Writing through doubt

NOTE: for everyone over on the Revolutionary Writing site: I’m looking for someone willing to be “hot seat” workshopped on their project, on an open teleconference call.  If you are interested, please post your concerns and the nature of the project over on the site!   If you are interested in an in-depth critique of a short story-length project or plan and are not currently enrolled, please go to www.createthenarrative.com and join in!


The following comment over there caught my eye:

I like reading other people’s writing about their process. I don’t know how many famous authors whose work I LOVE have written that they 1) threw their manuscript away, 2) were convinced it was utter crap and had to be talked out of deleting it off their hard drive or 3) started excited about their manuscript but by the time they finished it honestly could not tell if it was good or a steaming pile of crap.

In other words, they almost all have this massive crisis of confidence and plunging faith in their own work/*judgement* of their own work, often beginning at the “muddy middle.”

I find it reassuring to know that this is a common theme, that nearly everyone who’s “made it” has had such a bout of angst (sometimes with every. damn. book.) It’s not just that it makes them human; it makes me realize my fears aren’t outsized or bizarre. “Oh, that mid-book/end-of-book/revision Confidence Chasm, yeah, all writers have that” leaves me quite relieved.

I think it is critical to understand that this point of dissatisfaction with your own work, the moment of doubt, is totally normal and natural.  The “Hero’s Journey” speaks of the “Dark Night of the Soul” which we reach in ANY process that will actually stimulate growth.  The only people who don’t suffer it are those going in a circle, repeating prior actions that are not actually challenging.  Often (not always) these people are simply known as “hacks.”

But if you give it everything you have, every time, then you will end up traveling in terra incognito.   Emotional and artistic territory you’ve not traveled, and you WILL stumble and fall.  The statement “the only way you know how far you can go is by going too far” is a part of this.   Another is the realization that EVERY writer has read many multiples of what he’s written. I’d say at least 10X.  What does this mean?  That the “editor” mode is ALWAYS smarter than the “flow” mode.  The “editor” is the “adult” self, and the flow, creative self is that “inner child” who still has access to the dreaming state.  And that editor can be frickin’ brutal.  If you cannot be gentle with yourself, or at least develop the grit to push through the doubt, you will never produce your best work, and may quit altogether.

Think of this analogy: you are polishing a ball bearing. But every time you polish it, the power of magnification of the lens you are using increases by 3x.  The polishing only increases the smoothness by 2x.  That means that NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO, YOU WILL ALWAYS SEE MORE IMPERFECTIONS. There is no end to it.   

If you don’t get the joke, don’t grasp that the “voices in your head” will never, ever stop criticizing, you will mistake their nattering for the truth, and not finish.

You are not the best judge of the quality of your work.   Often, you are the worst.   If you believe your story is the best ever written, does that make it true?  If you think it is terrible, does that make it true? This is where dealing with your own insecurities becomes an art form: you can’t quit too early, and you can’t keep going on a specific project too long.  “Good enough is good enough”…but just how good is that?

Allies, “Mastermind” partnerships in the form of writers groups, editors and agents who insist that you finish that damned project…all of these can be critical to helping you learn when to let go, to supporting you through the “dark night.” Remember the three things that get us through:

  1. Trust in self.   Here, the rule of “write a story a week or a story every other week” can be useful.   Once you set up the rule, you can spend all the time you want on a project…so long as you are finishing and marketing 2-4 stories a month.   This forces you to actually get on the treadmill and do the full sequence of work that will improve your ability.   
  2. Trust in your companions.  Your editor, agent, writing group, first readers, whatever.  Get some.  Earn your way into their circle with honest, supportive feedback.  “Is it kind?  Is it true?  Is it useful?” are three good rules to use.  The eviscerating literary feedback circles can actually be all these things, IF you are coming from a position of: “it is better to find out if you can `hack it’ now than to waste decades of life only to discover that a bad review breaks your heart.”  However, you must be careful of the groups where people tear you down to disguise their own insecurity. It can be a thin line.
  3. Trust in a higher power.    For me, it works like this: I do not believe that God (or “higher consciousness”, or “my deep mind” or “nature” or whatever.  Use the phrasing that works for you) would give me a desire that I can keep burning hot over the course of years that I don’t have the capacity to bring into existence, if any other human being has ever accomplished it.  That is my article of faith.    And as the “dark night” can be ego shattering, it can be valuable to believe in something…SOMETHING…larger than yourself.

And if you will write that “story a week or every other week” you will start noticing the patterns of fear and anxiety.  And eventually, you will stand outside them, witnessing the emotions without identifying with them. This is a kind of wisdom: “this is just part of the process.  I need not obey the voices.”  Or even better: “I am feeling insecure.  GOOD!  I must be digging new emotional ground! This could be one of the really valuable experiences of my life!”

Find your way through this emotional barrier.  If you would, please share your own experiences of dealing with it, so that others will know they are not alone.

Be an ally!





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