I think all writers, all artists, suffer from self-doubt.
We usually think of self-doubt as a problem: notice that above, I wrote “suffer from.” Those words came out automatically, because they represent how we usually think about self-doubt: as a disease, almost. As a debilitating condition. Well, it can be debilitating . . .
I was in one of my bouts of self-doubt last week, worried about the novel I’d written, worried about whether people would “get it,” and of course like it. Worried about whether it would be published, and how, and when . . . . I’ve been doing this for more than ten years, publishing stories, essays, poems. I’ve had positive reviews, award nominations and wins. None of that stops the self-doubt. It’s much worse, I think, for younger writers — I can hear their worries, and I try to reassure them, but self-doubt is not something anyone else can fight. It’s your own personal monster. You have to fight it yourself.
But there are also some good things about self-doubt. I know, it’s counter-intuitive, but I want to argue that self-doubt can be a source of strength. It can be what makes you stronger and better. Here’s how:
1. Self-doubt can make you work harder.
I know, this isn’t always true: self-doubt can also lead to giving up. But doubting my own talents and abilities has driven me to work harder, in pretty much everything I’ve done. Study harder for the exam. Prepare harder for the class. Practice more. I sometimes see this among young writers as well: they doubt themselves, and that doubt spurs them on rather than stopping them. They don’t know if they’re any good, so they try to get better. They don’t know if a story works, so they think about it more, revise it more readily. They put in the hours.
Of course, you can put too much work into something: there comes a time when studying harder is counter-productive, when a story should not be revised further. You need to know when to stop. But I’ve seen a lot of people stop too soon. I’ve seen that more often than the opposite — people wanting something and not putting the work in, assuming they’ve done enough. Sometimes they have so much confidence in themselves and their talents that they feel as though they don’t need to put in the work. And they don’t do as well.
So self-doubt can be a good thing: it can make you work harder to get what you want.
I’ve read that women tend to apply for jobs they know they are fully qualified for, while men tend to apply for jobs they are mostly qualified for — they don’t wait until they are fully qualified. I’m sure this is partly because women doubt themselves more in general, although I hesitate to make generalizations based on gender. I have male friends who are writers and artists, and many of them suffer from self-doubt too. But we do live in a culture that fills women with self-doubt in a way it doesn’t for men. Are you pretty enough? Are you smart enough? These are questions women ask themselves from the time they are teenagers. Our default image for qualified is still male. My point here isn’t to emphasize the gendering of self-doubt but to say that we’ve all known situations in which someone (male or female) got in on bluster, on a show of self-confidence, without necessarily being qualified. That is generally a bad thing. The saying “fake it till you make it” is a disaster if you’re taking about anything that really matters, like brain surgery or making cupcakes. Or, you know, art. (Because fake art is a horrible thing. Like a great big flowery Jeff Koons puppy.)
2. Self-doubt can make you hold yourself to a high standard.
Self-doubt means you judge yourself more harshly, which can be a bad thing. It can lead to despair and depression. But it can also make you hold yourself to a high standard, perhaps a higher standard than society gives you. Society, after all, gives us only the standard of a particular time. As artists, so often we have to create our own standard, out of what we believe to be the best — out of what particularly speaks to us. Yes, this is an impossible standard. I’m never going to write like a combination of Virginia Woolf and Isak Dinesen and Angela Carter. Even if I could, it would be incoherent. I have to find my own way, my own voice.
But I doubt myself and therefore I try for the best. What I aim for may always be beyond my reach, but at least I will know the distance between what I am doing and where I want to go. And I won’t say “this is enough, this is good enough.” I will say “this is the best I can do for now,” because otherwise, honestly, I would never publish anything. But I will try for better. I will do the next thing, because who knows, the next thing might be it. Or the thing after that . . .
3. Self-doubt gives you a sense of humility.
The hardest student to teach is the student who is convinced that he or she already knows how to write. Often, it’s a student who got As on English papers in a high school that was not particularly rigorous. A student who was taught to use large words without understanding their precise meanings, who was rewarded for obfuscation, for “sounding academic.” For this sort of student, you must first breach the wall of self-confidence, and it can be a pretty thick wall. You must show him or her why that sort of writing isn’t actually very good. And you must do it kindly, or you will encounter the natural resistance of wounded pride. (Often what it takes is pointing to a sentence and saying, “What do you actually mean here?”)
A student who doubts his or her own abilities will listen to you, will learn what you have to teach. So if you have self-doubt, you tend to be a good student. You tend to think that if you’re not learning, the problem isn’t the teacher, but you. (The problem is sometimes the teacher, but blaming the teacher is seldom useful. More useful is taking what you can from the teacher, despite his or her limitations. A good student can learn from almost anyone in almost any situation.)
We don’t value humility very much in our culture. We value pride, even when it’s just a show of pride. Even when it’s just bluff. But I think great artists tend to have great humility, because they know how hard the road is, how much they’ve worked, how fortunate they’ve been. (Except Picasso. And maybe Salvador Dali. If they had humility, they didn’t show it.) Great artists have pride too, of course — in what they’ve accomplished. But they always seem to be looking for the next thing to work on. What they’ve already done never seems enough . . .
4. Self-doubt means you’re already vulnerable, without having to work at it.
There seems to be an entire industry devoted, nowadays, to telling people that they need to be more open, more vulnerable. I suspect it’s an industry founded by self-confident extroverts. I know lots of people who don’t need to be more vulnerable. Instead, they need to build boundaries, to say no more often. I’m one of them. People who have self-doubts are usually already open to the world, to its judgments of them. They aren’t very good at shutting the world out.
In my family, we have a generation (me and my brother) of hypersensitive, introverted kids. Where we came from, I don’t know, because the rest of my family isn’t like that. But it’s obvious how differently we deal with the world. To the extent that vulnerability is a good thing (it’s not always), we have it. We don’t need to work on it. So, you know, we don’t need to take courses with people who’ve been on Oprah, which leaves more time for other things. Like maybe writing.
My central point here is that self-doubt can be a weakness: it can keep you from doing your work. But you can also redefine it as a strength. If you doubt yourself, that means you’re someone who holds yourself to a high standard; who has a sense of humility, of your own limitations; who is vulnerable and open to the world. Those are all good things. Self-doubt can lead you to work harder.
Which is how I dealt with my own self-doubt: I wrote a poem. When in doubt, write poetry . . .
(Well, more practically, since I’m worried about the novel, I laid out a new writing schedule for myself. And yes, I wrote a poem, but I’m also working on a story. Above is me working on the story.)