Dan Holloway on self-doubt
It’s the middle of a heatwave in the UK as I write this. Everywhere is dazzled by sunlight and it’s making me feel like Al Pacino in the film Insomnia. What better time to reflect on the perpetual writer’s curse of self-doubt.
Self-doubt is something that comes in waves, breaking over you whilst you lash yourself to any fixed point you can find, hold your breath, and hope for it to pass. Which much of the time it will. Only to return at a time of its own capricious choosing. The past few months have been a time of particularly intense self-doubt for me. One of the main exacerbating factors has been the constant focus of many of my self-publishing colleagues on “the market”, on creating a paradigm of some perfectly edited, metadata-perfect, market-friendly-covered exemplar by which all self-published writing will be measured.
I hit rock-bottom when a hugely respected self-publisher, writing advice for others, started referring to books throughout the piece as "produced content”. This is a paradigm and a way of thinking I can never measure up to, and because the mind is insidious like that, the doubt thereby spawned wormed its way inside and started eating away at all the reasons I write that are different from this paradigm, and my meagre attempts at realising them.
So what better time than to reclaim self-doubt, which is not so much a sadly ever-present unwelcome guest in our lives as the angel on our shoulder whispering things in our ear that really, really need to be heard.
Let me begin with the reassurance of the Dunning Kruger effect. Uncovered by research at
but actually saying what most
of us had suspected all along and really hoped was true, this refers to the
fact that those lacking in skill at a particular task will often over-estimate
their abilities. It doesn’t actually say, as many of us jokingly assert, that
if you think you’re rubbish you must be a genius. But it’s a pretty good
take-down for the legion of the smug and the certain who litter our timelines
and twitter feeds on a daily basis fanning the flames of our doubt. And it is
some consolation at least for those of us who spend our days with our heads in
our hands scouring for a scrap of worth in our work. Cornell University
And now to my main point about self-doubt.
Several years ago I made a comment on a writing forum that every author at some point, if not all the time, believes, deep down, their work is worthless. I was told by a writer I still respect a huge amount not to be so ridiculous. No real writers thought like that. This post is about why he’s both utterly wrong, yet somehow right. It’s about the dark places. It’s about Self-doubt with a capital “S”, the kind of doubt that penetrates us in the night, latches itself to every part of our soul we ever valued, and sucks the colour and the worth from us until all that’s left is the dank, grey nothing of shame – shame that we could ever have considered ourselves anything but worthless; shame that we could have imagined someone would have wanted to read our work; shame that we stuck our head so stupidly above the parapet; shame, and embarrassment, and fear at what the world will say when the darkness recedes and dawn brings into sight the chorus of laughing, mocking faces that surround our bed.
Being bipolar, I am aware I have a strange relationship with doubt. Some of the time, in my hypomanic highs, I am convinced within a week I will be feted the world over. Some of the time, in the black dog lows, I know the whole world sees my worthlessness.
It’s that second feeling that stays with me in the “well” phases, when the rest of my life is balanced. Like many in the arts, I am great at hiding it, even from myself. I guess I could teach others to do the same, call it NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and charge a fortune for the privilege.
But I don’t want to. When I’m blogging, and when I’m mingling, or networking or whatever you want to call it, that kind of learned self-deception is actually rather useful. But when I’m writing – even when I’m speaking, or reading, things I genuinely love doing, it’s not. Winterson made a wonderful point, about the way art doesn’t come from the surface. It wells up out of our wounds (her phrase), it’s a pressure that bursts through our fragile surface like magma (mine).
And that’s the point with writing. It has to come from the dark places of doubt. It has to come from hurt and pain and unconfidence. Because writing for readers is like being with a wild animal – if you act it, they’ll sniff you out and kill you.
A brief aside - why am I equating pain, hurt, and self-doubt? Because, at a fundamental level, they are the same. Existential pain is the consequence of recognising that one is not self-sufficient. It's about coming face to face with your brokenness - and that means acknowledging how far short of perfection we fall. And how can we meet that recognition with anything but the most crippling self-doubt?
So, all real writers experience self-doubt in a base, tautological sense (because if they don’t their writing is of little value). I tend to think they also feel it, much of the time. And it is, like I said, crippling. Literally.
The key moment comes when we realise that our imperfection is the result of nothing other than being human. It is our common bond with every other person. And what’s more, it is our acknowledgement of that imperfection – it is the fact of self-doubt – that means we, more than the 90% of “I’m all right Jack”s out there, have the possibility, however remote, of creating something of value.
It is the self-doubt we experience as crippling us with shame and fear that actually, when we acknowledge it, is the impetus that drives forward our creativity. And if we can bring ourselves to make that result public, then we may, just, create art.
So my good friend the well-respected writer was, in a way, correct. Real writers don’t – at a level deeper than the existential have doubt. But only because real writers know that it is only their doubt that gives their writing value.
Rita Hayworth famously said that she always failed at relationships because they went to bed with Gilda, and woke up with Rita Hayworth. What she failed to realise, of course, was that it was only Rita Hayworth who made Gilda Gilda. And failing to realise it destroyed her.
And that’s the trouble with being an artist or a writer or a musician, or anyone in the arts. The very thing that has the potential to set your work above the mass is something that could, literally, kill you. It did for Rita Hayworth; it did for Kurt Cobain; it has the potential to do for any of us who take that step and admit we want to be more than average. Because the one thing that keeps 90% of people safe is that practised self-deception. And when you’re an artist, you make a pact to practise that as little as possible. It’s why many creative people with mental health problems refuse to take medication to take the edge off their lows. It’s a pact with the devil.
But the devil has the best tunes. And the best books. That’s why.