The Monster in Every Writer’s Closet

Filed in The Inner Life, The Writing Life, When Writing Is Hard by on May 6, 2014 • views: 1723

Monster CropIn looking over the many author features here on Writing and Wellness, I’ve noticed one thing that keeps coming up again and again.

Have you seen it?

On Friday, May 2, 2014, I read Steven Pressfield’s latest blog. There it was again. Even this former Marine and hugely successful author wasn’t sure why.

I’m facing the first round of edits on my literary novel, and working on the second round for my fantasy novel at the same time. (How did that even happen?) Anticipating my editor’s notes, I’ve sensed the same thing creeping around behind me. It’s familiar. I’ve seen it before. I’m sure I will again.

You’ve had it too. Probably more often than you’d like.

It’s the monster in every writer’s closet.

It’s self-doubt.

Self-Doubt: We All Have It

Mark O’Connell, writing for the New York Times, called it the “Dutch Elm Disease of Creative Minds.”

“If I had to identify a single element that characterizes my life as a writer,” O’Connell writes, “a dominant affective note, it would be self-doubt. It is a more-or-less constant presence in everything I do.”

Authors featured on this site have expressed the same sentiment. “I am one of those writers who revises until the last minute,” says Aviva Orr,  “and that last minute may never come because I am too busy rewriting. I suppose this is tied to self-doubt. I am certain every writer suffers from self-doubt because it can be difficult to judge your own writing.”

“Probably my biggest challenge is to believe that my work is worthwhile,” says Susan Marsh. “The little voice is always saying, ‘What makes you think that’s going to interest anyone?’”

“I think the hardest emotional aspect of writing is the problem of self-belief,” says Elizabeth Brooks. “Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether you’re doing something worthwhile, or just wasting your time.”

Yet amidst all this self-doubt these writers got it done. They’re all published (traditionally) and working on additional projects. Did the self-doubt make any difference? Was it destructive to their careers?

Self-Doubt is Destructive

Self-doubt is linked with lower achievement. A recent 2014 study, for example, found a link between self-doubt and lower grades in school. A 2013 study of athletes found that self-doubt increased neuroticism, decreased confidence, and resulted in a sense of “withdrawal” and reduced performance levels.

Other studies have shown that individuals suffering from self-doubt tend to be anxious and disengaged, and less likely to persist in face of difficulties. Self-doubt is linked with a lower chance of succeeding at any particular goal, and a lower level of achievement.

“Self-doubt: the bane of any writer’s existence,” writes Sara Burr at The Starving Novelist. “It’s the dark cloud looming on the horizon, threatening to rain down self-loathing, inferiority and regret. In short, it’s the one thing that can end a writer’s career before it even has a chance to take flight.”

Indeed, it seems that self-doubt’s most destructive power is not in how it makes us feel, but in what it makes us do, or more specifically, not do.

How Self-Doubt Leads to Paralysis

In research from 1996, German scientist Ralf Schwarzer asserts that the real power in self-doubt is paralysis—a failure to act. He talks about how ruminating on one’s lack of ability to accomplish a goal causes one to postpone the project, or worse, dismiss it entirely.

“Individuals who are plagued by self-doubts procrastinate difficult decisions,” he writes, “fail to develop challenging intentions, and get stuck in a fruitless contemplation process.” He adds, “Individuals with self-doubts set lower goals, which leads to less accomplishments.”

In other words, when trapped in self-doubt, we spend too much time thinking and worrying, and too little time working. And for a writer, or any type of artist, this is professional suicide.

Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”

The Simple Way to Banish the Monster

How does one handle the monster in the closet?

One of the joys of my life has been to play the French horn in a number of bands and symphonies over the years. I’ve had some wonderful musical directors—talented, dynamic, charismatic people. One left a particularly lasting impression on me.

His name was Jerry Junkin. He was a guest director for a high school honor band that lasted only two days. But he was a decorated director from out-of-state, had a unique way of bringing out the best in our group, and was a particular fan of the French horn section, which I was leading that time around. (You can see Jerry directing a similar honor wind ensemble here.)

At the end of our last rehearsal, a few hours before the concert, he was telling us all that he had enjoyed working with us, and that he was confident in our ability to pull off a wonderful performance. Then he lifted his baton and told us one more thing (I’m paraphrasing from memory):

“If my baton shakes, it has nothing to do with you.”

I remember thinking then—this man gets nervous? I couldn’t believe that someone so accomplished and confident would ever feel shaky at a concert.

“I get a little excited at performances, and sometimes the baton shakes,” he told us, smiling. “I tried for years to stop it, but nothing worked, so now I’ve learned the best thing to do about nerves…is just not to do anything about them.”

Self-doubt will likely always be lurking around somewhere nearby. But at the end of the day, the show must go on.

Not Even the Famous Ones Escape

“You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie?’” Meryl Streep has been quoted as saying. “And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”

If even Meryl Streep doubts herself sometimes, who are we to think we will ever get to a place where self-doubt won’t be part of our lives?

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”

Guess the author of that one.

Go ahead, guess.


Maya Angelou.

What separates those who complete their projects from those who don’t?  A willingness to go to work even when the monster is clawing at our backs.

A 2013 study found this to be true. Researchers looked at entrepreneurs and their level of confidence or lack of it.

“In this study,” researchers wrote, “phenomenological analysis of the experiences of a group of entrepreneurs creating and managing high-growth ventures based largely in Silicon Valley suggests that a number of these entrepreneurs experience significant levels of self-doubt but still persist in growing their ventures.”

Persist. That’s all. Keep going.

Ignore the 10 Steps to Confidence

In researching this article, I noticed a lot of other blogs recommending steps for overcoming self-doubt. Some of these steps—like staying in the present (so as not to ruminate on doubts), remembering why you want to pursue your dream, and celebrating your small accomplishments—could be helpful, I’m sure.

Honestly, though, at least in my experience, I don’t think you need all these steps. In some cases, they can actually delay you from taking the action you really need to take—getting to work on your project.

There’s something magical that happens when you sit down and write (or paint or compose or whatever), no matter how you feel. If you hang with it long enough, eventually the creation takes over, and you forget about the self-doubt, at least for a while.

Focus on the work. Get some more pages filled. Say “hello” and “goodbye” to self-doubt, and do it all over again the next day.

Vincent Van Gogh said it best:

“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”

How do you handle self-doubt? Is returning to the work enough for you? Please share your thoughts.

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  1. Nice to know I’m in good company battling the monster! Thanks.