Self-doubt and writing: amicable partners?

It’s Monday morning, and I am dragging myself through the mud. Am I making any progress?  Is what I’m writing any good, any good whatsoever? Over the weekend, my husband and I had the rare opportunity to enjoy a date night. It was a beautiful evening, so we sat outdoors at one of our favorite places (the incomparable Watermarc in Laguna Beach) and over dinner, my husband inquired about my fiction novel, Radiohead.  He asked if I come sum it up, so I gave him my elevator pitch.

His response? Utter indifference. Struck by his impassibility, I found myself rambling, determined to convince him of how exciting the details of my story are proving to be, but the conversation continued its radical nosedive. While the storyline seemed promising and dynamic to him, in truth he really didn’t want to talk about the details of my process. Nonetheless the exchange aggravated deep-seated self-doubt I’d been struggling to quash.

“Every one of us experiences self-doubt, even the most well-established writer,” says Joan Dempsey of Literary Living. “Dean Koontz, for instance, an author who has sold more than 400 million books and is one of the most highly paid writers in the world, says ‘I have more self-doubt than any writer I know.’”

Dempsey also points to Alice Munro, the celebrated Canadian writer who’s been called our Chekhov, and how she worries every time she finishes writing a book that she’ll never write again.

“Let’s agree, then, that self-doubt is an ordinary part of every writer’s experience, even yours,” says Dempsey. “You’ll never be without it. The question is, what can you learn from it?”

Here are Joan Dempsey’s four reasons to appreciate your self-doubt.

1. Self-Doubt is a Protective Instinct

Self-doubt arises out of your own instinctive desire to protect yourself, which is actually a nice impulse that you probably don’t often acknowledge. We usually bemoan or bludgeon our self-doubt; we believe what writer Sylvia Plath famously claimed, that “the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

I beg to differ!

You can be more creative if you welcome and examine your self-doubts.

It’s true, though, that we writers allow our doubts to keep us away from our work. Why? To protect ourselves from pain. Author James Baldwin says we’re good at fooling ourselves because we don’t want to get hurt. “We don’t want to have our certainty disturbed,” he said.

Psychologists call this self-handicapping . If you stay away from your work you’ll never have to face the pain of writing poorly, or you can fool yourself into thinking you’ll be a great writer if you do get down to work.

The problem with that, though, is that you’ll never really be a writer. Baldwin believed that the trick is to know when you’re fooling yourself.

The best writers live an examined and therefore honest life, and that includes scrutinizing your self-doubt.

2. Self-Doubt Sounds an Alarm

Not unlike a smoke detector, self-doubt alerts us to the presence of fear, the typical cause of our doubts.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known Buddhist teacher (and celebrated author), advises us that because fear is a natural and constant presence in our lives, we’d do well to welcome it rather than fight it:

It is best not to say, “Go away, Fear. I don’t like you. You are not me.” It is much more effective to say, “Hello Fear. How are you today?”

The next time you feel self-doubt, don’t despair or fight – look around to see what might be smoldering; be grateful for the alarm.

3. Self-Doubt is a Call to Action

Dean Koontz is notorious for obsessively polishing his paragraphs. “I began this ceaseless polishing out of self-doubt,” says Koontz, “as a way of preventing self-doubt from turning into writer’s block: by doing something with the unsatisfactory page, I wasn’t just sitting there brooding about it.”

In Koontz’s case, feeling uncertain about his abilities actually motivated him to take an action he might otherwise not have pursued.

4. Self-Doubt Provides Fresh Perspective

If you keep your doubts to yourself you’re missing a valuable opportunity. By sharing your doubts with friends and writing colleagues you’re bound to get a fresh perspective. Others often don’t see your failings or uncertainties in the same way you do.

By sharing your doubts you’ll likely learn something new about yourself, feel companioned, hear a helpful cheer, or receive a much-needed boost to your self-esteem.

James Baldwin, in discussing why he writes, says he does so to describe. What he means is that by describing something in detail you come to understand it intimately. Describe your doubts in writing, or through dialogue – either way, your new understanding can help disarm your doubts.

The next time self-doubt keeps you away from your writing, try this:

  • Review these four reasons to appreciate your doubts;
  • Say “Hello, self-doubt, how are you today”; and
  • Get to work.

What have you learned from your self-doubts?

Joan Dempsey is a writer and the founder of Literary Living, an online program for serious, aspiring writers who want to overcome resistance and self-doubt to create a unique writing life. Sign-up for more information, a free audio interview with Leo Babauta, and a free e-book, The Power of Deliberate Thinking: 5 Strategies for Staying at the Writing Desk (Despite Your Self-Doubts)

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5 Comments

Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Guest posts

5 responses to “Self-doubt and writing: amicable partners?

  1. Pingback: The art of pitching your novel; advice from Ken Levine « the written word

  2. Oh, self doubt. It never does go away! This is a great post. If I listened to my self doubt, I’d never send anything out! Instead, I do my best work, send it out, then brace myself. It’s much better than doing nothing.

    • Thanks, Julie! I agree, much better. I almost have to ambush my writing some mornings, just to get past the wall of self-doubt. I’m trying to remind myself that worry over quality is my opportunity to improve the quality. What are you writing?

  3. This is such a wonderful article and exactly what I needed to read right now. I finished my first draft a week and a half ago and am immersed in the revision process. I foresee myself sending my novel to agents by the end of the month but I am plagued with self-doubt. I know that this is the best I can do, but is it good enough? It is very reassuring to read that this is a common problem amongst writers.

    • Good luck with your finished manuscript! And, might I add, CONGRATULAIONS on completing it. I’ve been told repeatedly that every writer should put away a little money each month to pay for a talented, professional editor upon the manuscript’s completion. Considering how competitive the publishing industry has become, we must polish our manuscripts to near-perfection, and an editor can help up see things we can’t on our own. Please let me know how you progress! Again, best of luck!

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