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 conf