Last week I took to Twitter and asked you all to send me your writerly struggles, and as soon as the tweet came through I knew I had found today’s topic; today we are talking about overcoming self-doubt as a writer!
Self-doubt is something that every writer faces; it is an occupational hazard, so to speak. This does not, however, mean that we need to give in to it. In my experience there are three main forms that self-doubt takes in the mind of a writer. Now, I offer you my methods for coping with each of them when I am up late at night, staring at the haphazard collection of syllables I continue to maintain will one day be my first completed novel, all while worrying about whether or not they will ever become a story worth reading.
Trust Your Creative Spark
I once had a history professor whose specialization was in history of technology. The class I had him for? World History Since 1500. Throughout that entire semester it was obvious that the only reason he was teaching the course was because the university was paying him; he did not have any real investment in any of the material, and it showed. He managed to make the Tutors- a family so chaotic and intriguing that there are something like 4 different shows about them streaming on Netflix at any given time- into a boring lecture. How? Simple: it was not the lecture he wanted to give.
That is what it looks like when you try to write based on what you think people want to read, instead of focusing on what kind of story you want to write. Your own indifference and your desperation to write what you think people want seeps into every word on every page.
What does any of this have to do with self-doubt? Everything. When you write what you think others want to read rather than what you are interested in, what you are really doing is doubting the value of your own unique ideas. You are giving into the fear that people will not be interested in the stories you want to tell. And the best way I’ve found to overcome this type of doubt is to recognize that writing stories that do not excite you, that do not keep you up and night dreaming about the next chapter, is a losing game from the start. Firstly, you do yourself a disservice by neglecting all the joy and inspiration that made you want to be a writer in the first place. Second, it will be clear to your readers that your heart was simply not in the work. And finally, even if you did manage to fake it well enough to become “successful,” imagine how terrible it would be to know the achievement came from an idea you did not even enjoy writing.
In her recent guide to creative living, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (which I totally recommend reading, by the way), Elizabeth Gilbert puts it this way:
“The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.”
You are never going to find your jewel if you spend your entire life attempting to recreate someone else’s. In moments of this type of self-doubt, take some time to remember why it is you fell in love with writing in the first place. If you are not writing first and foremost because it brings you joy, why even write at all? Take the time to reconnect with your passion and excitement. Take the time to remind yourself that this idea you love so much will never live if you do not give it life.
Accept that Rejection is Inevitable
So you have written (or are writing) a piece that you genuinely love and are starting to think about putting it out into the world. This is when the fear of rejection makes its appearance.
Writing, fictional or non-fictional, is a rather personal endeavor. Writing is to have a love affair with language out in the open for the world to watch and critique, and it is terrifying to think that someone could take this thing you’ve poured your heart into and tell you its no good, it wasn’t worth it, you failed.
Here’s the thing: they will.
If and when you try publish your writing there will be people who will absolutely hate it and some of them will be very vocal about it. They will say it is trash, that you have no talent, that you should quit writing, and it will suck. But it is also an experience shared by every bestselling author in history. When trying to publish Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J. K. Rowling received 12 rejections before an editor’s 8 year old daughter demanded to be able to read the rest of the book, and even then she was told to get a day job because nobody expected the book to sell. Well, we all know how that story ended.
Okay, but it is highly unlikely that I will ever be as successful and J. K. Rowling. Not with that attitude you won’t. But alright, here is another example for you. My favorite book of all time (excluding Harry Potter, clearly) is The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak. In my opinion, it is one of the most poignant, beautifully written books I have ever read. The impact this book had on me was so great that I could not get myself to start reading a new book when I had finished, because nothing felt worthy of following it.
Some folks on Goodreads.com disagreed. Here are a few thoughts shared by people who gave the book a low rating:
“Everyone in the whole world seems to adore this book and yet I hate it SO MUCH. The writing style is just SO grating”
“This was the biggest piece of garbage I’ve ever read after The Kite Runner. Just as with The Kite Runner, I’m (somewhat) shocked that this book is a bestseller and has been given awards, chewed up and swallowed by the literary masses and regarded as greatness. Riiiight.”
I found that last one particularly interesting because another of my favorite books is, in fact, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
The point is, it does not matter how good a story is, someone out there will find a reason to hate it. But that should not stop you from writing. Remember what we said? You have to be able to write for yourself. If your definition of success is topping the New York Times Bestsellers list, then you really need to reconsider why you are writing in the first place. Would that be totally awesome? Absolutely! But it should never be what drives you. And if it is not what drives you, the fear of it not happening should not stop you either.
Here is another gem from Big Magic. Gilbert spends a decent amount of time explaining how detrimental it is to your creativity to expect it to provide for you, as putting that kind of pressure on your creative work is the fastest way to kill it (and, frankly, to take all of the fun out of it!)
“But to yell at your creativity, saying, “You must earn money for me!” is sort of like yelling at a cat; it has no idea what you’re talking about, and all you’re doing is scaring it away, because you’re making really loud noises and your face looks weird when you do that…You can look after yourself in this world while looking after your creativity at the same time…”
Yeah, you might have to keep that day job. No, you might never get the movie deal you know your book deserves. But in the end, we all have to remember that we did not become writers for the money. And if you did, well, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.
Follow Your Fear
I 100% intend to get this phrase tattooed on my forearm after I graduate from university in April. These three words have come to define how I think about my future as I stare down the barrel of graduation, especially when it comes to my writing. I cannot take credit for it; I first heard it from Grace Helbig, in her commencement speech at her alma mater. I would highly recommend absolutely everyone watch the video of her speech, as it is all sorts of inspiring, but those three words are really the take away.
Grace explains that after she graduated from college and got her nice nine to five job that society tells us to strive for, she realized that the only time she felt alive was the fear and excitement she felt during her Friday night improv comedy classes. So after three months she quit her job, went back to waiting tables, and dedicated her time to pursuing comedy; she now has nearly three million subscribers on Youtube, where she makes hilarious videos for a living.
Never let fear be what stops you; let it be what drives you. Let the fear of never trying drown out the fear of failure. Because you can learn from failure; you can grow from failure. But the only thing that has ever come from not trying is regret and a long list of “what ifs.”
If nothing else, remember this: self-doubt is a form of fear, and fear only manifests in the presence of things we truly care about. If you fear you are not talented enough to be a writer, it is because being a writer is something you passionately want to achieve. If you fear others will not like your ideas, it is because those ideas are demanding to be written, because they excite you and you want them to excite others too. Self-doubt can be a crippling obstacle, but it can also be an arrow pointing you towards what makes you feel truly alive. You cannot experience self-doubt without also experiencing excitement and passion, and in the end a dedication to that passion is all you need.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Grace’s commencement speech that, I think, really drives the whole concept of embracing your doubt home:
“There are good fears. Fears that are born out of love and out of ambition. The things that you are afraid of because you care about them so much. The opportunities you’re afraid to take because you don’t want to screw them up, and the people you’re afraid to talk to because you don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of them, and the paths that you are too afraid to take because it seems too uncertain, too unpredictable, and just too uncomfortable. But when you’re uncomfortable, that’s when things get really interesting.”
Are there any writerly topics you would like me to talk about in the future? Share them in the comments and I’ll see what I can do!