Self-doubt sneaks into our creative lives when we least expect it. Even if you think you’ve conquered this demon of creative destruction, self-doubt can wriggle away and take another form. In this post I’m going to talk about why writers and other artists experience self-doubt, and then I’ll suggest strategies to manage the stress it causes. I’m also going to talk about false confidence. False confidence and self-doubt undermine our writing efforts in different ways.
When I was working as the Writer-in-Residence for the City of Mesa Public Libraries over the course of summer 2017, I met with over a hundred aspiring writers. All of them had stories they wanted to tell. In some cases, their stories encapsulated the life-wisdom they had accrued over many decades. In other cases, these aspiring authors hoped to write books that would entertain—mysteries, fantasy novels, and thrillers being especially popular.
Writers came to my classes at the library to learn how to turn their dreams into reality. Some persisted. Just this past year three found independent publishers for their books. Others have self-published their novels or memoirs. As for the rest? Their manuscripts still sit on their hard drives.
Could self-doubt be holding them back? If it is, then what can they do to get those books written?
Self-Doubt and the “Fear Factor”
Have you ever watched ABC’s Shark Tank? Entrepreneurs with a product or business idea stand before a panel of judges and make their pitch. I admire these entrepreneurs tremendously. Case in point: In a recent episode the inventors of “Pop It Pal” stepped forward to tell the judges about their product, a zit-popping simulator. (If you need a laugh, watch the expressions on the judges’ faces when they learn about this product.)
I would be terrified to pitch such a product, let alone stand in front of panelists who might potentially fund my business. My feelings would run like this:
- “What if my idea is utterly stupid? What the panel tells me that to my face?” (It’s easier to give up before you make a fool of yourself by trying.)
- “What if the panelists actually think the idea has merit, and then I have to scale up from the prototype? I don’t have an MBA. How would I even come up with a business plan?” (It’s scary to take a risk on something you’ve never done before.)
- “Why do I think I have the skills to run a successful startup?” (Fear escalates when you imagine success. Often, you’ll give yourself messages that you don’t have what it takes.)
Our fears as writers also run the gamut. Our self-talk might run something like this:
- “I was always bad in English (or dyslexic). Why do I think I can write a book?” (It’s easier to give up before you make a fool of yourself by trying.)
- “I know I have a solid first three chapters, but what if an agent or publisher rejects my manuscript?” (It’s scary to take a risk on something you’ve never done before.)
- “What if I write the book, but then the people I’m writing about decide to sue me?” (Fear escalates when you imagine success. Often, you’ll give yourself messages that you don’t have what it takes.)
Here’s what self-doubt can do: It can make us give up before we even start; or, it can cause us to get too far ahead of ourselves. We imagine that an initial success, such as finishing the manuscript, will lead to a catastrophic failure. Thus, it’s safer to quit.
Nearly every profession begins with a college degree. Earning this degree means you’ll have taken courses that prepare you to work independently and solve problems in your chosen field. Engineers earn a Bachelor of Science and, along the way, develop analytical skills. Nurses demonstrate competency by completing the requirements for an R.N. Often, there are graduate level courses that take a person further into a specialization—a DDS for dentists; an MD degree for doctors; a degree from a law school; or an MBA for those wishing to prepare for a career in business. All of these programs prepare graduates to enter the field of their choosing. That proof may even be further tested by a grueling multi-day exam, such as that administered by the AIA, the American Institute of Architects.
But that’s not the end. What follows graduation are years of apprenticeship. Vets join a veterinary practice. Surgeons choose a residency. Lawyers join a law firm and start on the lowest rung.
The arts are not like that. When musicians graduate from Julliard or Berklee College of Music, they confront the reality of intense competition. Graduates from Pratt or the Art Institute in Chicago don’t expect to immediately see their work hanging in trendy Soho art galleries. They often wait years before landing any big sales. Actors and actresses graduating from drama programs can expect years of rejection before they get a break.
Preparation vs. False Confidence
What about writing? Writers with undergraduate degrees in creative writing, or even with Master’s of Fine Arts’ degrees, will find that the degrees don’t amount to a hill of beans. Yes, an advanced degree allows you to teach creative writing, but those positions are hugely competitive. Usually, a writer must have two or three published books, plus some recognition from having won literary prizes.
And, there are advantages for a writer who has prepared herself for a career as an author. When an aspiring writer with an MFA graduates from the university, she or he will have finished a creative thesis, meaning a poetry manuscript, a short story collection, a book of essays, or a novel. Of course, no one in the publishing world is going to say, “Terrific. Happy to meet you. Now let’s launch you into a career, and by the say, what kind of salary do you expect?” Writers from such programs often don’t have an agent because the professors in MFA programs want to encourage collegiality, not competitiveness. If a new writer is very fortunate, as graduation draws closer, one of the faculty members might be willing to write a letter of introduction to an agent, but the agent may or may not “take the writer on.” Even if the agent agrees to represent the work, it may take a year or more to find a publisher. There are no guarantees, even for aspiring writers who’ve spent two or more years working intensively with their peers and under faculty guidance.
For anyone in the arts, competency–and even the most diligent preparation–does not necessarily lead to career success. However, those who’ve spent this much time in close study of the writing craft should have a better idea of how a story is put together. What makes a story tense? Why do readers engage with the characters? How does the story’s voice match the author’s intention? What about the uses of irony and subtext? How is the story’s subplot working? At a very minimum writers who’ve gone through such programs will know the lingo of writing workshops. They’ll know how to discuss their own work and the work of others.
Writers who’ve come out of MFA programs will have done what doctors, lawyers, and social workers do. They will have prepared themselves as well as they are able to participate in their chosen profession.
What I’ve often seen is that folks who’ve had career success in another field come to writing late in life and assume that their expertise is going to translate into career success as a writer. That’s not necessarily the case. Yes, they know how to learn, and they’re willing to put in the work, but you wouldn’t decide to take up tennis at age sixty and think you were slated to become the next Billie Jean King, would you? Undoubtedly not. Writing is a lot like tennis. You’ve got to master several skills and master them simultaneously. There’s the toss. There’s footwork on the baseline. There’s forehand and backhand, lob shots, the drop shot, rushing the net, and much more. It takes time to learn, and we must all be humble in the face of the great odds against success.
When Does Self-Doubt Surface?
Self-doubt surfaces the instant you hit a bump in the road. Your story gets turned down by a magazine. Agents take a pass. People don’t buy your books. What happens then?
You face the bogeyman of “imposter syndrome.” Am I really a writer? Why did I think I could write in the first place? There are all these other people publishing books. I can’t seem to finish mine, or, if I finish it, it’s incredibly daunting and scary to try to sell it.
Imposter syndrome is made worse by friendly inquiries. “Oh, you’re a writer! How interesting. Where can I get one of your books?”
If you’ve never published anything, questions like that can make you feel like a fraud. After all, you don’t have a degree with a gold seal on it. Maybe you’ve taken a few classes in creative writing, but nothing as comprehensive as an MFA. Perhaps you’ve forgotten a good bit of grammar or you’re dyslexic. What right do you have to call yourself a writer anyway? The spiral of negative thoughts begins. I can’t. I’m kidding myself. I’m wasting money and time. These feelings boil down to this: “I’m a fraud.”
The first thing to do is to recognize that these thoughts and feelings you’re having may have no basis in reality. The best thing you can do is give yourself an affirming message that will halt those thoughts in their tracks.
Try one of these.
- Because I strive to give voice to my highest and best self, I am a writer.
- I am a writer because I write.
- Writing brings beauty and goodness to the world.
- I am honored to be one who can be touched by beauty.
- When it comes to creative writing, I am not at all concerned about what people think about my efforts.
These affirmations are the very opposite of the bitterness I’ve heard some writers express when they find difficulty marketing their books. All along the way, whether writing a book or trying to market it, humility is the way to go. Just because you were a successful insurance salesperson does not mean you’ll succeed as an author. Neither does it mean you won’t. All you can do is put in the time, love the process, and hope for the best.
One Step at a Time
I love this quote from writer Annie Lamott:
Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.
Lamott talks about her own creative process, about the times she failed and what she learned from her failures, and about how she moved on. Her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, is practically a manual on overcoming self-doubt.
For an even more comprehensive look at the messages society gives us about living the creative life and the ways we can turn off the inner tapes that stop us from even trying to write, read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Here’s how this worked for me.
After a summer as Writer-in-Residence for the City of Mesa Public Library, I joined two women who wanted to work through Cameron’s book. We met weekly to discuss what we were learning from Cameron’s journaling and exercises. Even if you have a critique group where you can share your work-in-progress, it might behoove you to find a group of folks working through the deeper issues of self-doubt that all of us incorporate from families, teachers, and society. If you go to www.Meetup.com and type in The Artist’s Way, I’ll bet you’ll find others on the same journey. (In San Francisco, for instance, there are 1,100 plus people in an Artist’s Way group.)
Cameron’s book can help you discover your own creative direction, but the support of others walking that same path can give you the resolve to keep putting forth the effort.
The Challenges Faced by Writers
Anyone making her or his way in the arts faces challenges others with more defined career paths never face. When you’ve done a job long enough—whether lawyering, teaching, or working as a CPA—you’ve gone through all the steps so often that you don’t face a great deal of uncertainty. Sure, you don’t know exactly whether this new crop of students will respond to your lectures, but you have your lecture notes and handouts all prepared. You’ll make it to the end of the semester. If you’re a CPA, April 15 will bring some let-up in the stress. If you’re a painter, then you know you’ll eventually finish painting the house and be able to collect a paycheck.
And if you’ve had a career in one of these defined professions (and writing is your second or third or fourth career), you may not realize that one of your most important tasks is to get very comfortable with self-doubt.
Self-doubt plagues me, too. Here are some instances when I know I’ll feel qualms of uncertainty:
- When I begin a new story;
- When I begin to be more interested in a walk-on character than the person I thought the story was going to be about;
- When I’m wading through chapters that don’t have any discernible plot;
- When I begin to realize that the book I’ve written will fall short of the book that lives in my imagination;
- When someone asks me when my next book is coming out;
- When I reconcile my checkbook and realize that I’m spending more than I’m taking in;
- When I wake up from a nap and realize I have to pull apart my “way too long” manuscript and break it into three novels;
- When I berate myself for being too much of a perfectionist about language;
- When my kids don’t read my books.
What do I do in these instances? I read one of those affirmations and breathe deeply. I show up at my desk, no matter what. I wait for my subconscious to solve whatever issue I’m having with my writing. I do some freewriting or interview my characters and ask them what they want.
If none of that helps, I take a walk and look up at the sky. I do one of Julia Cameron’s exercises. I read poetry. I write a blog post. I put the writing aside and work in my garden. I tell myself it’s okay to write an imperfect book and that the first draft will inevitably be an exploratory draft. And, then, I show up at my desk the next day and try again.