Friday, May 29, 2020

Dealing with Self-Doubt as a Writer


As I’ve said before many times on this blog, I started writing seriously, with the intention of making it my life’s work, when I was eighteen. I’m fifty-six now. I’ve been writing for almost forty years. (It’s hard for me to wrap my head around that number. Forty? Really?) In that time, I haven’t become an international bestseller with a string of movie and TV adaptions of my work. I’m not rich, and I haven’t won a truckload of awards. But I’ve been regularly selling my fiction (and sometimes nonfiction) to traditional publishing markets for the majority of my career, and while I might not have a shelf full of awards, I’ve won a few. I’ve also taught college writing classes for most of this time. I like to write about writing, not only to help other writers but because everything about writing fascinates me, and every time I teach – whether in a class, at a workshop, or through an article or blog post – I’m able to clarify my thought and ideas about my art form. (Plus, teaching gives me a steady paycheck, healthcare, and retirement benefits, and them ain’t small potatoes.)

Coming this September, my how-to-write book Writing in the Dark (named after this blog) will come out from Guide Dog Books, an imprint of Raw Dog Screaming Press. It’s available for preorder now. Links are at the bottom in case you don’t want to read the rest of this before ordering, and who could blame you?

One of the things I’ve noticed over the last few years is the increasing number of how-to-write books produced by self-published writers who’ve published few other books. I’m not here to trash these writers. Anyone can learn anything from anyone at any time, and if a particular how-to book speaks to you and helps you grow as a writer, then who cares what credentials its author has? (Although I’d say the more experience a how-to writer has in the field, the more likely their book will be useful to you.) Seeing those books got me wondering when in their career is a writer ready to produce a how-to book? And what does ready even mean? Was I ready to write Writing in the Dark? Had I earned the right to present myself as some sort of expert? I hardly felt like one. For that matter, do I have the credentials – the experience, the knowledge – to even write this blog?

I had, as you might guess, doubts.

One of the great – and maddening – dichotomies of being a writer is the endless struggle between believing your work is brilliant and that you know what the hell you’re doing and believing your work is shit and that no sane person would ever listen to your advice. If you only think that you’re a genius and that we’re incredibly fortunate that you share your stellar writing and amazing insights with the rest of us, then god bless you. The rest of us aren’t so self-assured.

People are sometimes surprised to learn that I still struggle with self-doubt. “But you’ve published so much, and you’ve been teaching forever!” Doesn’t matter. Self-doubt is emotional, not rational. Even so, there are some rational reasons for me to doubt myself as a writer.
·         There are already more books than anyone could possibly read in a lifetime. The world doesn’t need me to produce any more.
·         If I didn’t write a book (or teach a class), someone else would, and that someone could easily be as accomplished as I am, if not more so.
·         No matter what I produce, how many people I help, or what I achieve, it will always – always – fall short of what I can imagine. Therefore, in a sense, I’m always doomed to failure (in my own perception). Glass half full? Half empty? I’m not sure there is a glass, let alone any damn water.
But I’ve been able to continue writing and teaching for almost four decades despite my self-doubt. How do I do it, and more importantly, how can you?

1) Realize you’re doomed and accept your fate.

For whatever reason – whether we were born to write, chose to write, or some combination of the two – we’ve gotten hooked on writing and we can’t stop if we wanted to. If we didn’t put words onto the page, we’d still be coming up with ideas all the time, but they’d have nowhere to go. We’d still create, just in our heads. Nothing can stop us from creating one way or another, and we might as well admit it, make our peace with it, and get on with our work, self-doubts and all.

2) Writing keeps you sane – and that’s more than enough.

If I go too long without writing, everyone in my family knows it. I get grouchy and depressed (well, more depressed than usual), and I’m not a lot of fun to be around. Writing gives me a way to get out all the wild and crazy thoughts that swirl around in my brain 24/7, allowing me to bring some measure of order to them. I enter into an almost meditative state when I write, and when I’m done for the day, I’m usually relaxed, calm, and as close to content as I can get. This mental benefit alone is reason enough to write, and it’s plenty of reason to keep going despite your self-doubts. And what and how much you accomplish in terms of publishing isn’t as important as tending to your mental health. For so many of us, writing is self-care. Don’t let your doubts stop you from taking care of yourself.

And here’s something you might not have considered before: Engaging in too much self-doubt is a form of self-harm. We use our doubts as a weapon against ourselves for whatever reasons. We believe we aren’t good enough, we don’t deserve to succeed, don’t deserve to be happy, that we deserve to be miserable, etc. Sometimes it’s not as important where our self-doubts come from as it is how we wield them against ourselves. We need to try to be kinder to ourselves.

3) Writing (and publishing) can get you out of your own damn head.

I live my life primarily in my own head – I read, I watch TV and movies, and I muse about everything I come into contact with. I interact imaginatively with the world, and all of these activities feed my imagination. I get irritated when something pulls me out of my head, like a loud noise or a weird smell or a chore or a need to attend to a basic biological function (like eating). But writing can be shared with other people (through both publishing and teaching), and that helps me not stay in my head all the time. It helps me connect to the world and the people in it. I get to meet readers, other writers, editors, agents, students. I get to have actual conversations with actual people. Making these connections is healthy, and it’s worth combatting – or at least learning to live with – any self-doubts I have about writing. Hopefully, it can be the same for you.

4) Writing leads to growth.

Self-actualization is high on the lists of things I need in life. A therapist once told me that I was “hell-bent for growth.” Everything I learn about writing and teaching, everything that I experience because I publish my work, helps me grow as both an artist and a human being. My need for self-actualization is stronger than my self-doubts. In fact, dealing with self-doubt is more potential for self-actualization, so it’s a win-win for me. If you can focus on the growth aspect of writing more, maybe it will help you deal with your self-doubts.

5) Focus on the writing, not the outcome.

It’s not about you – it’s about the story. Focus on the characters, the events, the language, everything that you’re trying to get down on the page. Forget yourself. Remember how I said earlier that writing is like a meditative state for me? I do experience self-doubt as I write, but each time I do my best to let go of those thoughts and refocus on the writing. I take a breath, relax, seek a balance between my self and the page, and I do my best to stay there as I write. I’ve written before about how attachment to a specific outcome makes it hard to create, even such simple outcomes as This Must Be Good. If you’re not tied to a specific outcome, then you can more easily forget yourself and stay in the moment as you write. Doubts are the result of worrying about whether or not you’ll achieve a particular outcome. It’s okay to have doubts, but you don’t have to dwell on them, and you don’t have to give them any more power than they already have. Just write.

6) Use your support network.

I hope you have one, whether in physical life or online. I’ve been lucky. I’ve never had anyone discourage me from writing. Quite the opposite. So when my doubts get to be too much, I can go to my wife, my brother, my kids, or any number of writer friends for support. Hell, just reading social media posts from my writer friends – or writers I admire from afar – can help remind me that I’m not alone, that other writers experience the same shit I do and manage to find a way to keep going. You have to be careful not to let the writer’s disease – envy – get hold of you, though. If you start comparing yourself to other writers – Why did she get a movie deal and I didn’t? How come his work is translated into fifty different languages and I only have one story translated into Esperanto? – you’ll feed your self-doubts and make them bigger and stronger. Don’t be afraid to ask your support network for a pep talk. We all need them from time to time.

7) Do a reality-check.

I’m dysthymic. This means I suffer from a constant low-grade depression that, if I’m not careful, can become a far more serious depression. Part of this is that I view the world, and hence my writing, through a distorted filter. I’m prone to see the worst in every situation, and knowing this about myself tells me where a lot of my self-doubt comes from. Knowing this doesn’t automatically help me. I’m incapable of believing positive things about myself, to the point where I almost can’t perceive them. It’s hard to explain, but those positive things don’t seem real to me. (I imagine it’s kind of like being born without a sense of smell. You would understand the concept of smell, but not be able to experience it directly.) Knowing I have a distorted filter through which I perceive the world, I do my best to view any success or praise I receive dispassionately, almost as if it belonged to someone else. If one of my books gets a positive review, I remind myself that the reviewer’s point of view is accurate – for them. It’s what they legitimately thought of my book. It’s real. I don’t feel that it’s real, but intellectually, I understand that it is. Someone thinks my writing is worthwhile, therefore, I should write more stuff. Much of my self-doubt is due to my distorted filter, so I do my best to bypass it.

I read reviews – good and bad – of my work (and of my teaching) and I try to learn from them. The good feedback I use to help counter my self-doubt, but I also use it to see what works and what doesn’t. I learn the same thing from negative feedback, although that definitely doesn’t help my self-doubt. If you think seeing negative reviews will only make your self-doubt more crippling, ask a friend to find and send you only positive reviews of your work. Read them when you begin doubting yourself too much. Your writing won’t be loved by everyone, but it’s loved by someone, and knowing that can help you keep working when doubts start to creep in. And, of course, you can ignore all reviews, good and bad, of your stuff. Whatever works for you.

8) Create a writing persona.

I have a theory that we create a writer self – which some people call our voice – which we use as a kind of mask or filter as we write. New writers struggle because it takes time to create this persona, and they haven’t done it yet. I think we create many personas to get us through life, and they’re all aspects of us, but none of them are completely us. I’m a husband, father, son, brother, friend, writer, teacher, co-worker . . . I’ve learned how to be those things, learned which parts of me are those things, and when it’s time to be a husband, I do it through the persona of Husband-Tim, when it’s time to be a father, etc., etc. Over time, and with no real conscious thought on my part, I’ve developed a Writer-Tim. This Tim is confident. He knows he can write and publish because he’s done both so many times before. He knows his work will be decent enough because of the positive reviews he’s received over the years, and he knows his work is of a certain quality because of the awards and award nominations he’s received in his career. This Tim has a recognizable voice that’s different than Real-Tim (or maybe Complete-Tim would be a better term). I recognize it when I read my own writing, and I’m always like, Who wrote this? I know it was me, but I’m not this assured, not this good. I don’t express myself this well. But Writer-Tim is and does. Writer-Tim allows me to ignore my self-doubts and create.

I wish I had some idea how a Writer-Self is developed. Maybe it grows naturally over time. Maybe some of it is conscious choice. I’ve heard some writers say that selecting a pseudonym to write under, even going so far as to create a fake biography for the pseudonym, allows them to write because it’s not really them. Some people write using the pseudonym but publish under their real name. Others write and publish under the pseudonym. Whatever helps you deal with your doubts and keeps the words coming.

I often show Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech to my creative writing classes at the end of the semester. (If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plWexCID-kA) In the speech, Neil talks about a friend of his who had the opportunity to narrate an audiobook but was afraid she couldn’t do it. He told her to imagine she was someone who could do it and then just do what that person would do. She told him it helped. Imagine being a writer who can write well and confidently, and then do what that writer would do. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what a Writer-Self is: people imagining a persona, much the same way an actor might, and then doing what they think that persona would do. I know this sounds like weird psychology, but if it works for you, who gives a damn?

9) Learn how to use doubt positively.

I’ve been talking about doubt as if it’s all negative, but it has its positive aspects too. In fact, I’d argue that it’s vital to learning, if you don’t give it too much power and let it get the better of you. Maybe “questioning” would be a better term here than doubt. Questioning whether a sentence communicates what I want it to allows me to consider ways of making it better and, if one of those does a better job at getting what I want across, I can revise my sentence. If I write a line of dialogue, I might question if it’s really good, and that might lead me to read an article or watch a video about writing effective dialogue, and I might learn something that will allow me to improve as a writer. If I question whether a specific publisher is a good one to submit to, I can ask my writing network, and then I can proceed in confidence, whichever way I choose. This is the reason I read negative reviews of my work too. It makes me question a story element I included or a writing technique I employed. It makes me consider what I might do different next time. But I don’t dwell on the negative reviews – that would be giving questioning (really, our old nemesis doubt) too much power. Using doubt this way is like using a sharp blade. You have to wield it carefully so you don’t end up cutting yourself.

10) Get back to basics.

Writing is fun and makes me feel good. I like sharing what I write. I like learning. I like helping people. When the doubts start whispering a little too loudly in my ear, when my thoughts become too complex and mixed up, I remind myself of these simple things. They’re what I need, what I am. And when I focus on these simple core aspects of myself, my doubts may not disappear, but they cease to have power over me, and I can do what I need to do.

I write.

Writing in the Dark

I had doubts that I could write this book, and that if I did, it wouldn’t prove helpful to people. I wasn’t sure I was ready to write it – experienced enough, skilled enough. I thought about doing a book like this for years, but it took me a long time before I put a proposal together for my agent to send out. And then it took a while before I found a publisher. I pitched the book during Stokercon in Grand Rapids in 2019. I almost didn’t pitch it to Jennifer Barnes at Raw Dog Screaming Press. What would Raw Dog want with a book by me? They published really good work, literary work, not the kind stuff I wrote. I didn’t listen to my doubts, though. The words may be different each time, but the voice that speaks them is the same, and I’ve learned to ignore it (although sometimes it’s easier than others). Jennifer liked my pitch, and soon my book will be out in the world. Whenever I doubted myself during the writing of it, I focused on two things: how much I love horror and how much I wanted to help writers. I tried not to focus on myself, and thankfully, I succeeded for the most part. This book was one of the fastest and easiest for me to write. Do I have doubts about how it will be received? Sure. But I’ll always have doubts. And that’s okay. I’m diabetic, I’m nearsighted, and as I said earlier, I’m dysthymic. I don’t feel old yet, but my body is aging every day. I think of self-doubt as being in the same category as these things – stuff I have to deal with and live with, but stuff that doesn’t have to define me or stop me. Eliminate self-doubt? Impossible. Write with it?

Absolutely.

DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION

As I’ve already mentioned, my how-to-write horror book Writing in the Dark will be out from Raw Dog Screaming Press’s nonfiction imprint Guide Dog Books on September 16th, and it’s available for preorder now. Only the print version is up at the moment, but eventually the ebook will be available as well. I’ll post an update when it is.

Whether you’re a writer or not, I hope you’ll help spread the word about Writing in the Dark. While I’d like to sell as many copies as possible for my wonderful publishers John Lawson and Jennifer Barnes at Raw Dog, my goal for this book isn’t to make money – it’s to help as many writers as I possibly can and to give something back to the genre of horror. I’ll deeply appreciate anything you can to do help make that happen.

Pre-Order Links for Writing in the Dark




Excerpts from Writing in the Dark will appear on Writer’s Digest’s website and in Suspense Magazine around the time the book is released. I’ll post links when they’re available.

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