How to Disarm a Writer’s Inner Demons

Filed in Finding & Following Your Voice, When Writing Is Hard by on August 26, 2014 • views: 1595

Demons 2In my own struggle to do the work I’m compelled to do, I’m often reminded of the idea that we must “battle our own demons.”

American novelist and screenwriter William Goldman once said, “…the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right.”

I think that most of the time, when we fail to go after what we most want in life, it is these demons, more than anything, that get in our way. And they are fierce, mean, and ugly creatures who will do anything to keep us from believing in ourselves. Just when we think we’ve defeated them, they rise up again and we must be prepared for another battle, or be content to settle for a life where dreams don’t exist.

Even the Best of Us Struggle

Amazing to me that someone like William Goldman would wrestle with such demons. He was the author of The Princess Bride, and also adapted the novel for the screen.

I’ve talked to several people who quote this beloved tale as one of their very favorites—the kind you would want with you if you were left on a deserted island, sort of thing. But when I dug into Goldman’s life a little more, I saw that he, like so many other successful people, struggled with years of failure before finally creating the success that he eventually enjoyed.

Most of his early short stories were rejected for publication, and though three of his early plays opened on Broadway, all three experienced disastrous results. It wasn’t until he wrote the screenplay for “Harper” starring Paul Newman that things turned around for him.

After that came “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and then several more successes—including The Princess Bride (which he wrote for his daughters), The Stepford Wives, and All the President’s Men.

A Shared Affliction

I can imagine that Goldman’s struggle with his own genius was similar to what many of us experience as we face the day-to-day task of trying to make our dreams come true. The demon of self-doubt is always hanging around, but worse still is it’s uncanny ability to constantly remind us of our mediocrity.

That painting didn’t work. That story fell flat in the middle. That handmade table stood just a little off-center. The Demon mocks our foolish notion that we’ll ever do any better, and often, convinces us that it’s right.

“Everyone has dreams about what they want to be, where they want to go, or what they want to do with their life,” writes martial arts teacher Kevin Geary. “But most people are too paralyzed by fear and self-doubt to act on them. It cripples them, leaving them to choose the path of least resistance; which usually means they continue whatever they are currently doing.”

Learn to Live with It

There is one comforting thing in Goldman’s quote, if we can look at it that way. “The haunting Demon never leaves you.” He’s always going to be there, no matter what.

No matter if you’re a nobody in some no-name town that nobody knows about, or if you’re a Lifetime-Achievement-award-winning screenwriter, the Demon will always be there, traveling alongside you, whispering in your ear: Who do you think you are? You can’t do that!

This realization can seem daunting, at first, but if we choose to accept the Demon’s presence, we can learn to grant less power to his influence. We can imagine him to be like that negative neighbor who never seems to find anything to be happy about.

You know the kind. You ask him how he’s doing and all you get is a litany of complaints. After knowing him for years, you kind of turn off the sound of his voice and just nod and smile.

We can learn to do the same to the Demon inside us. Nod. Smile. Look the other way. And get back to the work that matters.

Imagine what would have happened if Goldman had given in to his Demon, or allowed it to win. The world is no less sorrowful when any one of us gives up the battle.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Great post, Colleen! I listened to an interview with author Sarah Dessen a little while ago, and when she talked about how she still deals with self-doubt, I was absolutely shocked. I also realized I wasn’t alone and it helped me to keep moving forward. 🙂

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks so much, Gisele! Appreciate your thoughts. I know—even the greats suffer with it, even after many successes. It’s always there, apparently. Yes, it is helpful to know that we all experience it, so it makes it less intimidating, I hope! :O)

  2. Chere says:

    This is great advice! It’s sort of comforting to know that most people have the same types of self-doubt.

    • Colleen says:

      I thought so, too. I mean, William Goldman? Huge writer and still he struggled with it. Guess none of us can escape! 🙂