My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Mailbox: Self Doubt

What should I do about self-doubt?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Please wait a couple of weeks before you ask me to take on another academic though.] 

Today's mailbox is a bit different than the usual format because I actually have one answer for a few different questions. Because a little three on one is totally awesome....if you know what I mean.  (I got a birthday coming up, you know....) Sometimes it's not enough to just know that self doubt needs to be lured into a back ally with the promise of five dollars worth of oral ecstasy and then beaten up by a gaggle of Malcolm Reynolds wannabes with SCA boffer swords that have been coated in glue and dipped in glass shards. Sometimes you have to look at the whole thing from a different angle.

Martin writes: 

Perhaps you can assist me. I've been perusing your blog for many moons, and I love that you answer questions from your readers each Friday. I just got a devastating response to a tale I thought was of reasonable literary quality. I didn't think it was perhaps ready for publication or the grand world at large, but I thought it was definitely passable and that a trained eye would be able to detect its intrinsic merit. 

I solicited one of those services where a professional author looks over one's manuscript and proffers their professional criticism. The feedback was awful, just awful, by which I mean that it was difficult to bare, not that it was of low quality. I was basically told not to try to publish until I had spent another several years reading and writing. 

Now I face what is undoubtedly my most severe existential crisis since I began writing in earnest. Clearly, it seems that I am no good at writing and deceiving myself to think that I perhaps ever was. The prospect of writing for years is more than a little daunting. What should I do?

Tracy writes:

I'm having one of those moments of horrible self doubt. I like writing different things, and they don't fit easily into a set genre. I'm not sure there's going to be an audience for it. There are so many authors out there who are better than I am. I just...I don't know why I even try.

Nadeem asks:

I've been writing for a couple of years now, and I have a few things published in the kind of places that send you two free copies as the only kind of payment. But I'm not making any money. I'm getting really frustrated, and it hurts to want it so bad but get nowhere, and I'm not sure that I should stick with it. I know you probably think two years is no big deal, but it feels like forever. 

My reply to all three:

My reply to all three of these questions is the same. And it's also not an answer; it's a question. Perhaps it is the question. Or perhaps it's pretentious tripe, but either way, it's probably important to know the answer if for no other reason than to have something to say to that weird guy who you always end up next to when you ride the bus.

This one isn't going to be like the movies where all the Lost Boys say "I believe in you Peter!" and then you become awesome again. Truth is, belief and self doubt are irrelevant when it comes to the real question. THE question.

Why do you write?

I know how hard and frustrating it can be to have these ambitions about your writing. I've been writing for thirty years without being rich or famous, so believe me that I know. You want love, acceptance, money, an audience, groupies, and groupie threesomes (birthday coming up...don't forget). When we write we can feel what we really want to say gurgling under the surface and that feels profound and huge inside us. It bubbles and froths in our emotions and spills out across the page in words that are inadequate perhaps but are the best we can do.

We hope that someone who's really good will see that spark in our writing. They will notice something under the surface of our sometimes clumsy use of language–something special. We want people who "know" writing to see that je nais sais qua that our friends just don't seem to notice.

We want own personal Wilford Brimley to be amazed at what we're capable of. Like...so amazed he even stops talking about oatmeal for a damned second.

It's a pleasant fantasy, and it persists because it is fun to imagine–no matter how many professional writers extoll the virtues of persistence and hard work (or how many athletes giggle at how inaccurate The Natural is and also extoll...well, actually those exact same virtues strangely enough). We want to just be good at something and not have to work and not have to put in some 10,000 Hours or more. We want to show up and have someone notice our talent.

The idea of talent fucking rocks. That without really trying we will be innately good at something. Show up. Blow a professional away with the untapped potential we have. Cue the montage.

The truth about "talent" in the arts is that it is, in almost every situation, a synonym for hard work.

And while there are some people out there, lounging around on Zabutons and drinking Coke Slurpies all day while they dream of Jimmy Fallon gushing about their novel, most aspiring writers are actually willing to work pretty hard. There's a catch, though. See, there's a pretty sizable gulf between working hard for big paychecks and fame vs. working hard for five to ten years without anything to show for it. Writers have to write for years before it is realistic to hope for any kind of accolades. They have to write for years just to figure out if there's any hope that they might be able to write for money or fame.

Wanting to do that for its own sake....that's kick-ambassadors-down-deep-holes-in-the-middle-of-the-town-square caliber madness.

Money is the same way. It's not that writers envision swimming in Mr. Burns pools of money or lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills. But getting enough money to go to dinner and a movie wouldn't be terrible, and paying the bills on small apartment that isn't next to a crack den would be even better. However working for hundreds of hours on something (and working for thousands of hours to have the skill to produce that), and having it make no money gets kind of tough.

That's why the journey has to be its own reward.

I know it sounds trite. It's cliché. If I hear it, I look around for where the Hallmark card salesperson is hiding. It makes me think of my middle school band director who spoke chiefly in platitudes. "Life isn't fair. Your safety is my main concern. The only place success comes before work is the dictionary. The only thing you'll get better at without practice is not getting to march in the parade with the rest of us. For the love of God and all that his holy, stop talking Chris."

(Wait, that last one isn't a platitude? But everyone always said it? Ah well.....)

As I read each one of these letters, one question dominated my mind:

Is that why you're doing this?

If you write for publication, money, or fame, you may as well put down your pen or laptop, and start running Nigerian finance scams because you're going to have more and faster success with that than you ever will with writing.
Oh this? I got this from selling liver lobes on the black market.
Thank goodness I gave up that writing thing.
If you aren't enjoying the very act of writing itself, there are just too many pitfalls along the way. Objectively, creative writing is one of the worst ways to predictably make money or fame. The road is too long. It's too fraught with failure. It's too covered in mines and peppered with pits that are stuffed with flying snakes. It's patrolled by bear zombies that projectile vomit Chuck Norris clones as a breath weapon. And if you pass all that, you still have to face Hogger.

It can be frustrating to want things to come of your writing and not get them, (just like it will be frustrating when my birthday groupie threesome involves a couple of no shows) but as long as writing itself is the comfort food of your soul, it doesn't matter. Those things will happen or they won't but it is the writing that matters.

Nadeem: To be published (at all) in a couple of years is good progress, especially these days in traditional publishing. Most of the writers you've ever heard of worked about ten years before they started making day job money with creative writing. You're on track and on schedule for a hard working writer who has what it takes. Keep adding your publishing accolades to your cover letter when you submit new things, and the editors will pay more and more attention to you. You will continue to publish in better and better places, and eventually get a paid gig. It takes a little longer these years in traditional publishing because of all the no pay/low pay competition, but you're doing exactly what you're supposed to, and you can expect to get some kind of paying something in the next year or two. And I promise... I PROMISE you, Nadeem, when you're holding that check for the first creative writing you ever got paid to write–even if it's for two cents a word–even if it's barely going to cover dinner for two at a place where you don't have to carry your own tray....

....I promise it's not gonna hurt anymore.

Tracy: Have faith in what you're writing. Readers, as a culture, are genre bending these days. We like new and delightful and hard-to-classify. Remember Toni Morrison: write the book you want to read. And if you have ten readers or ten million, it won't matter because you didn't sell out and you wrote something your heart and soul burned to write.

Martin: Everything about your letter and your story tells me that you're holding back.


Writing isn't a trick of high vocabulary or language draped in ostentation. That's just smoke and mirrors. I don't see YOU in your writing, I see how clever your turns of phrase are. Let your reader see you. Rip open your flesh and show them your exposed soul.

Further, if you give something to someone to edit for you, don't give them something you think isn't ready for publication, but might be passible. That's holding back in a different way. Give them them the very best you can. If you hold back, you never have to face the fact that your best wasn't good enough. You always have that out, so rejection doesn't hurt so much.

We live in a world of people who don't try. They don't really try because they don't want to risk failure. If they fail, they can just imagine they wouldn't have failed if they tried harder, and that's a pleasant fiction (just like Wilford Brimley).

The people we notice are the ones who take chances and fail, or sometimes who don't fail. Put it all out there. Give it everything and if that means that something you really worked on and tried your best on gets shot down, suck it up, Cupcake. Failure is awesome in its own way. It defines you, shapes you, and maybe galvanizes you. Once you realize you won't die from the angst of a bad review, you stand up, dust yourself off and keep writing.

Gattica quotes are always topical and useful to–
What the fuck do you mean this was almost twenty years ago????
Besides Martin, you weren't writing for them anyway.



  1. Just put a reminder on my calendar to fly to California for a groupie threesome and a Slurpee. Can you believe we can't get Slurpees here? It's a travesty, I tell you. You really knocked this one out of the park!

    1. I thought Slurpees were pretty much everywhere. My world is so rocked!

  2. I really like this. You've got flow brotha.

  3. Love this blog in general and this post in particular! Hoping commenting on it helps in some, albeit small, way.