Skip to main content

Am I getting worse? Thoughts on self doubt

Image placeholder title

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?

InIf 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 mustunderstand 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

Going From Me to We: Collaborating on the Writing of a Novel

Going From Me to We: Collaborating on the Writing of a Novel

Past experiences taught bestselling author Alan Russell to tread lightly when it came to collaborating on projects. Here, he discusses how the right person and the right story helped him go from a “me” to a “we.”

From Script

Short Film Goals, Writing the Cinematic Experience on the Page and Sundance Film Festival 2022 (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, set your creative goals with a monthly guide to write and produce your short film, provided by Script contributor Rebecca Norris Resnick. Plus, an exclusive interview with Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Monahan, a Sundance Film Festival 2022 day one recap, and more!

Your Story Writing Prompts

94 Your Story Writing Prompts

Due to popular demand, we've assembled all the Your Story writing prompts on WritersDigest.com in one post. Click the link to find each prompt, the winners, and more.

How Inspiration and Research Shape a Novel

How Inspiration and Research Shape a Novel

Historical fiction relies on research to help a story’s authenticity—but it can also lead to developments in the story itself. Here, author Lora Davies discusses how inspiration and research helped shape her new novel, The Widow’s Last Secret.

Poetic Forms

Saraband: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the saraband, a septet (or seven-line) form based on a forbidden dance.

Karen Hamilton: On Cause and Effect

Karen Hamilton: On Cause and Effect

International bestselling author Karen Hamilton discusses the “then and now” format of her new domestic thriller, The Ex-Husband.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: The Ultimatum

Plot Twist Story Prompts: The Ultimatum

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character give or face an ultimatum.

6 Things Every Writer Should Know About Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company

6 Things Every Writer Should Know About Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company

Sylvia Beach was friend to many writers who wrote what we consider classics today. Here, author Kerri Maher shares six things everyone should know about her and Shakespeare and Company.

How Writers Can Apply Business Tools to Their Writing

How Writers Can Apply Business Tools to Their Writing

Author Katherine Quevedo takes an analytical look at the creative process in hopes to help other writers find writing success.