Am I getting worse? Thoughts on self doubt

This is what I’ve been thinking lately: I’m getting worse. My writing just isn’t as good as it used to be. With every new story I write I believe I’ve lost something—the spark, the raw energy, the ability to see the scene, to tell the truth, to imagine. I look at my stories and feel like they could be so much better.

Flash back years ago when I wrote a story for a continuing ed. fiction class. I wrote this particular story in one night, working feverishly for six hours.  I had the ending in my mind and I was racing towards it. The story was a blast to write. It came easily, fluidly, and I was cracking myself up, too, calling out to my husband in the other room, “Honey, listen to this killer line I just wrote.” Not good. Not good when you call to your husband in the other room to tell him how talented and funny of a writer you are. But I was proud. I was writing the story The New Yorker would scoop right up. What was overtaking me? Cockiness? The attitude of an amateur?

In If You Want To Write Brenda Ueland wrote, “If you are never satisfied with what you write, that is a good sign. It means your vision can see so far that it is hard to come up to it. Again, I say, the only unfortunate people are the glib ones, immediately satisfied with their world. To them the ocean is only knee deep.”

I was an unfortunate one, a glib one. I thought this story was something pretty special. I wrote it in one great flash and then sent it out to literary journals. I remember getting responses like: Well, this story was interesting. Interesting. Not the word you want to necessarily hear, as often it’s the word people use when they don’t want to say terrible. 

Even though my professor loved the story, I’m also pretty sure he generously left out the feedback and criticism the story needed. But I was green, he knew that, and he was caring enough to give me encouragement. We need that in the beginning, I believe— the permission to keep going. And so I kept writing and kept believing in myself.

Now. Here I am. And everything I write just stinks. It has for a while. At dinner the other night I told my husband that I was scared. I was scared because I’ve never questioned my artistic faith as much as I have lately.  Before, I had the “it will happen” mentality. It took time and I knew that. I never feared the long road. But now I feared something worse: maybe I just wasn’t good enough.

My husband, who was seeing and thinking clearly, had a suggestion: Maybe the more you write, he said, and the more you learn, the more critical you are. A tiny light flicked on in my mind. Maybe I didn’t suck! Maybe I was just being hyper critical, being too hard on myself and my work. A mentor once said to me: Your work isn’t yours to judge. It’s true, judging is a whole other ball of wax, it’s different than being constructively critical. Judging seems too wrapped up in a mood, a sensibility.  Well, I could allow this idea to grow inside of me. This idea that my new critical eye was feeding my self doubt.

Thankfully, I stumbled upon a blog post by seasoned writer Dani Shapiro when I needed it most. In an excerpt titled On Self Doubt, Shapiro writes:

“With each of my successive books, I have loved my work a bit less. And, interestingly enough, the work has grown better. It seems that loving my work wasn’t doing me any good at all. Grace Paley used to say that if she loved a sentence enough that she wanted to get up from her desk and walk into the other room to read it to her husband, she knew she had to cut it. At the time, as a graduate student, I wasn’t sure what she meant. Wasn’t it a good thing, to love one’s own sentences? But as with many of the remarkable bits of wisdom Grace shared, this has bloomed in my mind, over time.”

By loving our work, we can do ourselves a disservice. My eagerness to share sentences with my husband was common, but a sign of my lack of experience, my glibness. But (!) we must also remember not be so judgmental of our work that we become overwhelmed, paralyzed. When the voices start…Who are you to believe you have the talent? There are so many better, more talented writers out there. Just give up… we must understand the inner dialogue is part of the ebb and flow. As writers our artistic faith will falter. Every time I raise my own bar, I suffer from a new bout of uncertainty. It’s inevitable. But no matter what, I do know this: I refuse to settle for knocking my own socks of with a pat story. No, I’d rather strive for something more ambitious, even though it’s more challenging and I’m ultimately more critical of it.  When it’s done, I’ll send it off to someone else, let them judge it. And in the meantime, I’ll do the only thing I can do: I’ll keep working.


And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.  The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

  ~Sylvia Plath

 photo credit: artfulwriter

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0 thoughts on “Am I getting worse? Thoughts on self doubt

  1. Kate

    Steve– Yes, that’s pretty much what I meant. I am guilty of the style over story bit quite often. I’ve been trying to focus more on story and character development. Dani Shapiro also wrote another great line in her blog: that as she grows as a writer she’d rather write something true than something beautiful. I guess that’s what I am striving towards… Thanks for your comments! 🙂

  2. Steve

    Hi Kate,

    Thanks for the response. I turned this over in my head a bit after I posted, and I think perhaps what you’re talking about is when a writer elevates style over story. A sentence may be admirably crafted but not really belong in the particular work. But one understandably wishes to show off the craftsmanship.

    In my passage, I like it because, quite compactly, it suggests several important things about the characters and their setting, is just a tad humorous, and permits a little covert shoutout to Italy’s current Finance Minister, who has nothing to do with the story but is just a good guy.


    P.S. as you will notice above, I’ve decided to ignore 12 years of English class and declare that, at least for me, a dependent clause beginning with "when" can be a legitimate noun clause. 🙂

  3. Kate

    Melissa- Well said. I agree that writing should be fun. We must remember that… You’ve actually inspired a post about the marriage between work and play when it comes to writing. So, thank you for enhancing the discussion! I’ll post it next week.

    Steve- I understand where you are coming from. I wasn’t trying to imply that people should cut their best work (and I don’t think Dani Shapiro or Grace Paley meant that either). Rather, I think it’s more about considering our motives when we write that "great" line that we want to share with everyone. Sometimes those lines serve ourselves more than they serve the work. The old "kill our darlings" bit… Good luck with your novel!

  4. Steve

    You quote Dara Shapiro quoting Grace Paley as follows:

    "Grace Paley used to say that if she loved a sentence enough that she wanted to get up from her desk and walk into the other room to read it to her husband, she knew she had to cut it."

    As it happens, this is the second time within the past hour that I’ve encountered this piece of apparently wrongheaded advice. Why in heaven’s name cut out your finest work?

    I’ll give you an example from my work in progress (I’m a newly aspiring novelist). My main character has just been told by her dad that she’s getting a Fender P-bass (Fender Precision bass guitar) for middle school graduation. Puzzled, because her dad in not a musician and "wouldn’t know a fender P from a car fender" she asks how he knew what kind to get. He says:

    "Well, I asked Joey Tremonti down at the mill. Joey used to play bass with the Italian Stallions. He told me what to get."

    This is my favorite passage in the prologue and 3 chapters written so far. It comes out of the work when you pry it from my cold dead fingers. So what’s so bad or inappropriate about it?


  5. Melissa Lytton

    I agree – to a point. Let me explain.

    I took my first graduate level class this semester; we’re required to take one before we are graduated from the undergrad program. After my first story was critiqued, I definitely had my own raging episode of self-doubt. I got plenty of positive feedback, but my glaring weakness was out in the open: plot. I acknowledged that I’d been avoiding it, and I hunkered down to fix it. I had a similar experience with my first college workshop, except what I needed to fix there was clarity. Prior to that, I’d been so farther along than my peers that all I’d received was praise. I imagine it being similar to the high school math whiz suddenly feeling very average in an advanced engineering program.

    I believe these ups and downs are healthy. I think we need to have parties for ourselves to keep us going. If writing ever stops being fun, stops being something that we love, then we lose. The low points are important to show us that it’s time to move on to the next step, that maybe we’ve learned all we can at our current operating level, but I don’t think that mindset needs to be ever-present.

    I think it’s entirely possible for us to absolutely love our work and still recognize that we need to improve it. The number of famous alcoholic authors is staggering. Part of that must’ve stemmed from never deriving satisfaction from one’s work. That’d drive a person to addiction in any profession. So while you should definitely remember to revise, revise, revise, I encourage you to also take an honest look at everything you’ve accomplished and give yourself a much deserved pat on the back. You may not be Hemingway, but you are still an amazing, beautiful human being and you are pursuing a lovely thing – a life dream. So few people can say that. So go out and revel in it.

    Good luck,

  6. Jonathan

    Thanks for the post, it was a great shot in the arm. I like the idea that the more you know, the more critical you are and the less you love what you write because you think it could be better. If You Want to Write is such a great book. Writers should keep it handy at all times for a little boost when things aren’t going so well.


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