My guess is that there’s a chorus of voices making noise in your head. Among them is the voice of doubt. You probably know this voice well. It’s been yelling at you your whole life – and if it were an actual person, you’d long since have told them to get lost. But this voice isn’t going anywhere, and when it comes to writing, it’s probably getting louder the more serious you start to become about your work. I’m going to bet that many of these phrases sound achingly familiar:
Scary, isn’t it?
And the bad news is that these voices never go away. You finally finish your book and you’re convinced you’ll never have another good idea. You finally publish your book and you’re convinced it won’t sell. Your book sells and you’re convinced it was a fluke. It goes on and on and on.
This is the way doubt sounds in my mind:
“My idea is small, my idea is stupid, no one cares about my idea, I’m not even sure I care about my idea and even if I did, I probably couldn’t pull it off, because my best work is behind me and my agent is only sticking with me to be nice.
No matter what you wrote on that piece of paper, here’s a news flash about doubt: it is not personal. Doubt is not unique to you. It is, in fact, a part of the creative process. Seasoned writers know this. In fact, my friend Beth Kephart, whose beautiful memoir, A Slant of Sun, was nominated for a National Book Award, believes that self-doubt increases exponentially along with success. “You should hear the winners of Pulitzer Prizes go on,” she says.
Another writer friend, Caroline Leavitt, is enjoying huge success right now ― books hitting the New York Times bestseller list, books stacked on the tables at Costco. (Her latest is called Cruel Beautiful World.) I wrote a blog for Women’s Fiction Writers about how jealous I was of Caroline ― jealousy just being another form of doubt. (SHE’S so good and I’m so NOT good…I should quit writing and get a job at Trader Joe’s). Caroline wrote me an email in reply to my post:
“This is brilliant and honest and if you knew how I suffer and feel like a failure you would never be jealous of me! You are a genius writer!”
Then a few minutes later:
“Remember I had 8 failed novels before NYT one.”
Then a few hours later:
“So stunned by this. Recently when I was crying over something I didn’t get, a famous writer told me that books find their own time and everyone’s journey is different. So much is luck and timing and all we can do is focus on the work and try to have good karma by helping others. Jealousy is human and I try to use it as a spur to write deeper. And I love your work. And you! Don’t be jealous of me! You are seeing the dazzle but the struggle is still there.”
Don’t you love that? You are seeing the dazzle but the struggle is still there.
The point is that successful writers don’t stop writing just because they feel crushing self-doubt. They find ways to carry on, despite it. That’s the big secret of professional writers. Professional writers don’t try to get rid of doubt.
Acknowledge your doubt, and move on.
Whenever you start to hear your version of the “go work at Trader Joe’s” voice, stop. Acknowledge that voice. Say, “Oh look, here’s doubt, again.” Pull a chair up to the table for that doubt ― as if it were a guest in your home. As if you are about to serve it tea. Say, “Come on in, doubt. Make yourself comfortable. Stay awhile. You sit here and I’m just going to go over to my keyboard and do a little writing.”
This idea of making doubt familiar is hardly unique to writing. The great spiritual leader and Buddhist Thich Nhat Han talks about how fear is a natural constant in our lives. (Fear, like jealousy, being just another form of doubt… ) Instead of fighting it ― of saying, “Go away, Fear. I don’t like you. You are not me” ― he urges us to simply say this:
“Hello Fear. How are you today?”
Not only do the pros acknowledge that doubt exists and that they feel it, they know that the presence of doubt is, in fact, a good sign. It means that you are human, you are alive, you are capable of feeling something and you are on the edge of taking a step that could be profound.
One of my favorite books about writing is The War of Art: Break Through Your Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield. I highly recommend it. In The War of Art, Pressfield talks a lot about this good news about doubt. Here are two quotes that ring so true to me:
“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
Moving Through Doubt, Step 1
Okay, so we’ve seen that doubt is universal and that it’s not going to go away. So how do you write in spite of doubt?
The solution is exceedingly simple. Focus on the work ― both the work that people have done before you and the work you are doing yourself. Let me explain what I mean by that.
In his book, Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music, Glenn Kurtz talks about how he uses past masters as inspiration to help move past his doubt. He doesn’t do this occasionally, he does this every time he sits down to practice the guitar.
Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure. I warm up my hands and awaken my ears and imagination, developing skill equal to my experience. I listen and concentrate in an effort to make myself better. Yet every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.
Everything I need to make music is here, my hands, my instrument, my imaginations, and these notes. For most of their lives, Segovia, Casals, Bach, and Stravinksy were also just men sitting alone in a room with these same raw materials, looking out the window at people on the street. Like me, they must at times have wondered how to grasp the immensity of music’s promise in a few simple notes, how to hold fast to their devotions against a cutting doubt that would kill it.
Think for a minute about all the books you have loved in your life. Now think about why you loved them. Did they bring you solace or comfort, understanding or education, inspiration or entertainment, courage or self-awareness, political motivation or joy? Tapping into these powerful emotions and reminding yourself why books matter can be a fantastic way to help yourself move past doubt. After all, think how tragic it would be if your favorite book had never been written because the author felt doubt? Someone out there might one day say the same thing about you and the book you have yet to write.
Here are a couple examples of well-known writers writing about how certain books have influenced them:
“I’ve just surfaced from spending several days in a state of rapture. I was reading a book.I loved this book. I loved every second of it. I was transported to its world. I was reminded of all sorts of things in my own life. I was in anguish over the fate of its characters. I felt alive and engaged and positively brilliant, bursting with ideas, brimming with memories of other books I’ve loved….I’m truly beside myself with joy.” ― Writer-director Nora Ephron on Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay
“Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death. She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion. For as long as I’m immersed in a Munro story, I am according to an entirely make-believe character the kind of solemn respect and quiet rooting interest that I accord myself in my better moments as a human being.” ― Jonathan Franzen on Alice Munro’s story collection, “Runaway.”
Now take a moment to think about the books you have loved and why. Pick one ― one that pops into your head the strongest. How did this book make you feel? Write it down
Moving Through Doubt, Step 2
The second step in moving through doubt is to focus on your own work. All problems that have to do with being a writer can usually be solved by actually putting your butt in the chair and writing. I’m not kidding. Writing is the solution.
“People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.” ― Harlan Ellison
“Every hour you spend writing is an hour not spent fretting about your writing.” ― Dennis Palumbo, author of Writing from the Inside Out
Don’t believe anything I’m saying about doubt? Here’s a test. Walk away from your work ― start with a week. Don’t miss it? Can you leave it alone? Fine, then walk away for a month. If you still don’t miss it, try it for a year, and if you can go a year without your work calling to you, then guess what? You may not have to write whatever you thought you had to write, and more power to you! You’ll have more time for golf and Downton Abbey. If you can’t stay away, it’s time to embrace your doubt and get to work.
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