Overcoming Self-Doubt as a Writer

by Matthew Kressel

mattIt’s become a cliché, the tortured writer beset by periods of crippling self-doubt. But things become clichés simply because they have been true for so many. Writing, for most people I know, is an experience of few victories and many small defeats. The little victories can make all those defeats worthwhile, but when you’re in the writing mode, staring at the screen or paper, slogging away day after day, without feedback, you can often feel like you’ve wandered deep into the woods without a guide and now you’re lost and it’s getting dark and there are strange sounds coming from that grove of trees, and at this far out no one can hear you scream.

Eventually, though, you’ll find your way back to civilization. You send out that story that you worked on for months, only to get rejection after rejection. You submit your magnum opus to agents and editors expecting high praise only to be met with…crushing silence. The waiting sometimes can be the worst of all.

And it’s in these interstitial periods that the most crippling feelings of self-doubt can occur. We ask ourselves, Am I good enough? Am I smart enough? Did they like what I wrote? Does it suck? Am I a hack? What the hell am I doing all this for? All those things we do to escape our uncomfortable feelings become super tempting: binge television watching, drinking, drugs, sex, anything to escape the Great Uncertainty.

And then your story sells, maybe even to a pro market, and the reviews come in, and everyone loves it, and praises it. And people talk about how it moved them, some cried and read it to their grandmothers, and maybe your story even gets nominated for an award. Maybe you even win that award. And you feel like a million dollars, and you’ll never doubt yourself again.

Yeah right.

A few weeks go by, maybe a few months, and the doubts creep back. We say to ourselves, Maybe I was lucky. Maybe the awards system is rigged. Maybe it was only a popularity contest. Maybe that’s the best I’ll ever do.

It’s a vicious cycle, this self-doubt, and it’s been my experience that most writers experience these crippling neuroses in one form or another. A few lucky people I know seem to lack all such self-doubts, but I suspect they’re well hidden, that under their confident exterior they too doubt themselves from time to time. Hell, even Stephen King has been known to express doubts about his work.

Whenever I get into an emotional funk, when the self-doubt niggles its way into my psyche, I find that there are some things I do that help brush it away.

Write. Yep, it seems ridiculous that the cure for self-doubt about your writing is to write more, but I’ve always doubted myself less after a morning where I’ve written 1,000 words than on mornings where I wrote none.

Remind yourself that your problems are First World problems. By this I mean that there are people in this world who survive by scavenging garbage dumps to get food for themselves and their children. There are people who live under threat of rape, war, terrorism every single day. Just by having the time to write, you are in an incredibly privileged position. This does not mean your feelings aren’t real or are worthless. It just means that you might put them in perspective.

Go do something good for someone else. Give some cash to that homeless guy on the corner. Help a friend move apartments. Call up that family member you haven’t spoken with in a while just to say hello and really listen to them You’d be surprised how liberating it can be to get out of your own head, even for a little while.

Remind yourself of all the things you have accomplished. Look at the short stories or novels you published and read the positive reviews. If you’re just starting out and don’t have this resource, remind yourself that all writers go through an early rejection phase. Stephen King said that he used to keep his rejection letters hung on a spike on the wall, and he had once accrued so many that the spike fell. Consider that next time you get a rejection.

Even veteran pro writers get rejections. I have the privilege to know several top editors in SF and I know for a fact that big names do occasionally receive rejections too. Yeah, maybe fewer than they did when they were starting out; they have honed their skills after all, but they still do get the splat from time to time.

Sublimate your doubt. Use it as a tool. Actors are taught to channel their stage fright into energy, to bring more life to their characters. Writers can do this too. All emotions, all experiences, are food for us writers. Explore that neurosis, go deep into it, and you just might find a well of ideas ready to spring forth. Any human emotion is a treasure chest waiting to be opened.

Talk to other writers. Writing can be an isolating experience. Just sharing your feelings with another human being who is going through the exact same thing can be a cathartic experience for all involved.

Reframe the metaphor. You’re writing a story, but what story are you telling yourself about your own life? That you’re not good enough? That you’re a failure? What if you reframe the narrative into something positive: This is just one step on my journey. All writers go through this. This is a learning experience. The author Tom Crosshill, a good friend of mine, has a TED talk on just this idea. I highly recommend it. 

Feed your inspiration engine. Ray Bradbury suggested that writers read poetry every day to whet their writing skills. For me, I find walks in the deep woods inspiring. Or listening to Bach or other music, or reading passages from my favorite books. Pour life into your soul, and you might find that life pours out of your fingers onto the page in equal abundance.

Meditate. This might be similar to number 9, but by taking aside a few minutes every day to breathe deeply, to calm those racing thoughts, to recenter and refocus, you may find that what seemed so burdensome before is now more manageable. I can attest to ridding myself of many small and large anxieties by simply meditating for twenty minutes each morning. I’m usually sharper, more relaxed, and more clear-headed afterward, a great mind space to be in before writing.

These are some of the methods I use to overcome my occasional feelings of self-doubt. While they may not be ideal for all, I hope that some will find them beneficial.

So what about you? Do you sometimes doubt yourself as a writer? What methods do you use to overcome these feelings?

Behind Every Great Artist comic

“Behind Every Great Novelist” by Grant Snider.
First appeared in the NY Times Book Review.

•••

Matthew Kressel is a Nebula Award-nominated writer and World Fantasy Award-nominated editor. His short stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld Magazine, io9.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Interzone, Electric Velocipede, Apex Magazine, and the anthologies Naked City, After, The People of the Book, and The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, as well as other markets. He ran Senses Five Press, which published the ‘zine Sybil’s Garage and the anthology Paper Cities, which won the World Fantasy Award. Matt was also nominated for a World Fantasy Award for his work with Sybil’s Garage. He currently co-hosts the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan beside Ellen Datlow and is a long-time member of the Altered Fluid writing group. In his spare time he teaches himself Yiddish. His website is www.matthewkressel.net.

6 Responses

  1. Kristopher Kelly

    Loved this article, Matt. Especially the part about getting out of your own head, helping others, and “that your problems are First World problems.” Great advice.

  2. Bourassa

    I just love it, when it’s a “stay indoors” kind of day and you’ve got a great book open and you’re in world of dreams, challenge and adventure.

  3. marta

    What a great article, I will keep it in mind as I send out the first book of my trilogy to agents and publishers. I read it right after I posted on LinkedIn and Facebook “Last week was amazing! The three main goals on my plate: my land inheritance in Nicaragua, the first book of my Science/Fiction trilogy and my suitcase invention, are all moving to completion. This year is going to be great.”

  4. L.G. Keltner

    This post is just what I needed! I experience a lot of self-doubt, especially since I am currently unpublished. I know the sting of rejection, and at times it’s hard to keep putting my work out there. I’ll keep your words in mind as I continue to send out my stories. Thank you!

  5. Diane

    Thank you for the inspiring piece. The ideas, the humor and the cartoon were great. Also, thank you for being caring and not talking down. Good luck in your career. Diane