The Cyclical Nature of Self-Doubt…


I’ve always conceptualized all of the separate bits of my personalty that pertain directly to my writing as my ‘Writer’s Ego’. I picture it as sort of a fuzzy ball with eyes and feet, rather like Fizzgig from the Dark Crystal:

Fizzgig from the Dark Crystal aka a Writer's Ego

My Writer’s Ego (It’s so fluffy!)

So my Writer’s Ego is this little ball of fluff that needs a great deal of cuddles and brushing. If properly tended, it will bite anyone or anything that tries to stop me from writing, and will stubbornly cling to good writing ideas that I’m not quite yet sure how to write about. It’s this bulletproof, bulldog-perseverant mush of beliefs and desires that is the reason I want to write and keep writing.

It’s also this ball of hair, teeth, and ego that I blame for self-doubt.

There’s a lot of good advice out there about self-doubt from a bunch of awesome authors, and all of them sort of acknowledge how self-doubt is something most (if not all) writers suffer from and that it’ll attack no matter who you are or how good you are. It’s a thing that happens.

Of course, me being me, I hate it when things just happen. I need to know why.

To that end, I’ve found self-doubt to be almost entirely cyclical. It doesn’t just leap out from behind bushes and out of darkened hallways. It might pounce and dump its payload of ‘What the heck am I doing?! Who let me near the written word‘, but the resulting surprise (and despair) is more akin to falling out of your chair after you’ve been nodding off.  Depending on who you are, there are often warning signs and patterns and predictable triggers, and when you start to look at it from the oh-no-here-it-comes perspective, self-doubt becomes less an insurmountable barrier to writing and more one of those things you have to wait out, like an epic line at the DMV, the last few minutes of a particularly one-sided ball game, or one of those freak storms dropping golf-ball sized hail.

The actual why, though, depends on my Writer’s Ego, because the idiot ball of fluff is both arrogant and deeply, deeply insecure.

Writing is one of those subjective things, though ultimately the axis upon which it’s judged isn’t really good vs. bad, but successful vs. unsuccessful, and a particular piece of writing’s success is really only determined by the intended audience’s opinion/reception. A piece you thought was decent but not brilliant might strike a cultural nerve and become an instant bestseller and win ten million awards. One you think is stark glorious might sell five paperbacks and mosey into obscurity never to be heard of again. Like any art, the audience’s reaction is largely out of the writer’s control, able to be manipulated only a little by various tools in a writer’s toolbox. There’s really nowhere solid for a writer to stand, view their work, and definitively say: ‘my audience will love this.’ You can guess, but you don’t know.

Well, unless of course the writer is the intended audience, which is probably one of the best ways to combat your Writer’s Ego’s insecurity I’ve ever found. If you’re the one making the final decision on whether something is a successful piece of writing, then everyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter, does it?

Insecurity, however, is a fun thing, because it only really evolves out of relationships. You can have an insecure relationship with a person, certainly, but you can also have an insecure relationship with a job, or a home, or food. Insecurity is the state of not knowing if something will be or won’t be, this Schrodinger’s Cat quantum in-between state that seems to fry the decision-making process. It’s the ‘not knowing whether the action will produce the intended consequence’ that makes gamblers into addicts or mice into button-pushing maniacs. It makes you cling harder in the fear someone/something might leave you behind, it makes you deeply anxious that you haven’t done something that needed to be done and now it’s far too late,  and it makes you burn up and burn through whatever you’re insecure about because if you don’t now then it might not exist later. It’s both a fear of change and a fear that you’ll never know for sure.

Consider the moment of maximum tension in a horror movie right before the actor turns the doorknob and the music has become this violin tremolo to prepare you for a jump-scare. Is the closet empty? Is someone about to be eaten? Insecurity is that moment stretched out over time.

The fluffy little heart of my Writer’s Ego is formed of insecurity based on the relationship that I have with my audience. It’s why I was terrified of my critique group’s opinions in the beginning, because I didn’t know if they’d be kind or get awkward or my writing wouldn’t affect them like I wanted to. I didn’t know, and the ‘not knowing’ meant I didn’t share at all. That’s why the best advice against self-doubt and failure to launch is always some flavor of ‘control what you can control and let go of the rest‘, and that’s why the Serenity Prayer is part of twelve-step programs and printed on bookmarks and wall placards.

My Writer’s Ego can be shaken up by even the smallest change, too, and I absolutely admit that. As secure as I am in most aspects of my life, my Writer’s Ego hates that it can never predict how my audience responds. It’s anxious about me sharing with my critique group. It’s anxious about me putting my words in front of people I don’t know. It’s anxious about me exploring certain themes and using certain words and putting all my subconscious biases down in writing.

Heck, my Writer’s Ego is even anxious about me getting better at writing.

I have a concept of ‘leveling up’ that I use relatively often, and I’ll probably dedicate a whole post it it eventually, but it boils down to the idea that every once and a while you make a jump writing quality. You figure something out, epiphany-style, or you read just the right advice column at just the right time, or something else – and everything clicks into place. Then you go back and read your work from a month ago, or a year ago, or five years ago, and you go: ‘this was AWFUL’ and ‘I thought this was GOOD’. So you doubt yourself and your skills and pretty much the opinion of everyone who has ever complimented you since kindergarten.

My Writer’s Ego hates leveling up because its angry, toothy core of insecurity takes it as an excuse to call into question my self-perceptions and everything is a little wobbly for a while until I find my feet again. Except–the definition of leveling up is that I’ve gotten better. I’ve gained greater skill (or at least greater self-awareness), and it’s a natural byproduct of gaining experience as a writer. Since a writer never stops learning, that also means that this leveling up process is something that’s going to happen again and again over the course of my life. My Writer’s Ego also hates the prospect that the stuff I think is good now is certainly going to be less-good than the stuff I produce later…

But, honestly, that way lies madness, and since I’d much rather improve than remain stagnant forever, my Writer’s Ego doesn’t get an opinion on this topic.

Beyond petting and coddling my Writer’s Ego and foisting it on friends to deal with when I’m 1000% done with the obnoxious little thing–and beyond the solid advice from some of the linked anti-self-doubt blogposts that people have already written–I try and remember two things: my audience isn’t likely to lie to me and my audience isn’t a monolith.

The success of a novel or a short story or a poem or anything else can only be determined by this audience in aggregate,  and on the whole, an audience is going to respond as they’re inclined to respond. Just like the audience for live theater, or live comedy, there’s a vibe you get back from your audience as a full group that’s different in character than the feedback you get from an individual. It’s a sense of engagement, of energy, a thrum that makes a ‘good’ audience very different from a ‘dead’ audience.

The writer gets this too, though audience feedback starts to come in pings on a radar that encompasses many vectors. It’ll be a cheerful email to your inbox thanking you for a pleasant evening’s reading, or a post on a book club’s forum about how awful an author you are because they are now emotionally scarred, or it’ll be a nasty Amazon review,  or it will be the fact that you never hear anything from anyone. Most of it’s indirect, though, like taking a pulse rather than asking the patient how fast their heart is beating. Eventually, though, there’s a sense of how successful your writing was, and now you have that knowledge as ammunition for next time you ‘perform’.

Overall, there are very few situations where even a smallish audience can lie to your face, and I think there’s a certain amount of stability to be gain from trusting in that, even if you later decide that the feedback wasn’t particularly useful or the reader(s) giving the feedback missed the point entirely.

Additionally, even when looking at your audience of readers as a group, there’s also something to be said for remembering that ‘readers as a group’ is going to encompass a lot of subgroups. One of those subgroups is going to be the five or six of your ‘1000 true fans‘ (you’ll note, they probably don’t actually number in the thousands). Another is going to be ‘people who review books while hating the genre and who have no concept of the conventions’. Another group is ‘people vaguely offended by your content’. Another is ‘people who will read any and everything in your genre regardless if it’s good and probably don’t remember you name or your book’s title.’ One friend even sent me a review by a person who didn’t understand protagonist’s main motivations and so panned the book because she thought it was ‘unrealistic’.

It’s understanding that not all subgroups within an audience are going to respond the same, but that they are going to respond in a way that’s authentic to them, takes away a lot of the insecurity surrounding the writer-audience relationship.

My Writer’s Ego is more enthusiastic about putting things out there now that it’s ever been, because I’ve done a lot of work to convince it that the core of its relationship with my audience is less about validation and more about ‘reading’ the audience right back. When I’m focused on determining how effective I’ve been at achieving my goal, it’s like being any artist standing in front of a group and practicing my showmanship. There’s not a lot of room for my Writer’s Ego to start wailing if my audience, my readers, are giving me what I need to improve. Even silence on my readers’ behalf is a sign that I need to change something if I want a response, even if that ‘change’ is the decision to stop chasing after someone who only responds with silence.

That dealing with self-doubt is sometimes just a matter of hugs and a kind word, of repeated reassurance, certainly, but attacking the heart of the problem is always my preferred method. Anything I can do to remove the inherent insecurity of the writer-audience relationship, and re-frame it to give me a little bit more control over what I get out of it, I will. I can’t get rid of the in-between waiting awfulness, but I can trust that if and when my reader (whether publisher, not-quite-Mother-in-Law, writer’s group, or unknown audience) finally reads my book, that whatever feedback (or lack thereof) I get is going to give me more information than I had before.

If there’s one thing my Writer’s Ego does like, it’s more information. Knowing whether that horror-movie closet is empty or not gets that decision-making processes started up again, and there’s nothing my Writer’s Ego likes more than ordering me around.

I mentioned above, a couple of times, that I will sometimes pass my Writer’s Ego off to someone else when I’m frustrated with it, but it’s a bit more complicated than simply pestering a friend for reassurance. However, that is a topic all it’s own, and I plan to explore it in my next post.


** This is one of the first topics I decided I wanted to write about when I started this blog and, just my luck, once I actually sat down and began it ended up being a two-parter.

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