A Crisis of Self-Confidence

Here’s a rather entertaining question that Jeff asked back in November, but one the deals with an all-too-common evergreen creative ailment:

Recently I was infected with what I call “the demon of self-doubt” and I couldn’t work on my WIP for a month. A snarky comment in my crit group triggered an intense period of insecurity for me, and destructive thoughts like “I’m just not a good enough writer” and “my voice is too bland” kept buzzing around my brain. These thoughts kept looping back and getting stronger, like a bad song you can’t get out of you head (for example, “skyrockets in flight, whoosh, afternoon delight”).

I wrote in my journal, and I started some new material, but every time I went back to my WIP, I threw my hands up in air and wailed, “I’m not worthy!” I wouldn’t call this a writer’s block; it was instead a crisis of confidence.

Eventually I forced myself to forge ahead and I got over it. Now I’m writing my WIP again, but what can I do to avoid this if it happens in the future? Does this happen to other writers, or is it just me and my incredibly thin skin? What if the demon of self doubt is right, and in the end, I’m not a good writer and all my effort and hard work will be for nothing? Or is that the chance we all take?

I like this question, and I’m pretty sure a lot of blog readers will recognize themselves in these sentences. Motivation and confidence come and go. The more motivated and confident you feel, the more you write. But if a seed is planted and you just can’t seem to get past a comment or a rejection (see my post on dealing with rejection), you tend to just cycle down and down and the doubt perpetuates even more doubt.

As Jeff says in his question, creativity is a chance we all take. So is any endeavor. You do it and then hope for the best. If the best doesn’t happen, you keep on doing it until you either reach your goal or you stop altogether. For some, rejection or creative block is cause enough to throw in the towel, but the urge to create and be creative will almost always remain.

I don’t have the magic words to help a writer out of a tough creative situation. Not only have I stopped writing because of time constraints, but I have my share of moments where I feel doubt and a lack of self-confidence. The thing I can say, though, is that those people who persevere through the “demon of self-doubt,” as Jeff calls it, are the only ones who will reach their creative goals. It’s a very obvious thought, but one that bears repeating.

Also, sometimes the pressure of wanting to achieve a goal a certain way or having an unrealistic time frame is enough to kill your creative spark. A lot of writers get despondent because an agent or publication hasn’t happened yet. They write and they write and they write and yet the professional world doesn’t seem to be recognizing (or appreciating) their efforts.

Well, life rarely happens exactly as you plan. And publishing is unpredictable, not to mention slow (like, really slow). If you set your hopes on getting published or agented in a certain way, you will tend to give yourself not only a crisis of self-confidence, but an unrealistic goal, since most outsiders are not intimately familiar with the industry and how it works and what it really takes to succeed.

So if you’re feeling really frustrated, about to give up, or that your work is not good enough, turn down the heat on chasing publication. What you write when you’re blocked and angry and doubtful will most likely not be a joy for others to read, and you’ll just be getting yourself further away from your goals instead of closer when you are in that mindset.

Sometimes frustration is a good thing — it spurns you on when you might otherwise quit — but I find that the specific frustration of not being published yet has one common cure: stop submitting and start nursing the writing.

Maybe it’s not time to submit yet. Maybe your writing craft or a particular project isn’t ready to go out into the world yet. Maybe you’ve recently gone on submission with something and it’s better to stop and see what you learned from that round instead of jumping right back into the ring.

Whatever the case, self-doubt tends to grow under scrutiny. If this is what you’re experiencing, it’s totally okay to pull back, rehabilitate your confidence and your creativity, and try to get published down the line. Publishers and agents will always be there (even in the digital future). Your excitement, positivity, and motivation may not, especially if you force it to take too many blows when it’s still growing. So focus on your inner creative assets when you’re feeling down, and the rest will come in time.

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  1. Alice’s avatar

    Jeff is not alone. I’m glad his self-doubt lasted only a month. Mine is constantly berating me. It’s not my crit group but that inner editor that keeps telling me to go back, rewrite, it sucks. So bad that I can’t seem to get to the end of even a first draft as I keep rewriting the first third.

    My goal this year is to just get the first draft finished. To be able to write THE END on a last page. Especially since I am not writing paranormal, magical or fantasy. This seems what all the debut books are.

    In the end I hope, no I will reach the finale of the story.

  2. Melissa’s avatar

    Great post. One of my best weapons against the insufferable Creeping Rot Disease is my awesome crit partner. She encourages me not to give up while also giving me target areas to work on. Also, if you look up reviews of a book you LOVED, you will surely find people who trash it. Yesterday I came across a blog where people were denigrating Catcher in the Rye. CATCHER IN THE RYE! Stuff like that reminds me to stop worrying about what others might say and stay true to my “inner creative assets.” :)

  3. Kelly Andrews’s avatar

    Very nice post :)

  4. Sheri Larsen’s avatar

    I tend to look at those down times, those times when doubt is eating at my confidence and draining my motivation, as growth spurts. Something is happening with me that I’m unaware. I truly believe that. Each time doubt strikes me, it eventually revolves back evolving into more confidence and some bright breakthrough. The real issue is waiting, being patient in that growth for those seeds that have been planted to blossom.

  5. Rachel’s avatar

    I am always impressed with how you handle these types of questions and are able to tell it like it is while still being incredibly comforting and encouraging. My own self-doubt has never reached these levels yet, but as I am beginning my second project, the thoughts are creeping in like, “Can I do this again?” “Will my protag and writing end up sounding the same?” “this is so hard!” But I am doing a lot of breathing and thinking happy thoughts and pushing through.

  6. Tracey Neithercott’s avatar

    Great post. I go in waves with my writing and I think that’s normal. I also think a bit of self-doubt is important. Without it, we’d all be submitting sloppy first drafts we’re 100 percent positive are absolutely perfect. I’m glad I don’t feel that way about my manuscript. But knowing it needs work is different than thinking you’re a failure because it needs work.

  7. Ishta’s avatar

    Great post. I don’t think there’s a writer out there who hasn’t experienced self-doubt – or, as I like to think of it, the “am I crazies” – at some time or another. You just have to work through it.

    I wonder about the person in the crit group who made the snarky comment. Is this normal from this person? If so, is it wise to continue to seek feedback from this person? It might just be me, but I don’t think snark has a place in a critique forum. Strong comments made in the spirit of kindness, yes, but snark, no.

  8. Zach’s avatar

    Good post. I think self-doubt can be a very positive part of the process because it keeps a writer humble, teachable, focused (if they persevere) on the realistic, and patient.

  9. Erica Rodgers’s avatar

    I agree with Ishta. Snarky comments are rarely helpful criticism. My amazing crit partner could tell me something sucks, and it would be a bummer to know I had to go back to the drawing board, but she would do it with love and with great suggestions for improvement. It’s so important to find people who will give honest, even difficult, feedback, but who also care about us and our goals. It’s hard to find that fit, but when it happens, it’s magic. :)

    Great post! I actually hit this after diving into a huge rewrite this fall…and swiftly jumping right back out. I didn’t touch it, other than making random, not very helpful notes, for almost three months. But the break was good, and I’m excited to keep pushing through this one. Because it’s ultimately about telling a great story, right?

  10. Marybk’s avatar

    Ouch. Yes, been there. Sometimes the snark is 100% the person spewing the criticism as part of their normal pattern, which is not great to deal with but still something I’m able to get past. But as much as I think I have pretty thick skin, certain comments hurl me down the trap door I didn’t see right below me.

    It’s just another thing about writing that makes this “hobby” of writing so challenging. And a self-discovery of sorts. I’ve taken time off several times, and I usually read a lot during these furloughs. And then I go back for more.

  11. MaryZ’s avatar

    I’ve certainly been there with Jeff. After a peer critique workshop, I felt, here we all are–competent writers. But only the spectacular get published. Can I ever hit that level? I was pretty discouraged. But I’m back in the saddle because writing and learning about writing is so much fun.

  12. Melissa K’s avatar

    Sometimes I’m a self-doubt glutton. My doubts feed and feed on themselves, and I let them, and pretty soon all I’m doing is doubting. My best strategy is to go into writer’s forums and encourage other people until I feel better. Second best is to write my doubts down until my arguments get circular (this happens pretty fast), at which point I start feeling ridiculous and usually make myself do something besides wallow. Third best is to complain to my husband that I’m a failure who never accomplishes anything, which gets my husband working to cheer me up and also gets me laughing at myself because I inevitably exaggerate the situation to the point of ludicrousness.

    I agree with those who say it might be good for Jeff to consider getting new crit partners. Maybe the snarky comment wasn’t intentionally snarky, but if it was, then it’s probably best to break away and find people who really want to help.

  13. Kathy Rupff’s avatar

    Hi Mary,
    I just came across your blog from another person’s blog. :) I can’t thank you enough for what you wrote on this particular topic, as well as the related topic of dealing with rejection. I apply it to children’s book illustrating as well, for me. The timing couldn’t have been better… I needed to hear this. You are much appreciated! Thanks again!

  14. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Whenever I felt like that, I went back through my old emails and critiques to find the positive comments I’ve been lucky to receive (thanks, Mary!). It doesn’t resolve it, but it helps.

    I’m also a big fan of taking a break. Sometimes that’s all it takes to realise that actually you don’t care about what X person said, you just want to get that new scene or story down. And then the joy returns, without the paranoia. Until next time…

  15. Ronni’s avatar

    Wow! Thank you for this post! I’ve been dealing with this crisis for oh, say, five or six years. I really miss the joy of writing just to write. But everyone’s confident I’ll get it back. I hope I get that memo soon! :)

  16. Eileen Cook’s avatar

    When the doubt creeps in (and it does published or not) I give myself a day to wallow, to shake my fist at the sky, to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head, to feast on volumes of ice cream that could kill a lesser mortal.

    Then I remind myself that this is a choice. If I don’t want to do this I don’t have to. There are certainly far easier occupations to choose. I remind myself that I write because I love it. Making stuff up is fun! If it’s lost the fun then I should take up something else. Your point about connecting with the writing (not the publishing) is critical. And if we think we’re not good enough- the only way to get better is to keep going.

    Hope everyone finds their motivation!

  17. Beth Hull’s avatar

    Jeff, you’re not alone (obviously – look at all the comments above!). I love what Sheri said about growth spurts, and I think that’s a great way to look at it.

    Whenever I feel down about my writing, I do what Mary suggested, and try to forget about publication goals. After all, I’m writing because I love it, and I ask myself: would I still be writing this even if the publishing industry didn’t exist?

    The answer is always yes. So I go on.

  18. Erin Kelly’s avatar

    In “Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Guide,” Betsy Lerner talks about all the conferences she has attended throughout her career and mentions an interesting phenomenon:

    The writers who thought they were the best writers in town usually weren’t.

    The writers who thought they were the worst writers in town usually weren’t.

    She said that many of the great manuscripts she read came from people who were convinced they were awful.

    So, FYI.

  19. LeanneT’s avatar

    Woo hoo! This post couldn’t come at a better time! I was having this exact conversation with my DH last night. I am so frustrated by my WIP but he encouraged me to keep my head down and forge ahead. Thanks Mary and Jeff.

  20. Megan K. Bickel’s avatar

    I feel you, Jeff! Self-doubt is such a big problem. When I’m low in the esteem department, I send my stories to my not-so-critical readers (aka my kids and mother. Sometimes a few kind words are enough to get me back to the computer!

  21. Katherine Quimby Johnson’s avatar

    I feel for Jeff. Self-doubt can be a Fire Swamp, sometimes replete with Rodents of Unusual Size, and I’ve spent a lot of time wandering there, usually finding my way out by accident. Rekindling the joy is something I will have to remember next time I find myself abandoning hope. For my current project, I found that if I gave myself permission to write whatever came out, because I was certain to be revising, then I took some of the pressure off, and kept the joy and the forward momentum.

  22. Jeff’s avatar

    Mary, thanks for such an excellent post! I’m bookmarking this page for future reference, as I do for many of your posts. I especially liked your line “focus on your inner creative assets when you’re feeling down, and the rest will come in time.” That’s so true, and the best prescription for this ailment. Also I’d like to thank everyone for their helpful comments. I, too, was intrigued by Sheri’s advice to turn self doubt into a positive experience. Next time this happens (assuming there will be a next time…) I have some tools to fight back, and that is a such a huge benefit. Thank you.

  23. Brigetta Schwaiger’s avatar

    It is just always comforting to know that others experience the same thing. Great response. For me, I have to realize that I already have everything I want in my hubby and four boys and I LOVE the writing process and if I get published then that is gravy. My basic philosophy- live in gratefulness and thrive.

  24. Julie Hedlund’s avatar

    I’m not sure I know a single writer that hasn’t gone through this exact experience. It’s happened to me too, and one month seems to be about the length of paralysis (I feel lucky it wasn’t longer).

    I agree about stepping back from publication goals at these times. It is NOT the time to submit when you’re swaddled in self-doubt. That’s when it’s time to revisit what you love about writing, IMHO.

    Another great post!

  25. Dana Elmendorf’s avatar

    Sometimes being a writer is like admitting you’re a manic depressant. Highs and lows are the waves we must ride to publication. Sometimes they are thicker than others. But like you said, the creative desire pushes most of us through. I think I’d burst if I could be creative with something. Thanks for writing about, you’ve put a lot of us at ease to know we are not alone.

  26. Sydney Salter’s avatar

    To silent my internal editor, I do a quick writing exercise & allow myself some bad writing before opening my WIP, and usually that gets me into creative flow…

    But sometimes it doesn’t & I start writing with all those voices in my head–my mean 11th grade English teacher, that snarky blogger, oh, and that helpful (ha!) critique member–and I P-L-O-D.

    Here’s the thing though: when that first draft is finally complete, I can never tell which words were written during blissful productivity and which ones I fought through all those negative voices to write.

  27. Robin’s avatar

    Thank you. So. Much.

  28. Kathryn Roberts’s avatar

    I, too, have felt just like Jeff. Everyone does. Especially writers. We are very sensative creatures, I think.

    I had my lowest blow with my first book. which is ironic because I had so many possitive critiques, people who said that my book was sooo very close to being ready to go out on submission. I felt possitive, until my last critique came in and my book was slashed to bits. I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. At least not on that book.

    I put it on the shelf (very much against my wishes at the time, but what could I do?) and surprizingly enough have since gotten VERY excited about a new project. The creativity is flowing again. I am taking every precaution not to make the same mistakes over again, making a detailed outline ( I will NOT miss anything this time) and have decided not to let even my husband (let alone anyone else) look at my work until I think it is close to ready for submission.

    But, keep going, Jeff. Seriously. Find a topic you love and write a short story or single scene about it. Something little that may spark your creativity. That worked for me. Even though I didn’t actually believe it would for a while and it took me staring at a blank notebook for hours before I decided to try it. You’d be surprised. Find that fuzzy feeling of something you love and delve into the pros.

  29. Andrea Di Salvo’s avatar

    Thank you so much for this post. I appreciate Jeff’s question and your comments…and I certainly identify with where Jeff was, since I seem to be there now, with not one but a couple of WIPs. I think this is the best advice I could have gotten!

  30. Beth’s avatar

    It’s so tough when you feel that doubt. Writing can be very lonely. The best that you can do at that point is to decide you’ll write whether anyone likes it or not and hope it is what you believe it is. You can’t need affirmation from other people to be a writer. You have to just write because you have a story in you.

  31. Lynne Matson’s avatar

    Fantastic post. Raw question, real advice. Thanks.

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