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.
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.
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…