We’ve all had this housemate.
Every writer shares a room with self-doubt. It is the standard trope. It’d be an exhausted cliché – the creative, strangled by their own uncertainty – were it not still so prevalent and pervasive among us all.
Last Tuesday, deep into the night I found myself at my familiar place, before the keys, staring wide eyed at the screen. I couldn’t write. I’ve never had writer’s block before, and I didn’t have it then. I wasn’t short of words, or baffled by their arrangement, I wasn’t absent of a plan or how to move forward – I was afraid. I was scared by what I had written, not by what I hadn’t.
I was way beyond uncertainty, I was at the “that sentence is so poorly written it explains all your failures as a human being, you’re hopeless, and pathetic, you’ll never pass on your genes, and you’ll die young and unattractive, miserable and alone, face down in a pool of tequila and blood – why even bother typing another letter” stage.
Needless to say, things were bleak.
This was the hideous pathological voice of self-doubt. That night it came to stay, as it has many a dark day, as it has for all of us at one time or another, and for most, it will live with us forever – and self-doubt is a terrible housemate.
Let me be clear, this was not the voice of failure. Failure must be an accepted reality. It is more certain than success in this business. If we write, and assume adulation, we’ll never be prepared when rejection comes knocking. We must always write in absence of both failure and success – we must write for writing’s sake, and come what may.
Writer’s minds are often both obsessively analytical, and passionately neurotic. Sadly, these traits make the primordial goo from which doubt grows. Sometimes, it will make us believe our work is either the greatest book ever written, or a worthless, pompous, piece of overestimated scat.
This is creative self-doubt. I can’t be sure we all experience it the same. For me, I sometimes confidently believe I can write, and at other times, I truly believe I can’t – I’ll never be a great writer, and one day I will be. It manifests in equal parts hope and fear. As a quiet rumination of thought, a questioning of the question, a deep consideration of a foregone conclusion, and a sly distrust of what I know as truth – yet today, I’m typing once again. Doubt is curious this way, it is often strong enough to seize, not but strong enough to paralyse. But I know, for many, it can be so.
The creative mind is gifted with the power of expression, and thus it must also harbour its natural foil. Even the greatest minds have been at times, beset by this preposterous curse. Minds, which the entire planet has begged to hear, have sometimes convinced their host that no one will listen.
Though it may feel like lack of belief in one’s work, one’s self, and one’s worth, I believe creative self-doubt instead comes from a nervous prudence. The doubt we feel is merely the personification of the love and respect we have for our passion. What appears to be an Achilles heel is actually a mark of care.
When hiring staff I was always partial to the nervous one at the interview. To me, the candidate who showed more signs of worry was the one who cared, the over-confident types, never seemed to give a damn. The anxiousness usually came from the respect one held for the position, and the fear, so often a demonstration of desire.
But those two potential employees shared one vital thing in common: they both came to the interview – and so must we.
While there is no great hinder for self-doubt, or an easy fix, the only answer I can offer is in continuance – we must keep producing, we must keep writing through the doubt. We will always improve, and even if our worst fears are actualised, solace can be found in the knowledge that we can only get better. We may never be as great as the greats, and that’s just fine, we must accept that possibility, and instead let us consider every sentence we write as an homage to their efforts.
A bad roommate can also be a good lesson. All their annoyances teach us exactly what will annoy others. The same can be said of self-doubt. Self-doubt can help us learn. That same disparaging voice that asks, “can this be better?” and “is this sentence just plain awful?” can guide us to improvement. It can keep us editing, rewriting, refining, and resubmitting, should we allow it. It will make us better, wiser, and more resilient, if we forbid it to consume us. And when we catch that voice asking those kinds of questions, we must recognise they aren’t for us to answer, these queries are for our audience, but they’ll never give us an response if we never present them with something to ponder.
When we find ourselves ensnared in our own neurosis, it is vital to step away, move the body, feed our minds, and most importantly, read others to reinspire. Though these moments of doubt are terrible and great, they aren’t life threatening (though it often feels so) and to simply experience such fears makes us some of the luckiest beasts on earth. It is important we remind ourselves that somewhere in the profound synapses of the psyche, all life’s potential surges from this same unstable bedrock of confidence and uncertainty. But most of all, we must remember, what holds us back, is often ourselves, and that self-doubt will never pay the rent.
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