I’ve had enough self-doubt to fill a quarry recently. It seems to increase with the more opportunities that are offered to me. After being asked to submit a short story, I began to drown in self-doubt. What if I’m no good? Why do I think I can write things? What if they laugh at my attempt of even trying? I’ve mentioned my writing confidence in previous post and while I am proud to say that I am writing and submitting more, self-doubt is still the little friend who comes to visit when I am deep into writing activity. I have stopped trying to be something I am not by telling myself I should be more confident and instead have learnt to develop coping mechanisms that help me work through difficult periods. You may think I am confusing self-doubt for that well-known affliction on writers: the dreaded Writer’s Block.
Self-doubt differs from writer’s block in a few ways for me:
- rather than being low on ideas, you have ideas but a voice in your head tells you that you are not capable of getting them down in a way others will respect
- rather than not being able to find the words, the thoughts of failure becomes louder than the words you need to write
- unlike writer’s block, I never really come out of period of self-doubt, it is always there.
The last point is quite important to me as it why this post is titled ‘how I write through self-doubt’ rather than ‘how I overcome it’ or ‘how I rid myself of it’. Self-doubt never really leaves me. In the case of the short story, I am yet to receive feedback for the editor I have submitted it to and despite having received positive feedback from the few people I shown it to, I am still worried about it. Yet, it is important I remember that it now written and out there in the world, something I felt I may have never achieved while I was writing it. Here are some ways I have taught myself to write through the self-doubt.
Write the parts that come easily
This may depend on how you write. While I think outlining works well for me with longer stories, when it comes to shorter narrative I often see what comes out on the page. I find this is a better method for me as it means I don’t overwrite or end up with an entire novel. Instead I come up with a premise, I can hear the conversations between my character but can’t see much else. So firstly, I wrote the dialogue between the characters and soon began to see the setting in which the conversations were taking place. Thinking of what the characters looked like as they were speaking enabled me to see the character in more detail, which in turn enabled me to describe them. Soon, I had a complete scene.
This kind of free flow of writing meant I wasn’t thinking too much about what I was writing and whether it was any good but instead I was a receiver of a conversation, which I was transcribing.
It took the pressure off and made the story less about me and my abilities—something that is really important when trying to write through self-doubt.
Talk it out
I am incredibly lucky to have a husband who is a great listener. He is pretty used to hearing my moments of strong self-doubt and can listen without rolling his eyes at my first-world problems. However, what is most useful about talking things out with my husband isn’t his patience, it is having a sounding board. As soon as I begin explaining the story, it becomes something that exists rather than something I am trying to create.
Writing can feel incredibly lonely and being alone is a breeding ground for self-doubt. Talking to others can also be useful to gain a more balanced perspective. My husband often asks me to talk out the doubts I am having and will provide counter arguments to those. This can be useful for quietening my inner self-critic (as mentioned below) but the most useful part of our conversation is running through the elements of the story with him. He’ll often ask question, such as ‘where did he get X from?’, ‘why did he go to Z?’. In answering his questions, I was fleshing out my story and doing it without providing space for my self-doubt to creep in. It was just a chat with my husband.
Just like the free flow of writing, the free flow of discussing the story shares the ownership of the story and stops it being something that belongs to me and instead becomes something that just belongs.
Write about the self-doubt
Negative self-talk can be debilitating. I feel that this is because a lot of effort needs to going into quietening it or trying to ignore it and this can be overwhelming. Like I mentioned earlier, self-doubt differs from writer’s block for me and is often to less to do with the story itself and more to do with my own anxieties. By writing down what I am actually anxious about—what my self-doubt is telling me—I am able to engage in a conversation with that inner critic who is spouting all that negative self-talk at me.
So I sit with a notebook and write down everything think my inner self-critic is saying to me. Sometimes I might look at the words and think ‘Woah, that’s pretty dramatic!’ and come back at my self-critic with arguments that go against what is being said. I literally view the self-critic as a voice that can be argued with. Other times, the act of formulating my anxieties into words can be enough to reformulate my thoughts. In order to write them down, I have to write it logically and this ends up with me thinking about them logically, which then helps me view them differently from the negative whirlwind they appear to be in my head. Just the act of off-loading my thoughts can sometimes be all I need. The mere act of throwing the thoughts down on to the page can help me to gain clarity, I might not deal with them straight away but putting them down can be enough to get them out of my mind, freeing a space for other thoughts.
By addressing the self-doubt and not just pretending it isn’t there or being overwhelmed by it, I am able to show it who is in charge.
Getting out and about really helps me gather my thoughts without feeling the pressure of sitting at a desk. By not actively trying to think about what I am writing, i am often led to passively think about it. I went to our local park to get away from this short story. Our local park is just beautiful, it has a Green Flag Award don’t you know? I walked around it for awhile and then just sat on a bench and watched people go by.
I took my writer’s journal with me but I didn’t force myself to write, it was just there to capture any thoughts or ideas that came up.
It is important to me to allow myself to take the time to get away from writing if I am experiencing negative feelings that are being to overwhelm me.
Knowing when I just need to stop is important. It is hard however, not to just run for the hills every time I feel any self-doubt.
Find a prop
I don’t know if I have ever officially met my muse. I have something I call the ‘sweet spot’—some people might call this being in the zone. However, getting into that sweet spot can be difficult, especially when you are filled with self-doubt.
I find I most likely get within the sweet spot of writing when I use props.
In one scene of my short story, one of my characters was holding an antique gold watch and this was pretty relevant. My description of the watch was lacking and I couldn’t think of anything to add that went beyond a bunch of hackneyed adjectives. Along came self-doubt, puffing itself up and telling me that I was shit at writing and if I couldn’t make a scene about a watch interesting what the hell did I think I was doing writing a whole short story.
I was about to give up when I realised that I had a pocket watch (not an antique I’m afraid) that I could use to describe the features. Holding this watch in my hands allowed me to think about different features like the weight of it, how it warmed it my hands, how the carvings felt beneath my fingers. I was soon writing about this watch in detail because I detached it from the story and was just partaking in a little writing exercise if you will.This stifled the self-doubt because it wasn’t about the bigger picture, it was just about me and the watch at that point.
I’m not saying if you are writing about items in your story, go and buy them all—we’re writers not Bill Gates—but by using an items you have lying around or taking a wander down into the world of Google images you can distract your mind from thinking you are writing an encompassing story and trick it into thinking your are engaging in a quick writing exercise.
I finished my short story and ended up feeling proud of it. Oh, it was definitely a fleeting feeling—I remember thinking that I will never be able to write anything like it again—but I felt it. I wrote a short story of approx 2500 words in two days alongside working on other things. Take that, self-doubt!
How do you cope your self-doubt when you need to write? What are some ways you write through it?