Writers Must Kill Self-Doubt Before Self-Doubt Kills Them

It’s insidious, this thing called doubt.

You’re sitting there, chugging along, doing your little penmonkey dance with the squiggly shapes and silly stories and then, before you know it, a shadow falls over your shoulder. You turn around.

But it’s too late. There’s doubt. A gaunt and sallow thing. It’s starved itself. It’s all howling mouths and empty eyes. The only sustenance it receives is from a novelty beer hat placed upon its fragile eggshell head — except, instead of holding beer, the hat holds the blood-milked hearts of other writers, writers who have fallen to self-doubt’s enervating wails, writers who fell torpid, sung to sleep by sickening lullabies.

Suddenly Old Mister Doubt is jabbering in your ear.

You’re not good enough.

You’ll never make it, you know.

Everyone’s disappointed in you.

Where are your pants? Normal people wear pants.

You really thought you could do it, didn’t you? Silly, silly penmonkey.

And you crumple like an empty Chinese food container beneath a crushing tank tread.

Self-doubt is the enemy of the writer. It is one of many: laziness, fear, ego, porn, Doritos. But it is most certainly one of the worst, if not the worst, in the writer’s rogue gallery of nemeses.

You let self-doubt get a hold of you, it’ll kill your work dead. You’ll stop in the middle of a project, then print the manuscript out for the sole purpose of urinating on its pages before glumly eating them.

You mustn’t be seduced by the callous whispers of the doubting monster at your back. To survive as a writer you must wheel on the beast, your sharpened pen at hand. Then you must spear him to the earth.

Here, then, are some revelations that will help the everyday inkslinger slay the dread creature.

We’re All Part Of The Self-Hatred Quilt

Everybody suffers under the yoke of self-doubt. Everybody. Creatives especially. You really think that Neil Gaiman doesn’t find the gnomes of doubt nattering at his back? Or Stephen King? Or Steven Spielberg? Or Snooki? Self-doubt has the singular power to make you feel very alone indeed, as if you’re the only sad motherfucker in the universe feeling like he’s not worth a damn. It’s bullshit. A ruse.

Admiral Ackbar knows what it is: that shit’s a trap.

You’re not alone. We all get it. The difference is that some writers pull their boots out of the hungry mire and others sink deeper and deeper until they’re caught in an inescapable nest of old Druid bones.

You Get Multiple Go-Rounds On This Carousel

Writers are afforded a gift few others have: the wondertastic, majestariffic, splendiferous do-over.

Self-doubt is handily eradicated when you give yourself permission to write badly. I mean, okay, this isn’t a permanent permission slip: it’s just a day-trip to the Shit Museum, a hall-pass to the Turd Closet, but you have to let yourself karate chop doubt in the neck and step over his twitching body as you step boldly into the breach to write some occasionally awful awfulness.

Because you are also afforded the chance to go back. And fix it. And rewrite it. And fix it some more.

It’s like the writer gets one giant infinite roll of duct tape.

Dude, Seriously, You’re Not Curing Cancer Over Here

Put differently, you’re not exactly saving lives. You’re not pulling children out of burning buildings or shooting Osama bin Laden or curing a global pandemic. You’re a writer. Self-doubt for those other guys is life-threatening. They fuck up, people die. You fuck up, the the ink on your manuscript bleeds from your blubbering tears and you put on a couple pounds from wolfing down three boxes of strawberry Pop-Tarts. (*chew chew chew* ARE YOU THERE GOD ITS ME DIABETES)

Doubt evaporates when you realize that what you’re doing isn’t some epic quest. I’m not saying storytelling isn’t important. It is. Real important. But lives don’t hang in the balance.

Calm down. Take the pressure off.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Put down the Pop-Tarts.

Failure Is The Snake That Bites His Own Tail (And His Tail Tastes Like Shit)

There’s that whole Yoda saying: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and hate leads to George Lucas endlessly tinkering with Star Wars where he makes Luke step in a squishy pile of Wampa waste, inserts a series of Darth Vader dance scenes, and ensures that the Tauntaun shoots first.”

I have my own version of that, which says:

“Self-doubt leads to failure, and failure in turns leads to self-doubt, and the two tango together, punching you in the butthole again and again until you can no longer defecate productively.”

That’s the horrible thing about self-doubt: it convinces us that our own failure is inevitable, an unavoidable recourse based on our own screaming lack of talent. But failure isn’t inevitable, and in fact failure is created by a fear of failure and by our certain uncertainty we possess about our own ability to succeed. Writers engineer their own failure with such grace and elegance it’s almost impressive.

Remember: failure is not a foregone conclusion.

Piss in the face of that sentiment.

Time And Practice Are Two Of Doubt’s Mightiest Foes

Sometimes self-doubt comes from a real place, a revelation that you’re just not ready. The problem isn’t this revelation but rather how writers react to it. The reaction is: OMG NOT GOOD ENOUGH MUST EJECT OR DIE. What a terribly unproductive reaction. Or, more accurately, over-reaction.

Can you imagine if that was our response to all the things in life? “I tried to bake my first cake and it turned out gluey and unpleasant, so I set fire to my kitchen and walked away as it exploded behind me.”

You can’t do that. That’s insane. You’re not going to be perfect right out of the gate. Time and practice will improve your mojo, and an improved sense of one’s mojo will go a long way toward mitigating doubt.

I mean, this doesn’t happen overnight. “I practiced for a week. WHERE IS MY CONFIDENCE COOKIE?” is not a useful question to ask. We’re talking years upon years of this: but the good news is, it’s not like a switch gets flipped. This is gradual: over time, the light of your increased abilities beats back the shadows of your own doubt. Time and practice are the medicine that heal the anal fistula of your raging insecurity.

I went too far with “anal fistula,” didn’t I?

Clear Your Head Of All Those Boggy Tampons

Sometimes you just need a short term solution. Take a walk. Have some tea. Read a book. Talk to a friend. Go jerk off. Eat a cookie. Run on the elliptical. Pet a dog. Go to the park. Give a sandwich to a homeless guy.

Get perspective. Sometimes doubt is just a tangle of vines and cobwebs and you need to chop through them and go to clear your head. Easy Peasy, George and Weezy.

Turn That Frown Upside Down Until It’s A Curved Blade With Which To Cut Doubt’s Throat, Then Watch That Doubting Asshole Bleed Out On Your Carpets

Turn self-doubt against itself. Don’t let it be a weapon against you: let it be a weapon against itself. Self-doubt can occasionally be clarifying: it might be a red flag that says, “Okay, you know what? Something just ain’t right. Is this the best character arc? Do I need to rejigger these scenes? Am I sure that a rock opera about Anton van Leeuwnhoek, the Father of Microbiology, is really the best move here?”

The key is to let doubt be clarifying rather than muddying. It’s important to know that the doubt isn’t yours to carry. It’s not about you. You needn’t doubt your own abilities but rather some aspect of your current work that feels like it’s not coming together. Here your self-doubt serves as the standard-bearer for those instincts rising up from your gutty-works. Follow your heart.

Thus, self-doubt helps you improve, which in turn helps you defeat self-doubt.

That’s some ninja shit. That’s like, reversing the energy of the attack. You are a goddamn self-doubt killing machine. You take self-doubt and evaginate that sumbitch.

And yes, “evaginate” means to “turn something inside out.” To turn it tubular.

In other words, to turn it into a vagina.

Be honest: it’s shit like this that keeps you coming back to terribleminds.

Validation Comes From Within

In the end, here may be the most important factor: don’t go looking for validation elsewhere. Don’t look for it from friends, loved ones, publishers, editors, agents, mailmen, or cats.

External validation isn’t a bad thing. It just isn’t what you need. Because it matters little that they believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself. Confidence must blossom from within, a corpse-flower redolent with your delightful stink, a stink you find captivating, enlightening, empowering. The confidence you find elsewhere is hollow, a ladder made of brittle twigs. At the end of the day you’ll never be sure if those around you are just wrong — or maybe they’re lying! — or maybe they’re suffering under the depredations of some wretched brain parasite that tricks them into liking mediocre things! — and that just means you’re opening yourself to other forms of doubt.

And doubt needs to go suck a pipe. Doubt needs to take a dirt-nap.

And the way you do that is by finding your own way. By fostering your own confidence.

Because just as doubt is one of the writer’s greatest enemies…

…confidence is one of the writer’s most powerful friends.

Your turn, word-nerds.

How do you defeat the doubt within?

* * *

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80 responses to “Writers Must Kill Self-Doubt Before Self-Doubt Kills Them”

  1. I just read a post on another blog this morning recommending writers continue to run the literary agent-publisher gauntlet in the almost mystical hope that they will find some level of validation for their work within the inevitable reams of rejections before they take the step to self publish. My mind simply locked up trying to find a polite way of saying, “that’s the most asinine and counterproductively destructive thing I’ve ever heard.”

    You totally summed up my thoughts with your last point about not seeking external validation because it’s ultimately hollow. Bravo! Seeking validation for my work from agents/publishers, who clearly have their own agendas that emphasises saleability above quality, lies somewhere between having explosive diarrhea and losing a testacle in a car accident on the list of things I want to experience in my life. If you can’t find value in yourself, nobody’s going to find it for you, especially a group of people who, in their very nature, want to use you to further their own ends.

  2. Anne Lamott reminds us in her book Bird by Bird that it’s OK and even necessary to have shitty first drafts. Just pray you don’t die before you can edit.

    So I remove some of the self doubt by telling myself that first draft is supposed to be rough and crappy.

  3. Thank you for linking this post to your 25 things writers should stop doing post.

    Outside validation issue truly resonates with me. I love to write, need to write. The story bubbles out of me even when I try not to think, write or talk about it. It has me in its death grip. But when I sit down to write it the other voice comes in. “your wasting your time.” “your wasting your kids time.” “You are a bad mother spending all this time writing…you should be baking cookies and listening to your sons talk on and on about the aliens they killed while playing halo.” “your a bad wife you should be helping your husband work on his classic car”. Basically any time I spend on someting that is not my husband or children or work…i feel guilty about. There is always something to cook, clean, mend or help with.

    They support my writing but I feel guilty…always worried my son will be the one on the top of the tower with the rifle and scope because I didnt pay enough attention.

    Since reading your post I have started imagining that voice = that self doubt as a 20 something skinny blond bimbo with her roots showing, wearing to big sunglasses, driving her light blue beemer with a license plate that says “Daddy’s Princess” on it, talking on a bejeweld cell phone….and then I imagine a monkey stabing this blonde B!tch with a pen….a bit graphic but hey…

  4. My buddy Matt Forbeck said recently that this is exactly the reason for an outline. Take some time to plan, and each new bit needn’t be another opportunity to ask, “Do I really know what I’m doing?” Fact is, you got a map.

  5. Glorious addition to the TM site. We all need an extra tip of advice in our notebook (fuel in our tank) or a few extra shells of Doubt-Killer every now and again. We all run low on ammo. Thanks for the post and the down and the down-and-dirties. This is one I’m re-tweeting Chuck…and passing along to my writers group. It’s a beauty.

  6. Having just found terribleminds and being pleasantly disturbed by it’s raunchy glorious truths…I wanted to acknowledge how many crazy, beautiful artists are supporting each other here. For years I felt on my own like most creatives do at times, but seeing that so many souls have similar battles makes me glad I landed here. I think their should be an official chuck wendig t-shirt that says something like “when in doubt Chuck it! ” or “Chuck it before it Chucks you”..The 25 list is damn fine wisdom. I think that a healthy dose would keep many a self-doubting soul from literally burning down the kitchen. I’m glad I got lucky and found your site. Thanks for helping me gain some good tools for fighting off the doubt demons. They are still telling me my work is shit but now I think of that as good fertilizer.

  7. I book marked this page. If I need a pick me up or to piss off my neighbors with my loud, obnoxious laughter I will know exactly what to do. Thanks for that. I know you don’t need the external validation, but it certainly doesn’t hurt the Pen monkey. Excellent stuff.

  8. Man, I needed a bitch-slap wake-up call like this! I just realized I`ve been begging the world for something I should be giving to myself. This makes all the difference! Now, if I could only put it into practise.

    Oh, and this is priceless!:”Self-doubt is the enemy of the writer. It is one of many: laziness, fear, ego, porn, Doritos.”

    Guilty on all counts. Even porn disguised as literary genious.
    And of course, Doritos.

  9. Drool. You had me at “Where are your pants?” Love you. Love your style. Needed this kick in the ass after a 43-year old temper tantrum in my bedroom last night (yes, pantless) while trying to write.

    First time here. Will be back as I go through this journey.

  10. Ahh what sage and timeless advice. There are no tricks out of this one. I am so well prepared on my current project I have no room to breath. My doubt can not be out manoeuvred, I have to confront or slip away into an infinite dark sea of wank. My plan is to have doubt over for dinner, really get to know it, ask a lot of questions and if it turns out to be a speculative, vapid turd then I’ll know not to listen. But if there’s some genuine concerns then I’ll make it my dark little pet ready to peck the eyes out of a bad idea. Thanks TM.

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