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When Self-doubt Strikes…

Comedian and actor Mike Myers once said something that I think many creative people could probably relate to: despite his many triumphs, he insisted, he still expected the no-talent police to come and arrest him at any time. Though few of us will ever know the level of accomplishment (and, presumably, pressure) that Myers has experienced, I think many of us, if we’re being honest, often suspect that we’re just not good enough. We think our every failure is a true reflection of our absolute lack of talent, and that our successes are either flukes or not actually successes at all, just failures that we’ve somehow managed to get away with thus far.

Image credit: Brandon Grasley | Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Brandon Grasley | Wikimedia Commons

If you’re a self-doubter, you can at least console yourself with the thought that you’re in good company. “I don’t believe anyone ever suspects how completely unsure I am of my work and myself,” Tennessee Williams said, “and what tortures of self-doubting the doubt of others has always given me.” According to screenwriter William Goldman, “The haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.” Vincent Van Gogh, meanwhile, had his own method of overcoming self-doubt: “If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint’, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”

While I’m sure that creative people everywhere, whatever their circumstances, suffer from self-doubt, I also suspect that it might be particularly crippling to a self-published author. The self-publisher doesn’t, after all, have the vital support system that a traditionally-published author has: there’s no external validation, no agent or publisher sufficiently appreciative of his work to be willing to take a financial punt on it. There is only him, and his readers (or lack of them). And when you’re suffering from self-doubt, every negative comment and criticism, however minor and however constructive, can be construed as being confirmation of your worst fears – namely, that you are a talentless ass who has no business writing anything more complicated than a shopping list.

Criticism hurts, not least because creative writing, at least if it means anything at all to its creator, is more than “just a story”. There’s a sense in which it is you: your essence, your beliefs and ideas and reactions, your emotional responses and imaginative vision. When you send your work out into the wider world, you lay yourself bare, and give that world permission to stare at, dissect, and appraise you – and criticise you, too, if it so wishes. Little wonder that some writers, when faced with negative reviews of their work, go ballistic. And while I don’t recommend going ballistic, or at least not in public – that’s a very bad idea – I can nevertheless understand why people do so.

And yet this fact – that your writing is, in a sense, you – can also bring a certain calm acceptance. In the same way that you’re not going to agree with everyone you meet in day-to-day life, you can’t please everyone with your writing. If you tried to please everyone, you’d probably write something either so bland or so phenomenally confused that you’d end up pleasing no one at all. What you’ve put down on paper or the screen is your vision, your particular “take” on life and the world. It’s the best you can do. Other people are entitled to disapprove of or disagree with it, of course, but in that case you just have to agree to differ.

Image reproduced courtesy of Dariusz Sas, Dreamstime Stock Photos
Image reproduced courtesy of Dariusz Sas, Dreamstime Stock Photos

Having said that, it’s as well to take criticism on board to a certain extent. If criticism pertains to one’s craftsmanship, the means by which one gets one’s vision down on the page, it would be madness not to. In this sense, then, self-doubt can be a necessary goad, a spur to do better. Doubting whether your words do justice to your mental image is a powerful incentive to try to improve. If our belief in our abilities was absolute and unshakeable, what motive would we have to work harder, try harder, become better?

I experience self-doubt on a regular basis. I live in fear of the no-talent police. It’s not an easy experience to deal with, and if I were to give you a list of self-help-style exercises – “Five Simple Ways to Overcome Self-doubt!” – I’d be wasting your time. The truth is probably that you just have to deal with it in your own way and in your own time.

So, how do you deal with it? Any comments or opinions would be welcome…

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20 thoughts on “When Self-doubt Strikes…

  1. Great post. I won’t speak for all writers, but I think being a writer is akin to being an oxymoron: confident doubt. We must have the self-confidence to keep writing, and yet we’re always plagued by the doubt that what we’re writing is never going to be good enough. When writing, I frequently shift all over the spectrum of confidence, ranging from “this is the best thing ever” to “this is total crap.” Sometimes this happens within a span of two paragraphs.

    I wrote a short story three years ago, and I got some sort of writerly validation from published writers (and I was thinking, “Hey, I really can do this writing thing!”), but it has still been rejected by literary magazines more times than I can count (and now there’s the doubt that everyone lied to me). So, I guess the best we can do is to keep writing . . . it’s who we are, after all. 🙂

    1. Thank you for the comment, Michelle! Yes, I can identify with everything you’ve said – I too stray all over that spectrum, all the time. And though I, like you, wouldn’t try to speak for all writers, I think that there is frequently a contradiction at the very heart of what we’re doing. On the one hand we’re often racked by self-doubt; on the other, we have to be egotistical enough to believe that what we have to say is worth the effort of even writing, let alone reading. I haven’t yet been able to balance these two competing strands of thought in my own mind, but I think your advice (“keep writing”) is about as good a way to deal with self-doubt as any.

      Great blog, by the way!

      1. Yes, the contradictions! Maybe one day it’ll all balance out, but it’s nice to know that other writers frequently feel the same way I do. Thank you for the follow 🙂 I look forward to reading more of your blog posts.

  2. Reblogged this on Novels, Short Stories, and More and commented:
    I absolutely believe that the ‘no-talent police’ are right around the corner. Have never doubted it. What it does for me is keeps me working at it. The right level of doubt and insecurity makes one stronger.

    1. Thanks for the comment, kingmidget, and for the reblog! I agree – it is often that doubt and uncertainty that keeps you working at it. It certainly has a positive side.

      Just off to pay a return visit to your blog!

  3. Mari, hi –

    Doubt is insidious, and the act of publication has a multiplier effect upon it. Once published, one negative critique quadruples the crushing surety of self-doubt, while many (or more!) positive critiques barely dampen self-doubt’s tyranny. I think it leaves most of us feeling the no-talent police aren’t just looking for us, but torturing us with their slow arrival!

    Many writers claim to deal with this by not reading reviews, and maybe they really are strong enough to resist the temptation to *know* what others have said about their contribution to humanity. I am not that strong. I read all of my (not many) reviews, and survived.

    More than the egging on of negative criticism, I find that self-doubt speaks to me most strongly the longer I go without writing. It puts on the guise of placation, and tells me that “It’s okay not to write. No one is expecting it. And given how many readers didn’t find your last book, no one is going to miss this one, either…” The cruelty of doubt should not be underestimated! I guess I deal with it by …how, exactly? I realize I don’t know. What I do know is that once I start writing, doubt sits down and shuts up. There’s no room for it and the Muse.

    -aniko

    PS The no-talent police are NOT coming for you, Mari – you are as far from their kind as can be!

    1. Thank you for your reply, Aniko, and your kind comments! Oh, that insidious little whisper in the mind, eh? Like you, I often find that once I’m ‘in the flow’ of writing it shuts up, but at other times… I sometimes think we must be insane to do this to ourselves!

      I hope you enjoyed the holidays, by the way. How are things going?

  4. Back from my self-imposed exile…

    Great post, Mari. I think that most writers worth their salt experience self-doubt. The compositional process, conducted in a meaningful fashion, involves the writer acting as his/her own harshest critic. If you don’t reflect, your work won’t move forward and you won’t improve as a writer. In my experience, writers who don’t question their own work tend not to be very good!

    Happy New Year, by the way!

    1. Paul! I hope you enjoyed the holidays. Did you get much writing done?

      I agree that self-doubt is, to a degree, a positive thing: it keeps you working at it. And we do have to be our own harshest critics, at least if our work is to improve and become as good as it can be.

      Happy New Year!

  5. I did enjoy the hols, thanks. I didn’t get anywhere near as much writing done as I’d hoped to, but made some progress on the WIP. How about you, Mari? Were your hols good and were they productive?

  6. Hi Mari,
    Saw your follow when I woke up this morning. Thanks! 🙂

    What a great way to start the day. Learning that someone out there is interested enough in my words to want more of them. This helps me keep self-doubt at bay.

    Now, I just caught myself going on a blog rant and deleted about 20 minutes of writing off this comment. There was enough relevant spewage to put into of my own work. So, now that you’re following, I can give you something to read! Yay!

    I will say one thing here though > As painful as it is, self-doubt is a necessary demon every good writer must live with. It’s the thing that keeps us honest.

    Thanks for being inspirational.

    1. Hello, amadenthusiast – nice to meet you. Yes, self-doubt is essential: we have to be our own most strident critics, at least if we’re to ever improve. It’s a balancing act, perhaps: listening to the voice of your inner sceptic, without becoming paralysed by it.

      Thanks for the follow!

  7. A belated Happy New Year, Mari. I did leave a comment days ago, and guess what – it vanished in cyber space, too nebulous for even a self doubting discussion… Self doubt and IT proven yet again to be fully justified in my case.
    If someone gives me a brilliant review, I tend to think, ‘This can’t be right…’ If someone says, ‘I didn’t finish it, I got bored’ (or worse!)then I think, ‘That’s it! I just knew it!’
    As you’ll have seen from my blog you have kindly visited, I’ve pondered on the writings of a purely dreadful writer of the late Victorian age, one Charles Garvice. Self doubt? If he’d had any, he’d have died of shame, but as it was, he made a fortune (face goes green).

  8. Happy New Year, Lucinda! Interestingly, when I wrote this post, instead of scheduling it for January 4th 2014 (as I intended) I actually scheduled it for January 4th 2013 – where it was duly published! Evidently my own self-doubt is entirely justified…

    I can relate to your feelings about reviews – a good review often leaves me thinking, ‘Oh, he/she’s just being kind’, whereas a damning review leaves me with that sinking feeling that I’ve been rumbled. Interesting posts about Garvice, too. His lack of talent, combined with a truly unbelievable ability to make money off the back of his dreadful writing, puts me in mind of one or two modern ‘authors’, who for charity’s sake I will not name here… 🙂

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