BY ELLEN MEISTER
When my adult writing students confess their struggles with self-doubt, they usually look panicked. I can’t possibly be a real writer, their eyes seem to say. I’m just never sure what I’m doing is right.
That’s when I explain that self-doubt is the fuel that drives us forward. Show me a writer with unshakable confidence, I tell them, and I’ll show you a lousy writer.
No one proves this more than Dorothy Parker. Though arguably the greatest literary wit of the twentieth century, she battled those demons of doubt every day.
In 1956, when interviewed by Paris Review and asked about the period in which she wrote poems, Parker replied, “My verses. I cannot say poems. Like everybody was then, I was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers. My verses are no damn good. Let’s face it, honey, my verse is terribly dated—as anything once fashionable is dreadful now. I gave it up, knowing it wasn’t getting any better, but nobody seemed to notice my magnificent gesture.”
No damn good? I beg to differ. Dorothy Parker’s poetry still resonates with freshness and wit. Even her darkest verses, such as Resumé, have legions of modern fans.
But her self-deprecation didn’t stop there. In a 1945 telegram to her publisher at Viking she wrote: ALL I HAVE IS A PILE OF PAPER COVERED WITH WRONG WORDS. CAN ONLY KEEP AT IT AND HOPE TO HEAVEN TO GET IT DONE. DONT KNOW WHY IT IS SO TERRIBLY DIFFICULT OR I SO TERRIBLY INCOMPETENT.
The telegram referred to an introduction she had agreed to write for a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work. And it followed on the heels of an even more painful period of inertia, as she had been unable to fulfill her contract to write a novel. This was a lifelong thorn in her heart. Parker wanted desperately to write a novel, but couldn’t seem to get out of her own way. Her perfectionism may have been the culprit, as she was a relentless self-editor. In that same Paris Review interview she explained that it took her six months to write a short story, saying, “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”
Clearly, she found the process more filled with despair than joy. It’s no wonder then, that she offered up the following advice: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
If that gives you pause, consider an even more famous quote from Parker: “I hate writing, I love having written.” Even if your feelings aren’t quite that extreme, the message is clear—the doubt isn’t going anywhere, so you may as well put away the panic and get to work.
Ellen Meister is a novelist, essayist, public speaker and creative writing instructor at Hofstra University (Hempstead, NY). She runs a popular Dorothy Parker page on Facebook that has almost150,000 followers.