The Writing Life: Doubts Part 1: Am I Good Enough?

Last week I talked about dissatisfaction, and in the process mentioned its big brother, doubt. Doubt manifests for writers in quite a few subtle guises, so I’m going to dedicate a column a week for a while (with potential interruptions to allow folk to recover!) looking at how doubt can sneak into a writer’s life.

Of course it doesn’t have to sneak. For many writers, even the great ones, doubt is a regular visitor, if not a constant companion. The first and most basic doubt a writer has to face is this hoary old chestnut: am I good enough?

This is the fundamental demon, the primary nemesis of most writers and creatively inclined people. Before you’ve written a word, put brush to paper, spoken your first line, cut fabric, spun the wheel, lifted a chisel, whatever it is that begins your artistic process, this question raises its head. And annoyingly, it refuses to go away after the first paragraph, first chapter, first draft. (You fill in the blanks for those other creative starting positions, but from now on I’m sticking to what I know, and that is writing!)

Some people write as therapy, and for them the act of writing is a release and a gift. For most of the rest of us, myself included, therapy may be involved, but primarily I believe it is an act of performance, we write to show others what we have written, for them to read. So we have an urge to write, and we believe we’re good enough that others will like and enjoy what we have written. If only the story ended there.

I have a very simple imagining of two sides of a writer’s personality. One half is General Zod, Terence Stamp version, demanding all kneel before him. The other is Sally Field receiving an Oscar and being amazed that people like her. Zod raises his head when things are going well, or when you haven’t been critiqued in a while. He’s a deluded monster, but it’s fun to indulge him and imagine yourself an absolute master of the writing universe, waiting for your slavish followers to inevitably appear. Sally is what writers yearn for, and are afraid of never getting: that affirmation, that applause, that unique accolade. It is not getting what Sally is celebrating that writers fear to their core. Not having anyone like them, appreciate their writing, find their story engaging, inspiring, entertaining, or whatever the writer hoped to achieve when he or she first put pen to paper.

This fear, and the doubt it engenders, profoundly sucks. You doubt anyone will like what you’ve created because you fear it won’t be liked, an evil feedback loop. That doubt can’t be erased until you’ve created something, exposed it to scrutiny, and THEN, only then, received positive responses (it needs to be plural, let’s be honest) saying it is good. If only that positive feedback could end the story.

But doubting if you are good enough is more insidious than that. Just as Zod is a megalomaniac who believes he is the best thing since ShakesHomerSpeare on the basis of three brilliant pages produced on a rainy afternoon, the fear of not getting what Sally had can whisper in your ear that just because some people liked it, doesn’t mean anyone else does. The people who liked it might be sycophants, or worse, family – how can you trust them? Or the fear prefers to listen to detractors, the negative critiques, the voices that cut deep and say what you’ve always secretly thought was true, that this thing, this passion you have, is misplaced, and what talent you imagined you had does not exist.

That is the toad that squats on your chest and licks your face with a cold and unkind tongue. Zod shrivels and falls into an icy abyss when the toad slithers heavily into position. This is why writers should not read negative reviews, because the toad feeds on them, and can grow unmanageably large, even as Zod feeds on positive reviews and grows ever more deranged as a result. Are all writers wildly bipolar? No – just my imagining of them for the purposes of this column!

For me this core doubt came in waves, battering the unrealistic Zod (whose mania was no better – the crazed Zod part of me thought no more work had to be done, that his genius did not need full stops or actual sentence structure to get in the way of his incredible message!) into submission and for years kept me from putting anything into the public sphere. Zod would read books and boldly proclaim that they should kneel before him, that their writing was inferior, and that mine would dominate the world in which they were allowed to exist, until the toad hopped along to coldly ask why I imagined I knew better than the agents and publishers who had allowed that book to be printed? It wasn’t a pleasant milieu in which to exist, fluctuating between elation and depression. Ultimately doubt won, because the fear of finding out that I wasn’t Sally and that nobody would like me stopped me from releasing anything. I’d rather not know, than discover doubt was right. This was a terrible mistake that I urge any writers reading this column to ignore. Do not let doubt paralyze you. Get help, and publish!

How did I get past it? In some ways I didn’t, the doubt does not go away, and it’s hard to believe in yourself and not wonder if you are deluded. As we’ll see over the next few weeks, doubt assumes all kinds of guises. What happened was I got older. I realized time was passing, like sand through that hourglass, and it was now or never for me. Denying the toad wasn’t enough, I kicked Zod out too, in order to take advice and be grateful for it, and above all, pay attention and use it to make my writing better.

I realized that if I let the toad squat on my chest for the rest of my life, my life would end and I’d never have said a word. That scared me more than the thought of nobody liking what I had to say. So I have spoken. I hope you like it. I’m okay if you don’t.

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5 thoughts on “The Writing Life: Doubts Part 1: Am I Good Enough?

  1. Now it’s only fair to say what stuck a chord in my and made me click the like button here.
    It’s clear that you have a talent for articulation, but it was the personality that showed with this. Made me like the person explaining to others how he was successful, for the most part, in snuffing out the choke hold of fear and insecurities. Sharing experiences is everything

    1. Thank you. Sharing experiences is part of what blogging and the internet is all about.

      I broke out of the choke hold because I saw the end of the line coming – classic midlife crisis I suppose! To young creators: I pray you do not wait as long as I did. So many beautiful ideas and expressions wasted on my part in the 20+ years it took me to wake up to the fact that I’m not immortal. Try hard, and try early is my advice. Don’t think you’ll have time later. I’m very lucky to have had time later.

      Thank you erroneous for your comment.

  2. It took me a very long time to finally sit down and write professionally (though I wound not yet call myself a pro). Part of what held me back was doubt. I’m not troubled by doubt much anymore. I still feel anxious waiting for a response to a submission, but as I tend to expect rejection, I don’t get too phased when it comes. I have hardened myself to it. But at the same time, I have gotten so many replies from editors and publishers praising my writing skill, that I am able to maintain my confidence. My cold-tongued toad is the lack of inspiration to write the stories I know I have to write (whether an ongoing work, or a prompt, or something else forcing my hand).

    1. Nice insight. Yes you can get hardened to doubt, or at least develop strategies for minimising it. I find that even as I get partially over one form of doubt, another version can insert itself into my writing life. Which is a pain in the backside! And it is hard to be 100% on and ready to write all of the time. Or even 50% on! Perseverance is the ugly duckling that should get a lot of glory in the creative world. If you can persevere and keep writing when you’d really rather goof off, I think you are ahead of a lot of your companions in writing, who are binge watching that show, or in my case, reading internet articles about nothing (there are so many of those!) rather than writing. In a forthcoming column I discuss procrastination as a form of doubt based sabotage. I have been a champion procrastinator in my time.

  3. Pingback: The Writing Life: Doubts Part 2: The Perfect as Enemy of the Good, or Great – Roderick T. Macdonald

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