Do you ever suffer self-doubt as a writer? I do. I have a feeling that this is going to be a difficult post to write, not least because a little way in I’m going to be completely honest about a not particularly attractive facet of my character. As the title makes clear, I’m going to be tackling the subject of writing and self-doubt—and yes, self-doubt is already creeping in as I type this first paragraph.
I believe that every writer on the planet is plagued with self-doubt about their writing. Or maybe there’s a tiny fraction of a percent that have no self-doubt whatsoever, but I would question whether anyone that is at all times supremely confident of the worth of their words is actually a genuine writer at all. So, yes, we all suffer self-doubt and some of us are quite open about it, possibly more so than necessary, while others hide it behind a façade of confidence and bluster.
Self-doubt and writing have always gone hand-in-hand. Sylvia Plath said, “The
worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” (I’ll explain why I don’t necessarily agree with her in this later.) This is what William Goldman had to say about it in Adventures in the Screen Trade: “Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, 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.”
However, prior to the internet, perhaps writers were a little easier on themselves. Yes, they would write in solitude, doubting every word, but when they submitted their manuscript and it was accepted for publication, self-doubt could conveniently evaporate. They had proved themselves.
Now things are different. Most writers have to do their own marketing, out on the Internet, across the social platforms, day after day. And why this feeds writerly self-doubt is perfectly obvious. Comparison. As I go about my daily business of posting and tweeting, sharing things on Facebook, adding images to Pinterest and Tumblr, I can hardly help but compare myself on an ongoing basis to other writers. There are thousands of them, all working away to achieve the same goals as I am—connecting with our readers and selling books.
Naturally, there’s always someone—in fact, a lot of someones—doing it better than me and achieving more. Making it onto the bestsellers list. Being nominated for and winning awards. Signing a new multi-book contract. Winning numerous plaudits and legions of fans. While I sit and wait to hear from the next publisher on my list and count my retweets on the fingers of one hand.
And now we come to the bit I alluded to at the beginning of this post. Thing is, it’s even worse, the closer you are to a writer who’s winning the game. Gore Vidal famously said, “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” I can admit to feeling that. And I really hate myself for it—but it’s entirely true.
Last week was a superb week for my two Pillow Talk colleagues, Malin James and Jade A Waters. Malin wrote a searing and brilliant post about women, sexuality and feminine relations on her blog, Erotica, Sex, Culture. If you haven’t read it yet, I would urge you to go and read it. It was widely disseminated and commented on, and I was thrilled for her because I absolutely believe she’s one of the best writers, anywhere, in this field today. But deep inside, a tiny voice whispered to me, “Why don’t I ever get a reaction like that to anything I write?” My own post that week, on the problems of repeatedly writing descriptions of orgasm, barely raised a comment, apart from one reader who complemented the legs on my avi and asked me to wrap them around his head. A couple of days later, Jade announced on her blog that she’s been signed by an agent. I couldn’t be more excited for her and I’ve read the manuscript that got signed—it’s superb and when it comes out, because it will be snapped up superfast by a big publisher, I’ll be first in line urging you all to buy it and read it. So why was that little voice inside me saying, “Why don’t you have an agent?” Logically, because I haven’t submitted anything to an agent—but when you’re racked with self-doubt, where does logic come into it?
Please don’t get me wrong—I really love these two girls and they know it. And they know that I want nothing but stratospheric success for both of them. And I know they’ll understand that little voice because, I’m sure, they both have similar voices of their own. But it made me feel bad. I felt bad about my own work and (my perceived) lack of success. And it also made me feel bad, because there was something disloyal about harboring such feelings even for a moment.
Self-doubt brought about by professional envy. Not pretty is it? Why not throw in some self-loathing for good measure?
What can I do about it? In the past, I have found one way of easing self-doubt and making myself feel better about my writing. For a while I kept a little notebook and jotted down, each day, my own small successes. For example, when a short story was accepted for an anthology, when I got a good review, when someone tweeted something complementary about me or when I posted a contract back to a publisher. They’re not big things—but they do add up to the story of my success, step by step. However, they’re things so easily forgotten in the onslaught of self-doubt and the tidal wave of other people’s successes being broadcast across the net. So I need to start that little notebook again and remember that, actually, I’m doing okay.
And the other point I want to make, in direct contradiction to the Sylvia Plath quote at the beginning of this article, is that self-doubt is one of the things that spurs me on. I want to succeed. I want to become a better writer. I want to snatch as many of those joyful moments of success as I can. It’s up to me to harness the doubt that threatens to pull me down and actually use it to power my way forward.
It’ll always be there but I need to remember, I can rise above it if I set my mind to it. And so can you.