“When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” ~Herman Wouk
If you know any writers personally, or you are one yourself, you already know that we’re a faithless bunch. We live in a whirlwind of doubt – and for good reason. When the world’s eyes are on you, how could you not? How could you not feel small and powerless?
I realized this morning that this is why I’ve been struggling so much with work lately. You may have heard there was a bit of a weather event a couple of weeks ago, and while that did throw me off my schedule, being thrown off my schedule kind of threw me off my game. It’s no small feat to stay ahead of the doubt that mounts with every keystroke.
In fact, it’s kind of like riding a very angry, carnivorous buffalo. I imagine. I don’t know any personally, so this is purely speculation. But if something would both consume me and trample my bones, I’d be pretty damn afraid of it and would do all I could to hold on to the scruffy brown hair on its back.
Why We Dwell in Doubt
It’s the easiest thing in the world to be convinced you can’t do a thing. It is. It’s basically idle mode for your brain. You don’t have to move or think or breathe, just coast. Don’t mistake me, sometimes you literally need to coast for a bit to allow yourself a break. It’s when you coast while telling yourself, however subtly, that you are the worst that trouble starts.
For me, doubt piles upon doubt when I’m not sleeping (this is a regular problem) or when I’m suddenly overwhelmed with deadlines. It piles so deep I can’t see a way out. It gets so deep I’m sure I’m drowning.
And after this many years of writing for a living, honestly, there are times when I just want to succumb to it. I want to let the undertow pull me under and put an end to it all. Not that I have a better career option once I allow the big universal bathtub plug come loose, but I’ll never deny I’ve had moments of temptation.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to want to be a writer.
It seems so romantic, so cerebral, so special.
But the truth is that it’s really just production line work performed in your brain. There’s nothing magical there. It’s a skill like any other. You can learn to write, anyone can learn to write, and at a level that will get them paid.
This doesn’t mean I’ve not dedicated a good 35 years of my life to mastering the language, much like a blacksmith would spend a good 35 years banging iron. My point is that it’s not what you think. It’s not magic.
But the fact that you think it is – you, my dear, simple readers – makes me want it to be magic. It makes me want to always have the right words, every time, no matter what. When I’m sick, when the world around me is burning, when we’re in the middle of a pandemic that has left all of us on a lubed up treadmill, all I want is to breathe magic into your world.
The truth, though, is that words are words, and while I know how to make them dance a bit, they’re not magic. And because of this, and because of how much you believe they should be, I dwell in doubt.
Doubt is an Illusion
I know I should never tell you this. Pulling back the curtain on the fear and self-loathing and utter lack of belief in my ability to really do right by you isn’t helping. But owning those feelings, being totally honest about them and where they come from, that’s the only way forward.
I doubt my ability to really do justice to the words you trust me with, day in and day out. I doubt that I can really meet your expectations. I doubt – and it ruins my ability to actually do justice to your publications and websites.
The thing we all have to realize, writer or not, is that doubt is an illusion. It’s a trick we play on ourselves to make us think that we really, truly are the worst and we deserve all the bad things.
You don’t deserve the bad things. I don’t deserve the bad things. We don’t deserve the bad things.
So, how do we get out of this hall of mirrors, where doubt seems to be everywhere? Well, we gotta smash a lot of glass. Obviously.
Glass Smashing Tips
If you arrived at this blog post using a search for smashing windows, I’m gonna just go ahead and tell you that you’re not in the right place. I’m not at all talking about smash and grabs. But I’m also not NOT talking about that sort of thing, so you just take that as you will…
As for those metaphorical mirrors (you know how much I like metaphors and fun houses), it does get easy to get turned around with the poor lighting and reflective surfaces, so really, the best option is just to smash them until you’ve gotten out. Besides, breaking glass is pretty cathartic.
Wait. I have a side story. Hold on. So, I know a writer who literally smashes glass when she gets plugged up. Oh yeah. You know those China sets you donated to Goodwill when your grandmother passed? She buys those. And when things aren’t going so great, she smashes the shit out of them. Sometimes she uses a hammer, sometimes she just throws them against a wall. Sometimes she probably uses her hands. This chick is savage.
Actual glass breaking aside, which may be plenty to get you out of your funk, I got some tips here for breaking those mental fun house mirrors.
- Do something you know you can succeed at. I know I’ve offered this advice many, many times for various sorts of situations, but it works. It works for everything. But it especially works for doubt. When your inner critic is telling you that you can’t possibly succeed, doing something you absolutely know you can nail is proof positive that you can do the thing. Whatever it is. I’m not here to judge you.
- Work from easiest to hardest. If your doubt is slowing work down, start with the easiest thing and work your way up. If you’ve got a pile of churn and burns that no one cares about besides the SEO factor, do those first. Knock ‘em out. Nobody reads those anyway, not really. Google isn’t that harsh of a critic. Then do the stuff for real people.
- Give yourself a pep talk. The truth is that I can give you pep talks all day long and it won’t really matter. I mean, not really. You’ll assume I don’t have the whole story, I don’t actually know how awful you are, how much you’ve hidden from view. I know because I do this. All the time. And I know about two people who can pull me through these, but I also know I can’t always lay this shit on them. That’s why I try to give myself a pep talk. After all, I’m the one person I can’t hide from… and if *I* think I can do the thing, well, maybe it’s possible.
- Get some exercise. Look, I’m not for sunning your perineum or any of that shit the kids do these days, but I do know that exercise is an incredible stress reliever. Learn to box or pick up a martial art, go for a run, swim, walk your damn dog, escape reality in a kayak, whatever tickles your interests. Sometimes the doubt falls away when the anxiety does. Winter makes me a hot mess of emotions because they get all trapped in there together, along with cabin fever. Exorcise your demons by exercising your demons. Get it? I’m hilarious.
I know self-loathing gives you a chance to really indulge in all the moroseness that’s supposed to inhabit every writer in their lives. It gives you a dark, intense level of self-deprecation that’s hardly possible to reach in any other way. It’s all black and brooding, because no one understands your artist vision or some shit.
The truth is that we’re no different than anybody else. We just have a weird job. We get into funks and ruts and we want to run away to the cheese factory to escape it. But even the guys at the cheese factory can dwell in doubt, remember that. The cheese factory is no real solution. The only way out of a doubt prison is to go smashy smashy.