When it comes to writing, self-doubt is part of the process, as much as typing, editing and re-writing are. But it’s the one emotion few of us writers openly talk about.
Recently I was at an event where someone told me that a multi-millionaire author who has had numerous Sunday Times bestsellers (the first was turned into a major film) openly suffers from crippling self-doubt. A baffling concept which also made me wonder; ‘God, if they doubt themselves, what hope is there for the rest of us?’
Saying it out loud might make us seem more vulnerable than we already are. It might make the Imposter Syndrome, another common side-effect of writing, expose that raw, vulnerable skin we all try to hide. But a quick Google reveals that, over the years, many famous authors have admitted to feelings of self-doubt. So perhaps it’s a conversation we need to have.
Sylvia Plath said, ‘The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt’, whereas Stephen King said, ‘There’s plenty of opportunity to self-doubt’ when it comes to fiction.
Neil Gaiman, yes that one, the award-winning author and one of the most celebrated to date, admitted in a speech at the University of Arts that he suffers from Imposter Syndrome.
‘In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don’t know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job,’ he said.
‘Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied, ‘said Zadie Smith and ‘Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.’
As writers, ghosts, too, suffer from self-doubt. Even if we’re writing on behalf of someone else, even if we’ve been told the story beautifully during long, interesting interviews. Even if we have a contract signed and sealed by a publisher before we even begin. Self-doubt will encroach, for some more than others.
Have we captured the voice of the person we’re writing for enough? Have we chosen to make big scenes out of the correct events? And the biggest question of all: ‘Will the author like what I have written?’
But instead of trying to hide self-doubt, perhaps, as it’s such a universal sensation, we should embrace it. I need to remind myself that self-doubt is part of a creative process. After all, someone is telling me their story, I am absorbing it in my own mind then telling it back to them in the most interesting, page-turning way I can muster. It takes trust on both sides. The author trusts me to do it and I must trust myself to come up with the goods.
Writing is a job that can only be done in solitary confinement. Okay, you might manage to work in a café or library, but ultimately the thoughts are in your own head before being released onto the page. Only through editing and discussion is the process shared. And sitting by yourself for hours and hours inevitably means (for me anyway) that self-doubt creeps in.
With every new challenge, even ones I am excited by, the self-doubt fairy will descend upon my shoulder as fast as the contract is signed. Will this work? How should I start the book? What characters are important? Who are we aimed at? Questions erupt from every angle, but only by working methodically through them can we find the answers. Often only in the doing, the actual writing of words on the page, can we answer our biggest critics: ourselves.
Perhaps we should embrace what is essentially a negative emotion for the good. After all, self-doubt pushes me to up my game, to edit a little more, to read equivalent bestselling memoirs for inspiration, to ask more questions I’d not thought of originally, to delve a bit deeper into the psyche of my author and to re-read my writing with a reader’s critical eye. Self-doubt pushes me to ask for second opinions, which almost always enlightens me.
Whatever I do with my self-doubt, it’s likely to visit my desk as regularly as the endless cups of coffee, so acknowledging and embracing it might reap more rewards in the end. Or maybe I should take the words of Charles Bukowski to heart: ‘Bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good writers tend to have self-doubt.’