What To Do When Creative Self-Doubt Strikes
The only way to overcome artistic uncertainty is to return to first principles
The form that creative self-doubt takes for me, these days, is largely based on my propensity to compare myself others. The fact that we live in a global village — to use Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic phrase — can undoubtedly inspire, but it can also wear down. Within these global “communities” it is not difficult to find others whose powers of productivity are prodigious and whose voices, logically enough, stand out above all others.
They are the paradigms of success, so that it can sometimes feel that the only true precepts are “Be prolific” and “Never slow down”.
For me, speed has never been my best asset. Nor do I don’t want to hurry my inspiration. I want to take my time, to sink in, to draft and redraft, to learn slowly but surely.
Creative self-doubt can strike in other ways too. If often involves wanting to convince others of ones viability as a creative person — perhaps feeling that other people’s validation is a necessary right-of-passage. Sometimes it is.
One of my favourite artists is the Swiss painter Paul Klee, who lived and worked in the first half of the 20th century. I was surprised to learn recently that his younger days were fraught with all too-familiar moments of self-doubt, as he recorded in his diary in 1903:
“The feeling of responsibility toward my fiancée and parents and unsuccessful attempts to paint often brew a kind of suicidal mood. […] Father cannot find his bearings in my ‘fantasy.’ In her own way, mother probably has faith in me. Friends, some of them, are in part objectively despairing, some of them are not. And no doubt I give people much trouble as a friend.”
He ends this diary entry with the line “Love must never cease,” which appears to be addressed to his father. One can only surmise his meaning here: an invocation, perhaps, of what drives his innermost hopes and his motivation as a human being.
One of the best representations of creative self-doubt I’ve ever come across is in a short story by the German writer Thomas Mann.
Written in 1905, A Weary Hour centres on a instance of writer’s block: In the depths of a midnight hour, high in his attic room, a famous writer works on an unfinished manuscript, full of misgivings about his ability to complete it.
The wearisome artist is tired and in poor health. We see him endure the hour, not with magnanimity or good humor, but with a sort of vain martyrdom. His will is broken. He sees all his efforts as wasted, years of creativity “taking revenge” on his body and mind.
In Mann’s story, the writer remembers his younger days spent in libraries and study halls, years that were designed to prepare him for the literary life ahead. But they are remembered with a sweet-bitterness now, deemed in fact to be the best of times.:
“Faith in the future, his guiding star in times of stress, was dead. Here was the despairing truth: the years of need and nothingness, which he had thought of the painful testing-time, turned out to have been the rich and fruitful ones.”
What mattered now was that the weary hour was overcome and that the wheels of the creative act were eased back into motion:
“He drew a deep breath, his lips closed firmly; he went back and took up his pen. No, he must not brood, he was far too down for that. […] No brooding! Work! Define, eliminate, fashion, complete!”
Mann’s writer faces down his weary hour with sheer force of will. Then, when it is over, it somehow becomes almost invisible, deemed a mere aberration of hope, perhaps even a valuable episode — and so it is forgotten. Mann’s hero is worn through with the effort. “He brought it to an end, perhaps not a good end, but in any case an end. And being once finished, lo, it was also good.”
Moments of creative self-doubt force us to retreat, to start afresh with our expectations challenged. Returning to first principles is, for me, the starting point to recovery.
This hour of contemplation can be difficult. The least helpful response is try to “keep up” with others. By the same token, the most helpful response is to assert one’s own values and to attest to the greater mystery of the creative impulse.
Worthwhile responses to creative self-doubt are never simple. They involve understanding yourself as a creative person and as a human being. I try to locate my original commitments, to remember the first buds of growth.
These are personal adventures; sometimes in the sharing they can be diminished. No haste, no great noise. It is in the quiet cloisters of reflection that the replenishment begins.
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