Tag Archives: writing through self-doubt

New old project

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Fall cleaning and (finally, again) rifling through piles of paper so I can some day love my office…I found evidence that my new project is actually quite old. Turns out I’ve been writing it for years.

It’s hard to articulate how comforting this is. Like finding out you are who you always thought & hoped you were. Soon I’ll have the luxury of going to a week-long workshop where I can dive into that mess.

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(SFA socks from my dear friend Sally)

 

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My Naming

 

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Glen Helen, 4/24/16

Here are some words that arrived as I was waking up this morning. So I wrote them down.

**

My Naming

I am from You don’t get to name me. I am from Give me enough time and I will name myself.

I will turn over all the stones and I will find what I need for the naming; I will find the paint and the bones and the breath. I will find the nest of flowers and I will find the eggs.

In the hunting-places it is so quiet that you can put your ear on the ground and hear nothing, hear forever. You don’t need to speak there; you don’t even need to keep your eyes open.

You will read my name in my hair. You will wind my shed hairs into a lute and play the song that is my name. I will shed hairs and weave a web and write my name in my sleep.

How It Felt To Me

Tell me what you can see here.

What you can see here?

In her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion writes:

“…perhaps it never did snow that August in Vermont…maybe no one else felt the ground hardening and summer already dead even as we pretended to bask in it, but that was how it felt to me, and it might as well have snowed, could have snowed, did snow.”

I’m writing a piece in which I wanted so badly to use these words, but I used another part of Didion’s essay, had to let go of this treasure for the sake of the whole fabric I’m making…but I love this passage. I love its cadence, I love the self-doubt and rumination. This progression from Fact toward How It Felt To Me is an important and rich one, and we dismiss it at our humanity’s peril. This has been on my mind a lot, sparked anew last night when I read David Ulin’s piece about redefining creative nonfiction, in which Ulin writes, “all art is a kind of hybrid, reality reconstructed, redefined.”

Yes.

We get up each morning. Unless we are nudists, we put on layers, veils, makeup, clothing to disguise or hide or redefine something about ourselves. “Reality” is manufactured somewhere inside each human brain. (I am not a brain scientist; I don’t remember which part, but I have read about this, and I think this is true.) Things happen, there are facts, and facts are arguably “real” or “true”, but it seems to me the realm of literature, or art, is built upon everything else. The murk. How It Felt To Me. Even when I’m writing fiction, How It Felt To Me matters much in the making. Even if I am creating a world and pretending it doesn’t actually exist, even if I am telling Lies, How It Felt To Me can’t help but steer the making. (I could lie to myself now and say it doesn’t, but lying takes too much breath, breath I could instead be using to write, breath I could be using to stay alive.)

The fun is grappling around in the mess of these parts.

The fun is shaping stuff from the parts.

What we can control

(An old wheel, Casa Loma, Toronto.  Summer 2014.)

An old wheel, Casa Loma, Toronto. Summer 2014.

(Not much!)

But in reflecting on some of the work of my students, I wrote this in a narrative evaluation about gaining a deeper understanding of what it is to write and be a writer. I thought it was worth posting here:

It’s crucial to realize that if a piece of writing doesn’t come out perfect (and rarely does it come out perfect), it can always be improved. Knowing this (and living it) is much more important than any sort of inherent talent or inspiration. Doing the work is really the only thing a writer can control.

On self-doubt (fuel for writing?)

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).