Why Writing Produces Self-doubt


Part 1

Total Recall

There is a simple reason writers who work on long pieces are more vulnerable to self-doubt than other creatives. This is because the author cannot see the entirety of his piece as a photographer or artist can. Even a musician can listen to a piece of music in a relatively short time. Few, if any writers can memorise their entire novel.

They may have scenes or pieces of dialogue that stand out for them, that come to the front of memory and can be accessed. But most of their work will be forgotten as they work on it. The writer has to work from notes and a general circumspect knowledge of the parts of the novel that come before the piece he is currently working on.

This can cause doubt in the writer’s mind of the calibre of his work:

He cannot see the entirety of his endeavours, unlike a painter who sees his work in an instant. An author needs to rely on memory to remember what he’s written, and through the cracks of broken recall self-doubt can creep in; it is bound to infiltrate the writer’s mind at some point.

When an author works on a novel, each sentence relates in an abstract way to all the other sentences in the book. And the author does his best to create the most interesting thread that constitutes the fabric of his book at any given point. This is why writing a long piece is hard. The writer is like a detective working with circumstantial evidence.

The fact that the author cannot remember every word of a novel he’s written means he’s more susceptible to criticism from others as well as himself. Because he does not have access to the entirety of his work in his head at any given time. If his novel is treated in a derisory fashion by others he’s more susceptible to the critique as he can’t fully remember every word he’s written.

How can you defend something you are unaware of?

If a particular scene is criticised the writer can return to it and gain a full look at the section; so he’s then able to defend it. But if the entire work is put down, it’s harder for an author to produce rebuttals. A visual artist can see the whole work at a single glance, so if his piece is criticised, at least he has the painting in front of him. If his work is put down he can see what’s being criticised.

A critique will come from someone who is responding to the gist of the novel, because like the author, the reader cannot recall the entire novel either.

As he writes, the author is depending on notes and the memory of the work he’s achieved up to a given point. Therefore he’s likely to be faced with self-doubt and it’s more corrosive offspring: writer’s block.

Block may occur due to a lapse in memory.

Memory is an important part of our psychology because it’s not about the past, it’s about the future. If a child touches a flame the pain will be embedded in her memory to stop her repeating this act in the future. This is one of the main reasons a writer becomes blocked: it’s a natural part of a process that involves the writers’ mind being clouded with an interpretation of what he’s written up until that point.

Memory acts as a guide to what we’ll do next. So when writing if there’s a gap in the recall of what has already been written, writers’ block may occur because the author doesn’t know what to do next. If there’s a gap in the remembrance of work previously done, the writer might be at a loss as to what to do next.

This process will not affect a painter in the same way as he can see the entirety of the piece and does not need to rely on memory to asses the work.

It’s easy to put down any art work; but at least a fine artist can see the whole thing at a glance. If someone criticises a novel or long piece of non-fiction the writer has little in the way of defence, apart from an innate confidence that may have built up over many pieces and over a long length of time.

This is the reason writer’s are so prone to self-doubt: they can’t see the entire ‘object’ they have created — only nebulous memories of characters, scenes and descriptions.

The author who can memorise every word in his novel would be able to stand up to the same level of criticism as other creators.

But I’ve yet to meet an author who can remember every word of his novel.

Part 2


So we’ve already established why a writer’s skin needs to be thicker than the fine artist or musician.

There’s a second reason an author doubts himself. As writers we have at some stage received a rejection from an agent, publisher or friend. The hurt, and they hurt a lot.

Since the beginning of time authors have received multiple rejections from professionals. This is well known to writers in all fields.

In today’s environment of genre-based fiction, a quirky original work is more likely to be rejected than a piece that ‘fits in’ to a section on the bookshelf, be it real or virtual. So a brilliantly written but highly original work will not find a natural place on the bookshelf.

This is why so many of the great and most innovative writers have struggled the most.

The paradox is a simple one; the better and more original your work, the less likely it is to find a place in an agents list. It is possible and it does happen, but it’s much harder for a new writer who’s produced an original piece to find its way to success.

Rejection, of course, has the natural affect of increasing self-doubt. A no is a no. And the ‘no’s add up. They are cumulative. The more the writer tries to attract attention to her work, the more rejections she’ll receive, again increasing self-doubt.

I’m really referring to the novelist. If you’re a photographer you may sell a piece to a friend or end up in a group exhibition: this will produce some kind of self-esteem and a feeling of acceptance, increasing self-confidence and eroding self-doubt.

The novelist has no such luxury; he can’t sell a tenth of his novel. It’s the whole thing or nothing. A yes or a no. A knife-edge the writer has to endure until he’s accepted.

Self-publishing is different as the work may be seen by a few or many if the writer is a king blogger and has 250,000 Twitter followers. If a writer self-publishes and sells very few books, this is another rejection — from the world — a pretty tough rejection to take.

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.”

This is a quote from Harper Lee and it really resonates with me. You need to be tough, very tough to endure relentless rejections and retain a steel self-confidence.

So if we combine Part 1 (the writer cannot recall his entire piece and is more vulnerable to the inner critic) together with the rejections discussed in Part 2, the writer is vulnerable to brutal and sometimes crippling self-doubt.

Now you know this, if you can take it to heart, when you come across those horrendous sinking feelings you’re not good enough you can at least see why you may be doubting yourself so much.

I’ll end by saying, if you don’t distrust your work at all you’re probably not working hard enough at it. We need some self-doubt so we continue to improve our work. But if self-confidence becomes too low, it’s easy to give up.

A drive for perfectionism will produce a sense of inadequacy, because we can never get there. We can strive for perfection, but that is all. No work of art is perfect.

The drive for perfection will also produce feelings of inadequacy. So don’t worry if it does. It’s a good sign that you care deeply about what you produce.

Remember, bouts of low ebbs of confidence will come. They are a natural part of the writing process.

The good and the great have all been there and with determination have beaten it.

As I’m sure you’ll do.


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