How to Battle Self-Doubt in Writing
There are many difficulties in writing. It’s deceptively hard. Even if you’ve only ever written an email, you’ve most likely encountered at least some of its challenges. Grammar. Spelling. Finding the best way to communicate clearly. That’s just the beginning.
One of the most difficult aspects of my own writing experience has been that little voice in my head. The one that tells me this is all a bunch of crap, the one that tells me I can’t do it, and why am I even trying? I’m wasting my time. Better to just give up now. That voice won’t shut up. It’s always there, making writing a battle on not one, but two, fronts — the outward one of structure, plot, style, etc. and the inner one of silencing the nagging self-doubt. Some days I win and I can get my writing done, even feel good about it. Too many other days, though, the voice succeeds and can send me away from my projects, scared to open them up and hear all the doubts run through my head again.
The presence of the voice can be convincing in itself. I’ve found myself questioning if I really should be writing, if it really is my dream. If so, why am I always caught in this struggle? Why do I find it so hard to do what I supposedly love and strive for? Why, in essence, does it often feel like pulling teeth just to get a few hundred words on the page? What am I doing wrong?
What I’ve been learning over the years is that I have to keep going into battle. The more I brace myself, open up Word, and get to it, the easier it becomes every day to face the fear and get started. The voice is still there and it’s still really hard. It still beats me, a lot. It can evolve and start forming new doubts, outmaneuvering me. Lately I’ve felt it most in the way I question my writing voice. I’ll catch myself in an inner dialogue about how I don’t have anything new to say, or funny, or worthwhile. That I’m boring. Then I’ll remember that this is the self-doubt rearing its ugly head.
“Life is a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning. All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions.” — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
When it’s especially bad (and even when it isn’t) I turn to other writers, either interviews on YouTube or podcasts, or writing memoirs. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing are worthy classics for this purpose. Ann Patchett (one of my favorite writers) has incredibly straightforward and blunt things to say about writing that make me itch to get back at it. She can make me feel like there is no time to waste, and she’s right.
“If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say.” -Ann Patchett, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage
So, I will keep moving forward. I refuse to lose. I refuse to give up my dream. Even if I’m one in a sea of thousands or millions. Even if I work on something and it doesn’t get published or I need to abandon it and move on. Writing isn’t a means to an end. It’s about commitment, about doing something even when it’s hard, slowly evolving thanks to hours of toil and headache. It helps to know I’m not alone. Thanks to the feeling of a shared community of writers, when that little voice starts nagging, it’s easier to ignore it and keep working.