Self-Doubt in Writing

Since I began writing again a few years ago, I’ve noticed a definite psychological pattern in ‘Steve the Writer’.

It struck me again this weekend as I was frantically trying to finish a story that’s due for submission by Friday (I’m still waiting to hear back from the volume editor whether a postmark of Dec. 15 is sufficient, or whether it actually needs to be in Delaware by Friday…)

The stages go like this:

1) Idea and Inspiration
– there is a rush of excitement as something new comes to me from the blue or something I read/see/hear/smell, etc. sparks my imagination and a story idea is born. I’ll usually open a new file and make some notes or an outline of the basic idea, and perhaps even a story if I have one

2) Excitement and Anticipation
– I’m eager to get started on the ‘New Idea’ but it’s rare that I can jump right in. I usually have at least one other story on the go at the time and if I started something new every time a new idea hit, well, I’d never get anything done. So I put it away for a while until I can get to it.

3) Writing Begins
– I almost always have an ending before I begin, many times I’ll have a beginning. The middle, for the most part, is a mystery. I tend to write very much out of order: a scene may pop in to my head that happens somewhere in the middle, or maybe more toward the end, and I’ll start writing that and see where it takes me. Sometimes these work great and stay in, sometimes they’re heavily adapted for the final version, other times they’re written, considered, and then abandoned.

4) Frustration and Despair
– This is the stage I found myself in yesterday afternoon around the day’s 750-word mark. It tends to come in the really hard slogging of the middle story, where there’s explaining to be done, plot to moved along, and character to be developed, and sometimes when its not entirely clear whether these scenes work in the larger context of the story. I tend to get frustrated with the slow-going of the connective bits I need to write to put together the longer sequences that come to me in flashes and which aren’t a struggle to write at all. I start to get bored with writing, then I worry that I’m bored because what I’m writing is boring, and then I fear that if the AUTHOR is bored then the reader will be REALLY bored…

Then I bang my head on the keyboard repeatedly and declare “Oh, I’ll never get this right! Never, never, never!” over and over. A lot like Don Music, in fact.

I almost always need to stop for the rest of the day, do something else to clear my mind, drink heavily, etc.

5) Calming Down
– The next day I’ll re-read what I wrote and despaired over the day before and almost always find that it’s not nearly as bad as I thought. Sometimes it’s pretty good and I can press on; other times I see what I can change and where I can fix it and that starts the ball rolling again. I always have in the back of my mind the thought that “If this is really slow to write, maybe it’s slowing down the story and you can just move to the next bit…” And I do.

6) Critical Mass and Renewed Enthusiasm
– After X number of random scenes are linked together by Y number of connective bits that were like pulled teeth to write, I find the story suddenly takes a rough shape and a kind of critical mass is reached. The rush I felt near the beginning of the story returns–but as the rush of a finish line in sight! I’ve been known to pound out 2500 words in a few hours once I reach this tipping point (an overused phrase, but appropriate here as it can feel like whooshing down a slope no longer under my own power, just riding the story out to its logical conclusion). I know that 2500 isn’t much by comparison to what, say, a professional novelist would aim to complete in a day, but when my stories tend to range between 5000 and 7500 words it’s a sizable chunk. The other benefit is that, even if I don’t manage to finish the whole thing at this point, I know at last where the story is headed and how it gets there, so it’s easy to jump back in and renew the drive to the end.

7) The Finished Draft
– Finishing off a draft is a great feeling. I might tinker a little with it first, but I send it out to my first readers as soon as I can manage. Then I might bask in the glow of the accomplishment for the rest of the day–I tend to feel like a million bucks afterwards, but I also need to clear my head of one imaginary world so I can be ready to dive into another new one the day. When it comes back from my readers I’ll revise in light of their comments and then start sending the manuscript out to markets.

And the funny thing is, at the end of it all, I don’t really remember the anguish of Stage 4, can convince myself (if only for a little while) that the next story I write will come much easier, and the cycle repeats again and again and again…

It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that this, or a similar pattern, happens in many (if not most) authors. I heard someone say once that writers were simultaneously the most arrogant and insecure people: they feel that they have something to say that people should read and care about, but are so consumed with self-doubt they fear no one will and that they will be ridiculed for even having tried.

Perhaps this is something that I can train myself out of, but I doubt it. I think this is the peculiar affliction that is mine to embrace. I keep going through the sequence, you’ll note, even though I should know better by now. I must enjoy the suffering on some level. Or maybe the high at the end is enough to sustain my addiction.

But I’ve also noted that the above doesn’t apply equally to other creative aspects of my life. I’ve played guitar since I was 15 and even have a 4-track recorder that I mess around with, but I mostly do covers and weirdness and not original rock or pop songs of my own. When I do, I undergo the first four stages, including the same fugue-like series of self-doubt and frustrations, but when I later go back and listen to what I’ve done odds are good that I’m never happy with it or see a way to fix it/make it better the way I do with my writing.

This leads me to believe I was meant to be a writer and not a rock star…which is too bad, in some ways, because I really like wearing leather pants. You can do that as a rocker, not so much as a writer (well, not without ‘talk’ anyway…)


– S.

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