Creator and former showrunner of House of Cards Beau Willimon surprised the audience today at the ATX Television Festival when he opted to avoid discussion of the hit Netflix series entirely. Acknowledging that decision, the playwright-turned-screenwriter apologized to audience members who felt “cheated.” However, he said said he wanted to take a different approach to the scheduled discussion of his creative process and overcoming fears.

That meant starting things off by sneaking in through the back of the room instead of coming out onstage, a move he said was meant to illustrate his feelings on preconceived notions during the creative process. “When I’m in the writers room, or sitting behind a laptop by myself in my solitary, self-loathing, self-doubting existential place, one of the things I always challenge myself to do is to try to shed as many subconscious assumptions I have,” Willimon said.

It also meant taking a page from (and name-checking) monologist Spalding Gray, with Willimon conducting the event as a conversation with selected audience members. Asking them to name two things they feared the most, the consensus in the room was generally what you’d expect: death, failure, being alone and being thought of “as an asshole.” One woman had a more novel take on existential dread, however, admitting she feared dying in an embarrassing way, explaining that the worry came from a car accident she had while wearing a bikini, with her newly admitted med school friend in the passenger side. “I turned to her and thought, if I killed this future doctor, that would be really embarrassing,” she said. The audience erupted with laughter, as did Willimon, who suggested she write a screenplay about it. “I can see myself watching that right now,” he said.

Generally the panel focused on useful advice for creative people. The hardest thing to get to, Willimon said later on, is “the truth,” and to do that, “you have to confront what you are most afraid of.”

“Even confronting what you’re most afraid of is a fearful act,” he said, “which means it requires a great deal of daring in order to pass through that fear, in order to get to the truth. … There’s that cliche that there’s nothing more terrifying to a writer then a blank page, but [it just] boils down to is whatever you are most afraid of in life usually.” But he said that’s good because fear is “naturally and rightfully in an honest place,” somewhere a writer needs to be “in order to write something good.”

His advice? “What I try to always remind myself,” Willimon said, “is that while you have nothing in front of you, not only because you yourself have done it but because countless people have been doing it, it is totally and utterly possible and that you are going to get to that place where something is done. … You can only really tackle it one page, one line, one scene at a time.”

Willimon closed out the discussion by sharing his own biggest fear, which, as with most people in the room, is death. “It’s the first thought when I wake up,” he said. “To me it’s a liberating thing. … It puts everything in perspective. It’s the only one true thing we all agree on, that our story ends there.

“Being able to wake up with that fear is what keeps me honest,” he added, “which is what creativity is all about.”