Peregrine falcon babies. Do they have self-doubt?
Do peregrine falcon babies experience self-doubt?

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).

9 thoughts on “On self-doubt (fuel for writing?)

  1. Reblogged this on CL Pauwels at Large and commented:
    I once had an agent tell me it was impossible to write a novel in first-person. “Too claustrophobic,” she said. As if I needed her (misplaced) negativity to add to my self-doubt.

    “I’m coming to understand that self-doubt is our fuel.”

    How do you combat self-doubt and keep writing?

  2. This puts me in mind of that Ann Patchett quote about forgiveness. And moreover, of the need (or is it just a “need?”) to embrace all parts of the process as the process. Sigh/ugh…warts and all. The frontier, for me, is in trying to discern between the natural/ultimately useful parts and the habitual thinking/ultimately unnecessary stuff. And, that may be an unknowable distinction in the moment (i.e., in the throes of self-doubt), but it’s something I think about a lot.

  3. Rebecca, I am going to print this one out and keep it handy. Thanks for a well timed reminder that the writing has its own life and importance and to honor the process of revealing that is BIG work. I try to use the dispute technique when these kind of destructive words fall from people’s mouths. Is what they are saying true? Is it useful? Does it serve me and my writing? etc. Then I shake it off and return to the writing.

    AWW was fantastic as usual!


    1. Hey, Jude! ;) Those are good reminders, and I hadn’t known that was a dispute technique, but I recall Kim John Payne (who wrote Simplicity Parenting–a really useful book) saying that he tries to ask himself, before he speaks to his children: Is it true? Is it useful? Is it kind? I love those questions, and I appreciate the reminder. (I know it’s not the job of agents to speak “true,” useful, and kind things to writers, but if we humans can ever transcend ourselves and our roles to consider asking those things, the world will be better for it.)

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