Art & Fear Perspective #4: Ishta Mercurio

photo credit: Claudia Osmond


Such a small word — only four little letters. But it’s so big, it’s bottomless.

There is so much fear around making art. So many questions and doubts that stem from a place of fear:

What if this is bad?

What if it’s good, but nobody finds it?

What if people find it, but they don’t like it?

What if people hate it?

What if my words are met with indifference, which is even worse than hate, because at least if they hate it, I got them to feel something.

Even worse than that: what if, in a year or five or twenty, I look back on this and I realize that *I was wrong*?

What if I write this today, and everybody says I am wrong tomorrow?

What if writing isn’t even what I’m supposed to be doing with my life? What if there’s some other, untried thing out there, at which I would be effortlessly brilliant? (Okay — not effortlessly. But maybe it would, at the very least, be easier than this. Maybe it would at least pay the bills.)

What if, what if, what if. Fear, fear, fear.

And that doesn’t even get at the existential questions that keep me up at night, the figure-eight loop of self-doubt and then doubting the self-doubt, and then doubting the doubting of the self-doubt, around and around, over and under forever.

If I’m wrong but people love it, does that make it right?If I’m right, but people hate it, does that make it wrong? And anyway, if people hate it, why bother?

What if this is all a waste?


Recently, I had to make a decision. It was a “Do I or Don’t I” decision, the kind of decision that I knew would carry Consequences, but the consequences were hard to determine ahead of time. Fear weighed heavily on both sides of the scale.

If I did nothing, the result would be the continuation of the status quo, which was rather terrible to begin with.

If I did something, well. What was the worst that could happen? (Reader, the worst that could happen was that I would never be published again.)

And as I was contemplating this awful decision, things were happening around me: things that were out of my control, but that had a shape, the shape life takes when it’s falling apart a little bit. Crumbling at the edges, and loose at the joints.

And I thought, “Well… It looks like this is the direction things are going to go anyway. What have I got to lose?”

And I let go.

I let go of hope, a little bit. And in letting go of hope, I also found freedom from fear.

I don’t generally recommend nihilism as a healthy lifestyle choice, but in those moments of paralyzing self-doubt, it saved me. Because when nothing I did mattered, I could do anything. I could try that ambitiously great thing, because if it didn’t work out, it wouldn’t matter. Even if it did work out, and in that working out it still didn’t matter on the grand scale of things, I would end up in the same place by doing as by not doing, so WHY NOT DO? We are but specks in the great cosmos that is the Universe, after all. Our time here is short, but while we’re here, we might as well make the most of it. Nihilism turned toward darkness is a dangerous thing, but nihilism turned toward the light can be freeing.

The key was in letting go of hope only enough to embrace the possibility that if the worst happened, I would still be standing. It is in this place, at the nexus of nihilism and hope, that creativity is most free. It is in this place that the question ceases to be, “What if this goes horribly wrong?” and becomes: “Who will I even be if I don’t at least try to find the words to tell this truth?”

That big fear that this isn’t the thing I’m supposed to be doing with my life is nothing against the bigger truth that my life, like all human lives, is small, and who I choose to be within it is the only thing I can control.

And so, for today, I choose this: this pen, this paper, these words. This is who I am. This is my truth. And in embracing this truth, I leave fear behind.

ISHTA MERCURIO is the co-author of Bite Into Bloodsuckers (published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside) and the author of Small World, forthcoming in spring 2019 from Abrams Books for Young Readers. She currently resides in Ontario, where she grows vegetables, films and photographs insects, and collects stories. Find her at 


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