I live with a character flaw that I cope with on a daily basis. It drags me down, sometimes to the edge of despair, like a lead weight tied around my waist. I know I’m not alone; most of my writers friends suffer from the same ailment. There is solidarity in our struggle — an empathy that we share — when we try to express ourselves as artists. Is this work we create the best that we can do? Is it good enough to share with the world? Would it be better hidden away from sight, or worse, abandoned before it’s complete?
Self-doubt: a potentially crippling shortcoming, if we allow the space to breath.
Boiled down, self-doubt is fear. That fear is different for everyone, for different reasons. For me, this is a fear of failing, of mediocrity, of disappointment. These anxieties press me every time I sit down to write words that I intend to publish, crushing me, stealing away my breath as easily as it does my confidence, and replacing it with something bitter and cruel.
I know there is a way. Through dark clouds I have seen glimpses of hope. Signs and portents, showing me what must be done so I soldier forward, one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time. In the words of a very wise character, “Just keep swimming.”
Writing for yourself — the stories you would want to read — is like cutting open a vein and bleeding onto the page. It can produce the most brilliant stories but it also opens us to rejection that feels too personal, too painful, like being rejected as a person. That’s not true, of course, but tell that to our monkey brain flooding us with the feels.
Rationalization only goes so far. I’ve heard and made the arguments. “They’re not rejecting me, they’re rejecting the story.” Absolutely true, but that doesn’t make that mountain any easier to climb. So what is there to do?
Every fear has a talisman that can destroy it. I used to think writer’s block didn’t exist because, hey, my journals are filled with words. The blocks manifest themselves in different ways, though. Figuring out your fear is just the first step.
I’ve been slogging through my first serious attempt at a novel since late 2010, when I wrote the first twenty-five thousand words and came to a screeching halt when I realized that the story was broken. I had the barest idea of what it’s structure was and what I saw in my head felt flat when I put the words on the page.
I’d worked myself up into a tightly wound ball of nerves, trying to make every word pack a punch. I wrote with an economy of words, carefully chosen, to be near perfect on the first draft. That crutch worked for short stories but I fell flat on my face in the long form.
There are tricks, once you realize what is standing in your way, of getting past the block. Simple things that seem so obvious when you realize them. Everyone’s heard Steinbeck’s famous mantra, “The first draft is always shit.” I mimicked the words but I didn’t believe it applied to me. I didn’t have what it takes, I thought, if I couldn’t get it right on the first try.
I had to figure out a deeper truth. The most important thing to writing a first draft is to get the ideas onto the page. Like working with clay, you have to start with a rough form before you can shape it into something beautiful. Revision is the potters wheel, spinning and spinning until the prose sings a song that brings tears to our eyes.
Now, I write almost every day. I tackle each challenge as it comes along, tracking my daily success and failures in a spreadsheet, using an egg timer in fifteen minute increments to push myself to write when I feel like there simply isn’t enough time in the day. Forty thousand words later, anytime I feel like I just can’t do it, I’m just not good enough, I take an honest look at myself to figure out where the doubt is coming from so I can work through it. One word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time.