Whenever I’m getting close to finishing a big writing project, I am always, without fail, hit directly in the face with a burst of intense and overwhelming doubt.
“Who do you think you are?” it whispers as I remove my hands slowly from my keyboard. “Do you really think anyone is ever going to want to read this? You’re about to have wasted three months of your life working on something no one else will ever see.”
I roll my chair away from my desk.
“Your ideas are good, but they’re never going to be good enough. No one is going to want to publish this. You should just stop writing. Forget about it. Move on.”
I reluctantly leave the room, shoulders slumped, heart aching. I really like this book. I really want to finish it. I want other people to read it and feel what I’ve felt and I want it to matter.
It’s so hard not to listen to the things doubt tells you about you and your work. Maybe it’s hard because not letting doubt speak its mind is actually impossible.
Whenever you start to think that you’re never going to finish something or accomplish something or hit a milestone, your first instinct is probably to hang your head and mutter, “Yeah, I don’t know why I thought I could do this. I should just quit.”
Some people actually do quit because they’re convinced they really can’t. Some quit temporarily and come back fired up and ready to conquer. Others never find their way back, so misled by their fears and insecurities that they sincerely believe writing is no longer a dream worth chasing.
One thing I have discovered in my 12+ years of active storytelling is that there are some things that you, internally, simply cannot control. The same way you can’t control the weather, you can’t always control the mental and emotional storms that cloud your judgment and snuff out your motivation.
There are many reasons people bow down to doubt. But one major factor is that when there’s no one telling you otherwise, doubt’s claims seem pretty legit. Even when they aren’t. And they aren’t. Ever. Trust me.
Doubt will tell you that you can’t. That you shouldn’t. That you will, but it won’t turn out like what you hope it will. Doubt will present you with every lie you’re prone to believe and a dozen more that will take some convincing before they sink in. It will magnify your fears, intensify your anxieties, and turn every positive thought you have ever thought about yourself and/or your work into something much darker.
While it would be so easy to just say “stop letting it get to you” and end the post here, I can’t, and won’t, do that. Because the truth is that you can tell someone a hundred times not to let something bother them — that doesn’t mean it won’t continue to bother them. In fact, it will continue to bother them, but now there’s external guilt in the mix, and that makes things worse, not better.
So what’s my solution to overcoming doubt and doing All The Writing Things anyway? It’s this: Doing The Writing Things Anyway.
You don’t have to be doubt-free to write a bestselling novel, start an award-worthy blog, self-publish a book of poems, take a writing class, or turn your work loose on the internet to see what comes of it. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee with almost absolute certainty that MANY successful writers who seem confident and shameless in their work and self-promotion struggle with just as much doubt as the rest of us do.
For me, writing or pitching or publishing when I’m the least confident in my ability to succeed is actually when doing so feels the most satisfying. It’s kind of like you’re staring doubt straight in the face and screaming, “YOU THINK YOU’RE ALL THAT, BUT YOU’RE NOT. BYYYEEEE.”
Think you can’t finish your book or your article or whatever it is you happen to be working on at the moment? Finish it anyway. Take it one word at a time. It doesn’t matter if it takes a decade. Just keep trying.
Yes, the doubt might always be there, right behind you, always whispering the lies it wants you to treat as truths. And yes, you might listen to it sometimes, or a lot of the time, and end up staring at your unfinished work in progress wondering if writing even one more word will even be worth the effort.
Even if you don’t believe it will be, you have to try to overcome this feeling. Not “overcome” in the “pound it with a hammer until it ceases to exist” sense, but in the sense that you can exist alongside it and hear its voice and know it’s there but you aren’t crippled by its presence.
I thrive with doubt every day. The louder it yells, the harder I work. I don’t want to be that person who never achieved her goals because an invisible voice in her head said she couldn’t. I’m not strong, I’m not immune to insecurity, I don’t really like myself all that much 70 percent of the time, but there are things in my life I want to accomplish and to me, doubt seems like a silly obstacle to be defeated by.
I don’t know what your reasons are for wanting to keep going, but I hope you cling to them whenever you face the false beliefs that you’re not worth the effort and you shouldn’t try harder (or at all). Writing is hard. It’s so much harder than non-writers realize. Trying to exist in a world that favors structure and predictability — and so many other things creativity often isn’t — is one of the most challenging parts about being a writer.
But just because it’s challenging doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Doubt is loud and it wants to control you. Drown it out with words of your own. And don’t give doubt any of the credit when you succeed, either. It doesn’t deserve it.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.