The Writing Life: Doubts Part 5: How I Made My Peace with Doubt (Or: How I Reduced Doubt to the Guerilla War Option Only. Or: Be The Shark)

That’s a lengthly title. But for me an accurate one. I have not defeated doubt, I have not cast it into the outer darkness to lie impotent and weeping. I have, like the demon in my book, cut it down to a manageable size, and reduced it to fighting me at the page by page level, a guerilla in the word jungle, ambushing my paragraphs and sentences, but scattering before me when I bring my full focus to bear on the same territory.

Does this make sense for you, dear reader?

Once I was locked in total war with doubt, and for a long time it held the field and it was I who waged the guerilla war: scratching out words and phrases, stitching together paragraphs and pages before the doubt shock troops rolled in and halted all progress. Sometimes the troops didn’t have to be employed, the long range barrage from the doubt cannon simply kept my writing self crouched in its bunker, unable to escape or write at all. I would retreat from the front lines, go on furlough and pretend all was right with the world, attend parties, go to work and ignore the distant conflict for months at a time. I would say I was recharging my batteries, gathering my strength, but no, I had retreated from the battlefield and left doubt the victor. Doubt was happy for his ally distraction to keep me from the field. Or for dissatisfaction to keep me from engaging when sometimes I did dare to look at the pages of words once again. Doubt had me pinned, and was not in any mood to relent.

What happened, how did I turn the tide of this conflict?

Well, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I got older. The dreamtime of my 20s passed, and my 30s rolled on as I pretended I still had acres of future ahead of me. Even into my 40s, delusion, another ally of doubt, kept its grip on me, telling me I had time, I could delay a little longer. (And you know, I’ve never read Sandman, but I think all the main characters there are D this and that – it seems I’m going down the same path here!)

But the cold awareness of growing mortality finally struck. The sense of time’s sand running between my fingers, not in any pretty trickle, but in a flood, overwhelmed me.

Now I spent many years working as a nurse. I have seen death many times, peaceful, traumatic, fearful, accepting, surrounded by love, alone but for strangers. I have tended to the dead and to their families. But it is a funny thing: you can work in the field, see mortality in all its certitude, and still delay in your own case, still not viscerally understand that there lies your future. So I ignored my own mortality for 20 odd years. When finally I felt it in my gut, the utter grim certainty that I too would pass, and needed to act soon or miss what chance I had in life to share my stories, doubt attacked again, telling me it was already too late, why even try now, with the dried out husk that my creativity must have become after all those wasted years? Why even try?

It is a bitter thing to realise you are trying to sabotage yourself into soundless oblivion.

But the urgency of life in me toppled doubt’s ramparts, scattered its troops, shattered its grip. I had to write. I had to publish. I had to ask for help in order to do those things.

I forged forward, I wrote, rewrote, edited, edited again, and again, until I decided that any more was just another form of delay creeping in to hamper me. I published. The doubt of a lifetime, that told me I would never do such a thing, was defeated.

But though driven from that field, it was not vanquished. I started writing my next book, powering through the early phases until doubt started to say hello again, creeping in to spoil progress, to snipe from the edges of the page, to argue over paragraphs, character moments, plot choices. I can tell it to sod off and push through, but I have to acknowledge that it is still there, but reduced to the guerilla fighter I once was. If I keep pushing, maybe I can make it retreat further, to a bunker of its own, or to a spot far from the front line where it can languish, ignored. For now though I can take comfort in knowing I hold the whip hand, and the more I do, the less it becomes. That is how I have found it is best to handle doubt. Doing weakens it.

How might this help you? Well a) please learn from me and don’t wait until you have a not-disguised-at-all midlife crisis about your creativity and finally do something about it. Be aware of all the ways in which doubt, distraction, dissatisfaction, and delusion can work together to delay your output. I know it is hard, but try not to imagine that you have next month, next year. I spent years locked in that trance. I once looked after a man who died on his 40th birthday. When my own 40th birthday rolled around I remembered him, and thought I really should do ‘something’. I dithered (another one!) for another two and a half years. Don’t do that, just don’t. b) understand that the best way to defeat doubt is to act, to work, to write and not stop. Doubt and distraction dazzled me for years. I have found that putting my head down and writing breaks their barrage and advances my own position, line by hard earned line. Persist, if you possibly can, and if you can recognize the tricks doubt and its allies are playing on you, respond by writing. Don’t be satisfied to have an idea, or hold it in your head, or talk about it: write it down, then expand upon it, and then rework it and make it stronger – that is territory hard earned. Defend it, and move forward. Just as doubt likes to hold you still, so moving forward, even erratically, can cause it to scatter before you. Be like that lad I once met in London during a big freeze when all the planes were grounded, the roads blocked and the train service was all that was left, and that not certain for long. We were boarding a train, which did not lead to his destination. He said to me as he bobbed and weaved in the cold, “Gotta keep moving, like a shark. Keep moving, and I’ll get there in the end.”

That memory always makes me smile. I know he got there in the end, because he refused to stay still. Be the shark.

2 thoughts on “The Writing Life: Doubts Part 5: How I Made My Peace with Doubt (Or: How I Reduced Doubt to the Guerilla War Option Only. Or: Be The Shark)

  1. kat

    We do just have to keep moving, don’t we? Every time I read one of your posts it feels like the swift kick I need to get myself motivated to work on my nearly 20 year old story, or any story for that matter. But then one small child or the other starts screaming and there goes all the motivation. It’s hard to remember to just sit and write, but perhaps I should just do it. Lock doubt and procrastination in a box and sit on it. Trying so hard to learn from you…

    1. As I am at pains to point out, I am no authority, just a guy who tries his best to write when I can. You have my total admiration for doing as much as you do while juggling the small children (not literally, of course!) and the rest of your life commitments. Keep plugging away and take each small victory as a signpost to the next one. One day you might even get a free afternoon…

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