I love a good plan. I love checklists, maps, itineraries, and tables of contents. Why? Because I want to know what I’m getting into. I want to be prepared.
Because I hate uncertainty.
I get sweaty and tense when stories end on a cliffhanger. Especially when the next installment is YEARS away! Looking at you Game of Thrones.
Beyond fiction, I’m uncomfortable with uncertainty in life. Who isn’t? It’s programed into our genes. Two million years ago, when we were hunting with spears and stones, fear of the unknown stopped us from wandering into bear caves. It told us to stay still when we heard rustling in the bushes. Is it an owl or a tiger? Fearing the unknown outcome kept us alive, and our big brains retain that primitive instinct to this day.
However, if early human did not have the drive to push past uncertainty––to accept she was taking a gamble with her life when blazing a trail to find water––we’d still be tadpoles.
I want to admit something here. When I make a plan or a checklist, I often think (or pray, rather), that events are going to go exactly as I want. I imagine I’ll sail through whatever I’m trying to accomplish. Something in me believes that if I have a plan and I’ve predicted the known obstacles, it’s going to go exactly as I think it will.
Of course, that’s never the case. There’s truth to the eyeroll-worthy cliché, “Want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.” Life is haphazard, full of unknown variables, and generally never sticks to our plan. Another cliché: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Uncertainty by nature involves risk and potential for pain and suffering. This makes me very scared.
Uncertainty makes me want to crawl into my solid bed, under my real covers, and remain in the present moment in the fetal position. This helps for a few minutes, but if I stay there, I don’t move forward.
Uncertainty is an excellent conductor of fear. Right now, I’m in the midst of big life changes. This month alone, I’m changing jobs and moving from San Diego to LA. Not to mention the unprecedented divisions and tensions we’re experiencing in our world. Collectively, we’re gripping our phones with white knuckles wondering, What the hell is going on?!
If I let it, my fear––like a hot Acme anvil on my chest––could cripple me. This upheaval led me to search for any book that could help me work through this swell of anxiety.
One of the first books I dove into was Jonathan Fields’ Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance. His central argument is that uncertainty is a given for life on earth, but it’s also essential for creative work. Without a level of uncertainty, art is derivative and safe. Great art takes risks. Creativity requires not knowing exactly how things will turn out.
So, if we must deal with uncertainty, how do we get through it? How do we walk into the dark woods even while trembling from head to foot?
To better deal with uncertainty, Fields proposes, look to habits and ritual.
More specifically, Fields suggests creating certainty anchors.
“A certainty anchor is a practice or process that adds something known and reliable to your life when you may otherwise feel you’re spinning off in a million different directions. [...] A lot of the power of ritual and routines comes from the simple fact that they are always there. They’re grounding experiences to which you can always return no matter what else is going on.”
When I read Fields’s first suggestion for soothing the anxiety of the unknown, I laughed out loud (in a good way).
Of course they are grounding, I thought. That’s why I’m obsessed with the psychology of habit and ritual in the first place. Routine is a bedrock to which we can anchor while the uncertainty of life and art swirls around us. As Flannery O’Connor put it: “Routine is a condition of survival.”
“Broader lifestyle routines serve as a salve to calm a bit of the anxiety of creation and to drop an anchor to which we can tether our creative lines knowing we can then float higher up into the clouds and stay there longer trusting that we’ll be able to find our way down.”
Fields is not the first writer to identify ritual as a key element to creative success. A book I refer to often on this blog is Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. From Mozart to Kafka to Toni Morrison, Currey cataloged the routines and habits of 150+ eminent creatives.
What he found is that great artists have a common denominator: they cling to a form of routine and ritual––even bizarre ones. “A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods,” Currey explains in the introduction.
Here are a few of my favorite quirky rituals of famous writers from Currey’s book:
Simone de Beauvoir kept a daily routine like clockwork: tea first thing, write until one p.m., visit with Jean-Paul Sartre or other friends in the afternoon, and back to the writing desk at five p.m. Beauvoir was so accustomed to her routine that she had trouble taking vacations––she got bored and antsy and wanted to get back to work.
Novelist Patricia Highsmith had to motivate herself to write by sitting on her bed “surrounded by cigarettes, ashtray, matches, a mug of coffee, a doughnut and an accompanying saucer of sugar. She had to avoid any sense of discipline and make the act of writing as pleasurable as possible. Her position, she noted, would be almost foetal and, indeed, her intention was to create, she said, ‘a womb of her own.’”
Every day for five years, novelist John Cheever put on a suit, rode the elevator down to the basement of his apartment building, stripped down to his underwear, and wrote until noon.
Maya Angelou wrote consistently in hotel rooms––“a tiny, mean room with just a bed. [...] I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon. If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous.”
Truman Capote was particularly quirky in his routine. He called himself a “completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched out on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy.” But this was the least strange of all his certainty anchors. Capote couldn’t begin or end his work on a Friday (I kinda relate to this). He was also highly superstitious about numbers and wouldn’t dial the phone or stay in a hotel room if the numbers added up to an unlucky digit.
How to Drop Certainty Anchors When The Path Is Unclear
It’s easy to think you need a detailed morning routine complete with a five-mile run and yoga to benefit from certainty anchors. As we’ve seen from eminent writers above, a certainty anchor can be as simple as lying down or choosing the right writing space––like a hotel room or your basement.
Certainty anchors vary person to person, writer to writer. A certainty anchor can have everything to do with writing, or it can be as simple as making tea and listening to your favorite song. It can be one action (or many) that you perform religiously, and this alone grounds you. Once grounded in your ritual, it’s the slightest bit easier to drift off into uncharted waters.
Habits and rituals are my lifelines in a world I cannot control. These are my current certainty anchors that keep me grounded, less anxious, and help me face uncertainty with courage:
Morning pages – three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness journaling first thing in the morning… AKA “brain dumping.”
Walking – I walk with my pup Nala for 45 minutes every morning.
Black tea – I have two cups of hot black tea: one with my morning pages and the other at my computer around 9 a.m. For reasons unknown to me, a hot drink in an inspirational mug kick-starts the senses and creates a sense of comfort. If I’m over caffeinated, Ayurvedic golden milk is my go-to alternative.
If there’s time, I squeeze in yoga and meditation. But journaling, walking, and tea have become so habitual that if I skip them, I feel it in my body and mind––like I forgot to brush my teeth or put on deodorant.
As we set sail into a new year, into a world more uncertain than ever, what anchors will you drop? Maybe five minutes of meditation? Maybe seven jumping jacks when you hop out of bed? Big or small, I’m sending you grounding energy as you face a new season of the unknown. And let’s be honest, that’s every season.
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Sources & Resources
Currey, M. (2013). Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Knopf Doubleday. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15799151-daily-rituals
Fields, J. (2011). Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt Into Fuel for Brilliance. Portfolio. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11674050-uncertainty