Self-doubt and the Writer
As a writer, working of necessity alone, even when you manage to defeat your primary enemies of Lack of Time and Procrastination, there’s one enemy you will come up against again and again. This enemy will make you question yourself and doubt your every move. It’s as real as another person in the room with you; you can almost feel it breathing down your neck.
This enemy is Doubt itself.
Most writers suffer from doubt. In my case, doubt has taken on many disguises over the years and adopted many different strategies. One of them was to constantly present me with the weakness and wateriness of my own ideas in comparison with the work of the great authors about whom I was teaching. This was quite an effective strategy: it’s hard to have any belief in one’s own work when one reads every day the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy, Eliot, J. B. Priestley, Forster and many others. One feels as though one has lit a candle in the full sunlight of a day at the beach - the sensation is one of total overwhelming insignificance.
Another form doubt can take is to promote a kind of ennui about one’s work. ‘Yes,’ I used to say to myself, ‘that particular scene is quite good - but what’s the point?’ The impetus behind this stratagem is to lead one to the conclusion that, even if one writes reasonably good work, it is all going to come to nothing, commercially and spiritually. There is no substance to it; there is no purpose for it.
The writing world is full of motivational phrases. We are encouraged to ‘Be ourselves’ and to dismiss criticism. It’s certainly true that many of what we now recognise as great works were rejected many, many times in their attempts to be reach that recognition, and we can take some comfort from that. But how many writers give up before they even try for recognition, simply because they are smothered by a sense of futility before they get going?
What can we do about it?
Doubt is built in to most human beings. In fact, it might be possible to go so far as to say that, without doubt, one is less human. And as soon as that is stated, a spectrum comes to mind.
At one end of this spectrum is the individual who has no doubt, who verges on the inhuman because he or she has a remorseless, unequivocating and ineluctable self-belief which wipes out all before him or her. You have probably met such people; certainly you will have seen them on the television or around you in society. These are the people who know what they think and who are not open to any kind of discussion about it; they have fixed ideas about what is right and wrong and they usually have no reservations about saying what those ideas are and trying to enforce them on others.
This kind of person is not who we should aim to be as writers. Apart from anything else, such attitudes make any creative work that they attempt rather shallow and jingoistic, more like propaganda than genuine art.
Interestingly, this type of person, when portrayed as a character in literature, is usually the villain.
Edging away from the unpleasant end of the spectrum, we find those who are almost like that, but who are nagged by a persisting doubt which makes their position perpetually uncomfortable. This is the beginning of the band of our spectrum which most of us recognise as the ‘human band’. Almost everyone fits in here, from those with small doubts about otherwise pretty rigid and concrete sets of beliefs, to those whose lives are made up of vacillation between firm self-belief and complete collapse of confidence. This is the band in which, strangely enough, good art is often forged, mainly by those people who confront their doubts head on and transform them into some kind of creative product.
This is the home of the tormented artist, the person who writes or paints or performs or whatever under constant duress from an ever-present and often quite vocal negative advocate. The point is that they do it anyway - they battle through and get works of art completed and displayed in some form despite the constant assault from within.
There is another kind of artist, though.
This individual is rarer, but you can see the results of his or her work in sublimely great art. This person has to some degree conquered the inner voices which cause the eternal questioning of everything. He or she has produced art despite the presence of doubt, like everyone else, but has also left doubt behind in some way. Perhaps he or she was lucky enough to receive affirmations from society early enough in life so that he or she rose out of the well of doubt and went on to produce more and more confidently; perhaps he or she was built slightly differently, so that, though the voice of doubt still whispered, hr or she somehow learned to ignore it and move on from it.
Most of us fall into the wide middle band - the writers who write in the full face of doubt and who must simply learn to persist despite it. A few of us emerge from doubt’s presence to become great. But as writers and artists, we all have one powerful weapon against our enemy, which, if used deftly and often enough, will help us towards greatness.
What is this weapon?
Our art itself.
Writers in particular are well-placed to use this weapon. That’s because there is built into literature a pattern of archetypes which help a writer to dramatise and externalise whatever is going on within. This pattern contains all of humanity within it, from the villain outlined above to the benevolent conqueror too.
You can learn much more about this pattern here.
If you suffer badly from the invisible presence of doubt in your writing life, please recognise that a) you are most definitely not alone and that b) the doubts you have to some degree make you human.
Then learn how to use your writing to conquer them.