I got an email from a writer friend who is working on a complicated memoir. She is stuck in the process. In her email, she described the self-doubt that crept in after witnessing a commercial agent dispensing what I consider toxic advice at a workshop. When another writer at the workshop described her own work-in-progress to the agent, because the described work falls outside the expected form for a self-help book, the agent said it was a bad idea and it would never sell.
To repeat: The agent said it was a bad idea and it would never sell.
When I think of this, a cliché tingles the back of my neck (clichés are based in truth, right?): the hair at the nape prickles, a shortcut for anger. Thanks, Agent. Way to shut a writer down! Here’s an adaptation of what I wrote back to my friend:
DISBELIEVE WHAT THAT AGENT SAID! WHATEVER MESHUGAS THE AGENT SAID, WRITE THE AGENT’S WORDS ON A PIECE OF PAPER AND THEN BURN IT!!!!!! KISS THAT ADVICE GOODBYE! That agent only has experience with commercial, old school, traditional publishing, and there is room for SO MUCH MORE in the world of writing. That agent doesn’t know everything! NO ONE knows everything!
From all I understand about writing a complicated memoir, you are in exactly the right spot—excavating the words, memories, feelings, and then shaping and giving it form is a messy and idiosyncratic experience. I know it’s incredibly rough. (I have sprawling, passionate fragments that I might some day shape into a whole memoir, but I’m not yet ready. Even the questions I have to uncover and ask in that process are too intimidating for now.) One message that emerged from all the writers at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop this summer is that EVERYONE operates in the world of self-doubt. EVEN keynoter Andre Dubus III said as much, and so did everyone else presenting. (“The faster I write, the more I’m able to outrun my self-doubt,” said writer Gayle Brandeis. I want to tattoo that line inside my eyelids.)
I’m coming to understand that self-doubt is our fuel.
Self-doubt keeps us honest and also helps us do the work. A paradox, because self-doubt can also cripple the writer. Many writers (more seasoned and articulate than I am) write about the plague of self-doubt. My advice (which I give freely to myself, yet have a hard time taking) is to acknowledge the self-doubt, realize that it’s part of the process, whether you’re writing work based on your direct experiences, or creating fictional worlds. Tie it up in a bundle, give it a name, and then laugh at it. Let it be your fuel.
Trudge through the snowstorm of self-doubt, and do the work (she tells herself).