Self-doubt ~ worst enemy to creativity.

Sylvia Plath: “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.  The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

Sometimes self-doubt comes in fast & hard: the first rejection, maybe, and you’re wondering if you should even try to be a published writer. Sometimes, like in my case, it comes in slowly, easing itself along through the years, grinding you down a little bit more with every rejection or every not-so-stellar review.

It took me four years to write my first novel, Small as a Mustard Seed. At first, I loved the characters (still do), and the setting, and the story. But later, as the writing began to take on a life of its own (as it always does), I really started to doubt, not only the story but myself and my ability to write it.  A few months into the work, the father arrived with schizophrenia and then, later in the process, became a Korean war veteran. Early on, it was set in a more modern time period then suddenly I realized it needed to happen in the 1960′s. It had two little girls, sisters, as the main characters. I had an overwhelmed mother struggling to keep her family intact.

Late at night, alone in my little writing room, my thoughts were these:  I know nothing about schizophrenia. And really, what do I know about Korea? Or being a veteran? Or being in any kind of battle at all for that matter? I wasn’t even born in the 60′s, what do I know about that? I’ve never had a sister, how can I write that & make it believable? What do I know (because when I first started I didn’t have any kids) about being a mom? There were a lot of days I just wanted to quit & work on something else. Something easier, I told myself (which became kind of a joke, because there’s never really anything easier, is there?).

But little by little, I kept pressing forward in the face of all my doubts. I jotted notes in my journal like I need someone who knows about schizophrenia and ~ because the universe is a friendly place ~ a week or so later, I got introduced to a woman who had lived with an adult schizophrenic & who graciously answered all my questions about how it was to be with him when he was off his medications. I read books. I researched. I wrote about the relationship I would’ve liked to have if I’d had a sister. I knew how it felt to be overwhelmed, so I transferred that feeling to the character. I kept moving forward.

I finished it & sent it out into the world. It won two awards & got great reviews. I let out the breath I’d been holding.

Was the self-doubt gone? No. But it did fade a bit, and I got to work on the next thing. So this is my little pep-talk: Don’t let any self-doubt stop you. Don’t let it make you question your motives or your intentions. Don’t let it make you ask, Who even cares? The best advice I can give you is to keep writing through it. Trust in the story & trust in your ability to tell it. I know this sounds new-agey, but trust in the universe to get you what you need. And finally, this goes along with my post last week, find a support system of people who understand what you’re trying to achieve.

What about you? Have you struggled with self-doubt? If so, what have you done to overcome it?

 

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Shelli Johnson

Writer
Shelli Johnson is an award-winning author and journalist. Her debut book, Small as a Mustard Seed, has been heralded as “a superbly-crafted and reader-engaging novel” that will “run you through an emotional marathon at a sprinter’s pace.” Learn more about Shelli here. Keep in touch through her newsletter or subscribe to her blog.

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17 Responses to Self-Doubt ~ Worst Enemy to Creativity

  1. Because I regarded my novel as a fun, engrossing hobby and a much needed creative outlet, self-doubt wasn’t something that came up for me during the writing process. This quickly changed, however, after I self-published. Putting myself ‘out there’ has been nerve-racking. Real people, not just friends and family, are reading my book! Yikes! Now I find myself doubting my choices and wondering whether I should have done certain things differently. Even though my reviews on Amazon have been mostly positive (4/5 stars), I’m not feeling confident.

    I often wonder whether the confidence in my work would be higher if I had tried to go the traditional publishing route. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret self-publishing, but I do think that I’d probably be standing taller knowing that ‘professionals’ believed in my efforts. Hmmm. Or not. Maybe I’m just too self-conscious and thin skinned no matter how much I might want to be otherwise. LOL

    • Hi Katherine. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Like you, when I look at my writing as something that I love to do then the self-doubt fades away. It’s when I think of other people actually reading it that I start to freak out. I don’t know if traditional publishing would’ve given you a thicker skin. Even well-known traditionally-published writers still run into it (especially those who’ve had an enormous best-seller then have the pressure to come up with something just as good the next time around ~ Elizabeth Gilbert talked about this very thing after the crazy success of Eat, Pray, Love). For what it’s worth, you’re in good company ~ we all seem to have self-doubt to certain degrees. :)

  2. I’m currently nearing the final stages of self-publishing my first book as an experiment, and this week was filled with self-doubt for me. Even though I’m confident with my characters, story, pacing, cover, etc., I’ve been fearing that I’m making some glaring errors that my editor didn’t see and that my line editor will miss. My self-doubt now is stemming from what Katherine mentioned above–the idea of “professionals” believing in my efforts, and the fear that I’ll just prove them right by releasing a book full of mistakes! It’s an entirely different form of stress than what traditionally published authors must face. That said….fear and stress are pointless, so I’m trying like mad to just do my best and move on!

    • Hi Matthew. Congrats on publishing your book! I love this ~ “That said….fear and stress are pointless, so I’m trying like mad to just do my best and move on!” I’ve seen traditionally published books with glaring mistakes, so just because a “professional” approved it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s mistake-free. If you’ve paid for a professional editor, you’ve done what you can. I completely agree that you have to do your best & go on to the next thing; otherwise, you’d spend days/weeks/months poring over the same manuscript & never move forward. :)

  3. Writing down the questions and the areas for research works. If you know you have problems in your story, material you’re not sure about, make a plan. The Internet is a huge place and surely you can find someone to talk to about ideas. I recently talked with a hospital laboratory worker about blood. I discovered a little about how security works in the hospital.

    • Hi Stephen. I completely agree that making a plan will help alleviate self-doubt. It’s much easier to move forward if you know what direction you’re going. I had a similar experience, going in asking about one thing and finding out a whole bunch of other things that helped my story along, too.

  4. I have Sylvia Plath’s exact quote on top of my blog – it reminds me to persevere when the self-doubt starts creeping in. Sometimes, of course, it wins over and I have to take a step back from writing. But then I thought to myself, “I have a story to tell. It’s a story that’s very dear to my heart, and therefore it’s important, at least to me, if not others.” And I go back to writing, welcoming the sight of pen and paper like a mother to a prodigal son ;)

    • Hi Maria. I love this ~ “a story that’s very dear to my heart, and therefore it’s important, at least to me.” I always tell myself something similar when the writing gets tough. As long as I keep the focus on why I’m writing (as something fulfilling to me), I find the self-doubt fades a bit.

  5. Eve Redwater says:

    Hello Shelli, I found this such a weird (read: nice) coincidence reading this today. I’ve just recently bought my very first book of poetry by Sylvia Plath, and when I saw her quote on the top of this page, it certainly made me happy that I did! I have my own share of self-doubt – quite a lot in fact. With NaNoWriMo this year, I’ve found it so hard sometimes to keep it going; wondering so many things. “Is this good enough?” or “Would someone actually read this?” or even “Wow, can I even call myself a competent writer?!”, things like that. I think my main fear is finding out that my writing is in fact terrible. English and writing has always been my strongest asset, but I worry. Is it really good enough for the ‘real’ critique of the world, should I ever be blessed with fortune enough that I find myself published? It’s hard to get feedback from people that aren’t your loved-ones, thus being your own editor isn’t helping my self-doubting state! However, my love for writing remains firm, and, I suppose, it’s only with the tell of time that I’ll be able to prove or disprove my fears. It’s just getting the there that’s hard.

    • Hi Eve! Self-doubt hits us all so know you’re in good company. :) I love this: “my love for writing remains firm.” In the end, that’s the most important thing. Art is so subjective. I’ve read National Book Award winners that I didn’t care for. It didn’t mean the authors weren’t good writers, just meant that I, personally, didn’t care for the story. What one reader might find terrible, another may absolutely love. I believe: If you write because you love it, you’ll keep writing no matter what.

  6. Jon Nash says:

    Hi Shelli. Thanks for your wonderful thoughts. I am now working on my second novel as I finish the edits on my first. There are so many topics in my second book that I don’t have personal experience with, but I’m hopeful an active imagination and a great network of friends can help fill in the blanks. Still, it’s hard not to wonder, sometimes, how authentic my words will read. I’ll certainly remember your wisdom as I move forward!

    • Hi Jon! Congrats on writing a second novel. I’m a big believer in the fact that you’ll get everything you need when you need it to finish your second book ~ have faith. :)

  7. Shelli, thanks again for provoking thought. I fear it so much yet it is the only thing I have. I have suffered undiagnosed until recently with ASD, a fringe case, and gut wrenching anxiety accompanied with pretty crippling PTSD from a bloody and lonely childhood. The symtoms you and others describe feeling about others reading your work are those of anxiety. Sounds like stating the obvious but I have a point. Clinical anxiety levels like this are closely associated with creative people, and are almost universally associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, which is itself often associated with a highly creative mind in a specific area, like storytelling for instance. Just an extra thought to throw in the mix. My being able to function enough to even dream of writing seriously came about as a result of medicating the anxiety just enough to remove the “jumping out of my skin” condition that has for 40 years held me hostage to an unmoving pencil or stagnant keyboard while boiling with a submerged desire to write. After all that, I can’t wait for anyone to read anything I write, regardless what they think. Much of it will be terrible. I don’t care. Some of it will be good, I’ll look forward to that. But I will never, ever ever again fear anyone reading anything I write, I just hope and pray I get the chance and the time and the inspiration to write, to feel my soul singing through the keys and know that I’m at least at risk of creating the possibility of a dream in someone’s elses imagination.

    • Hi Robin! I’m so sorry to hear about your PTSD & ASD. I’m glad that you’ve gotten help & that medication has helped you to write. I love these things: “I will never, ever ever again fear anyone reading anything I write.” & “to feel my soul singing through the keys.” I’m so happy to hear them both. :)

  8. Whatever you do, at least with self publishing you KNOW that, unless you do it – it is NOT going to get done. That is very different and kind of liberating from being trapped in the idea that with any kind of publishing deal that ‘someone else is/should/could be doing this.’ No-one gives a sh*t about anything that you are doing MORE than you. I have self published and been published – I would choose the former over the latter any day of the week.

    • Hi Martin! Thank you so much for your comment. I know a lot of people look down on indie/self publishing, but I’ve also heard horror stories from some of my writer friends about how they kind of got lost in the shuffle with a traditional publisher, how they didn’t get the editing/cover design/etc. that they thought they would & then didn’t have any control over the final product because they no longer had the rights.

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