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Self-Doubt is Not Good

Today’s guest is no stranger to the WU community; Julie Duffy has been a part of the extended WU family for years. Not only that, Julie is a generous blogger in her own right, hosting the StoryADay May and StoryADay September short story writing challenges on her website, StoryADay.org.

When she reached out to see if we might be interested in a post on self-doubt, with a spin we likely had never explored here at WU, we leapt at the chance to have her with us.

You can learn more about Julie on her website, and by following her on Facebook and Twitter.

Self-Doubt is Not Good

I like Steven Pressfield’s books, like “The War of Art” and “Do The Work.” I think he’s a force for good in the artistic world. But if his recent blog post Self-Doubt is Good had been a book, I would have hurled it across the room.

“The counterfeit inventor,” he says, “is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death. Self-doubt is an indicator. It’s the proof of a hidden positive. It’s the flip side of our dream.”

He’s right that over-confidence is an enemy of quality.

He’s right that that more a dream means to us, the more self-doubt we’ll have about it.

But he lost me when he tried to convince me that the snarling beast lurking under the back porch of my subconscious is, in reality, a scared and fluffy kitten that it might be fun to try to tame.

SELF-DOUBT IS NOT GOOD

I’ve interviewed enough (successful) authors to know that self-doubt never goes away.

  • Every project has a point where the author thinks they are not going to be able to do it this time.
  • Every publication day is a mixture of elation and terror.
  • Every time they start a new manuscript, they doubt that they can do it this time.

On the release of his 23rdrd novel, A. N. Wilson told The Guardian, “I still feel the terror.”

That doesn’t sound like much fun, to me.

WHAT IS SELF-DOUBT?

Self-doubt isn’t good.

Self-doubt isn’t bad.

Self-doubt just is.

Self-doubt is the feeling that we are not capable of producing work that lives up to a standard we have set for ourselves. It is

  • Comparing your first draft to your favorite writer’s edited and polished fourteenth draft.
  • Imagining a story can be flawless.
  • Allowing the voices of critics and reviewers to overwhelm the memory of yourself, as a reader, getting excited, teary-eyed, or jubilant while reading a book that made you Feel All The Feels.

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BILLY JOEL?

In the past two decades, Joel has recorded no new music—nothing that might have delighted his fans—because he feels he’s not as good as Beethoven and he’s sick of failing to reach the standard he set for himself.

Doesn’t that seem like a bit of a shame?

Whether you love it or hate it, Just The Way You Are is a well-constructed song, written in the most popular medium of its day, and one that has given a lot of happiness to millions of listeners. And I don’t think anyone could listen to Goodnight Saigon and say Billy Joel was incapable of writing musically-complex, moving, and important songs.

But he’s had a lot of success. He knows what it’s like to successfully pursue his art. And he’s decided to retire from that.

ARE YOU READY TO WALK AWAY?

If the answer is no, you must expect self-doubt, but you don’t have to love it.

  • You’re not weak because you feel it.
  • You’re not a failure if it sometimes stalls you.
  • You’re not unqualified to be a writer if you can’t see Bliss in this dark little shadow on the flip side of your dream.

You are just like every other writer.

QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT SELF-DOUBT

To stop self-doubt from derailing your progress, ask yourself these questions:

  1. To what am I comparing my project, and is that an apt and fair comparison?
    Comparing the first draft of your first story to your favorite passage from your favorite author’s seventh, is not a fair and apt comparison. Is Billy Joel Beethoven? No. Is that an apt and fair comparison? Only if he was looking for an excuse to retire.
  2. Is it a helpful comparison at this time?
    While working on an early draft, it is not remotely helpful to think imagine how reviewers might nit-pick your story. It might be helpful at the revisions stage. Conversely, it can be extremely helpful to think about your reader, and the emotions you’re conjuring in them as they experience the passage you’re writing.
  3. Is it a necessary comparison?
    If you’re writing bodice-ripping Regency romances—and don’t knock bodice-ripping Regency romances: they’re fun, they sell really well, people read them by the boatload, and authors often sneak important sociological questions into them—does it matter if your style is a little less ‘ivory tower’ than Jonathan Franzen’s? Does that, in fact, make you a better writer of romance? (Spoiler alert: it does.)
  4. Is your self-doubt premature/normal?
    In the early stages of a first draft it’s common to be full of enthusiasm, because the idea is new and full of potential. In the middle of the story, when you must complicate things for your characters (and yourself) it’s normal to doubt your ability to climb out of the hole you’ve dug. It is a truism, but the only way to guarantee that you can’t do it, is to stop trying.

SELF-DOUBT IS NORMAL

Many authors I have interviewed tell me that self-doubt arrives as regularly as clockwork in each project. (More than one writer has told me that their spouse pointed out the inevitability and punctuality of its arrival, after living through several projects with them.)

Successful writers learn to get through the self-doubt, not because they are smarter, stronger, or more worthy than you or I, but because they have discovered strategies that help.

HOW YOUR FAVORITE WRITERS PERSEVERE

Sometimes they white-knuckle it and just keep writing.

Sometimes they quiet it with booze or addictions. (Not an advisable or sustainable strategy!)

The most successful and prolific writers I know rely on self-care, feedback from trusted first-readers, and even more importantly, on the encouragement of friends, even non-writer friends.

(Seriously, check the acknowledgements of newly-published novels and see how many of them contain the words “this book would not have been written without the unfailing encouragement of…”)

SELF-DOUBT IS NOT THE POINT

Self-doubt is not good. Self-doubt is not bad. Self-doubt just is.

We drag ourselves around it. We outsmart it or out-write it. We rely on friends and supporters to distract it while we run full-tilt at our stories.

IMPERFECT WRITER, IMPERFECT READER

Most readers are neither critics nor reviewers. They are imperfect people, like us, who are waiting to be swept up in a good yarn.

We keep writing by remembering about those readers. They are longing to be thrilled by our stories’ best parts, ready to shrug off their worst parts, and hungry to be transported by the wonder of connecting with our imaginations through these odd little marks on the page.

Now, doesn’t that sound like fun?

Do you suffer from self-doubt and has the way it hits you changed over time? What do you do to outwit or outrun self-doubt? When are you at your happiest in your writing process?


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.