, and coming to a place of knowing that this just might be a tremendous gift. Your post was just exactly what i needed, thank you. And I think I remember you from MacDowell!

    • Michelle Aldredge February 6, 2014 at 4:10 pm

      I remember you, Amy! I’m so glad to hear from you.

      I’m sorry to hear about work. That’s tough. I was terrified when I left MacDowell two years ago. I had been working 9-5 jobs my entire life and the thought of not having a regular paycheck was scary. It’s frightening–there’s no getting around it. Finding that sweet spot, where you have time for your creative work, and still have the money you need to pay the bills without your day job bleeding you dry, is a challenge.

      A friend of mine earned his MFA, and then decided to go to law school so he could get “a real job.” Being a lawyer was hard work and good money. But each time he thought of a piece of art he wanted to make or something he wanted to do in life, he wrote it on a piece of paper and put in a jar. You can see where this is going…It didn’t take long before his room was full of jars and things he would do “later.” The end result was that he walked about from a six-figure job in order to pursue art full time. Now his income comes from freelance law work, occasionally teaching, selling work, etc. It’s a roller-coaster, but there is freedom to travel, to attend residencies, and to follow through on the ideas that pop into his head.

      Having the time to figure out what is most important to you is an opportunity, even if the free time was initially unexpected. My experience has been that thoughtful, purposeful action is the best plan. You’ve probably seen this letter from Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse already, but it moves me every single time I read it. (One writer I know keeps it posted above his desk.)

      Best of luck to you as you figure out this next phase. Onwards and upwards!

  7. Amy Dryansky February 7, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    Thanks for our response and for pointing me in the direction of the Lewitt-Hesse piece–great advice! And thanks for creating this community at Gwarlingo.

  8. Alessandra December 30, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    Thanks Michelle!!!it is amazing how many habits/way of perceiving gets automated in us and we end up not being aware of it. It was great to read this piece, Fear can be disguised in the most random action of us.

    • Michelle Aldredge February 15, 2015 at 1:35 am

      Thanks for your comment, Alessandra. Fear is the root of so many problems, as artists are well aware. But there is no way around it. Going through is the only solution. This letter from artist Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse addresses the issue so wonderfully. I think this is the best creative advice I’ve ever read. Period.

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