Writing Advice: How to Fight Through Self Doubt

As writers we are extremely tough on ourselves—whether it's our first book or 15th book. Here's how to deal with the constant layers of self-doubt and reassure yourself that you'll be OK.
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I used to think that once I got an agent, my writing career would be golden. Then my first book never sold. Then I thought that once I got published, everything would be smooth forever. That thought lasted about three weeks.

Then I started meeting other authors, some of whom are best-selling and multiply published. Surely once you hit the big time, there are no more worries, right? As I got to know them I realized something. That crippling self-doubt and rejection will most likely never go away no matter how much your career takes off. (I know, right? Yay.)

This guest post is by Margaret Dilloway. Dilloway is the author of the middle-grade fantasy series Momotoro and the novels How to Be an American Housewife, Sisters of Heart and Snow, and The Care and Handling of Roses and Thorns, which won the 2013 American Library Association’s Literary Tastes award for Best Women’s Fiction. She lives in San Diego with her family, where she also teaches creative writing at a charter middle school and conducts workshops for adults. he’s also a contributor to the excellent guidebook for writers, Author in Progress. Learn more at margaretdilloway.com.

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The question is not, then, how to never have more down spots, but how to deal with them when they invariably arise.

Last month was a bad writing month for me. Several projects I’d been working on for well over a year were rejected. Not forever, but in terms of, “This is not the worst thing ever but not the best, so go work on it again.” I also got some “wait and see” answers to pressing (to me) questions.

Though on an intellectual level I realized all these things were for the best in the long-term, I still took a ride on the good ol’ self-castigating roller coaster.

Time to quit writing forever and be a fry cook.

I am a complete fraud.

I never know what the heck I’m doing.

You get the idea. I said things to myself I would never say to a friend, because somehow we’re all unkindest to ourselves. Finally, after a couple of weeks, I managed to pull myself out of my funk. This is how I did it.

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Be Kind to Yourself

  • Take into consideration your whole self, not just your writing self. How strong are you physically and emotionally right now? How can you make those aspects of yourself better?
  • Get enough sleep and proper nutrition. Though eating chocolate and staying up all night watching sad movies may seem like a fun idea, it’s probably not the ideal way to self-care.
  • Remember when things were worse. Last year at about this time, I was recovering from four surgeries. I’d rather deal with some writing downs than that. Perspective is important.

Use your Lifelines

You know how that show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, has three lifelines the contestants may use in their answering? You have lifelines, too, if you think about it. When I’m feeling very end-of-the-world, I choose one or all of these lifelines for support:

  • Phone a writing friend. Call up your writing buddies and make a date for lunch or coffee or a walk. If you can’t go in person, reach out via email or social media (aren’t we all in secret writing groups?). When I admitted to my problems, several people reached out to me to tell me they’d experienced EXACTLY THE SAME THING, and I instantly felt better.
  • Phone a non-writing friend and talk about anything unrelated to writing.
  • Do something for someone else. Volunteering with a group or doing something nice for a friend is a swift visceral reminder that there’s more to life than your writing career.
  • Make other art. It doesn’t matter what it is. Learn how to fold a napkin into a turkey, or string paperclips together. Anything. Your writing muscles need a rest to regenerate into something stronger; give them a break by working out a different creative group. I actually completed a Christmas dollhouse that I’d collected the materials for, but never put together.
  • Do something physical. Endorphins, sunshine, fresh air. You know the drill.

Get Back to Writing

  • Make a plan. Maybe you’ll write something new. Maybe you’ll query another agent. Maybe you’ll incorporate your critiques. The important thing is to know what you want and proceed in that direction.
  • Visualize your completed project. I was at the local Japanese dollar store and saw daruma dolls. The eyes are blank, and you make a wish and fill in one eye. When your wish is fulfilled, you draw in the other eye. My writer friend Jamie Ford gets a new daruma and draws an eye every time he starts a new project, and fills in the other when he’s done. I don’t think he’ll mind me copying this idea, so I got a daruma and drew in an eye.
  • Or, go the other way, and try to quit. Wait, you say, that can’t be right! But it can be. When I told my husband I was quitting writing forever, he said okay. I was highly insulted. I’d thought he’d grasp me to his chest and declare, “No, no, no, my darling! The world needs your talent! You must KEEP WRITING!” Or at least, “You know, you don’t really have any other skills, so you should probably give it another go.” But okay? I said, “You’re just going to let me quit? Just like that?” I knew then I wouldn’t, and I was ready to delve back into the process.

Have you experienced a writing low point? What’s worked for you? Leave a note in the comments section.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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