Where are you headed?

Skill is Fine, but Ignoring Self-Doubt is Golden

This stock photo is relevant enough. Use your imagination.

This stock photo is relevant enough. Use your imagination.

[Sorry for the late post! It's been a HELL of a week.]

I talk about craft a lot. The mechanics of writing are important to me: plot, character, language. These are the tools, the nuts and bolts, that allow writers to craft stories. Years ago, I thought skill and little bit of luck was all I needed to be a good writer. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

After working on my first “real” manuscript for almost three years, I’ve learned so much. I could fill a hundred blog posts with the specifics, but right now I want to focus on something that’s been on my mind lately.

Skill isn’t nearly as important as grit.

Becoming a better writer is more than craft. It’s mostly about learning how to ignore the negative voices in your head. You know the ones. They keep you up at night and trip you while you’re walking to the grocery store and stab your fingers while you’re trying to finish the goddamn chapter so you can go to bed and do it all over again tomorrow.

All artists grapple with self-doubt. Writers are especially susceptible because so much of the process is spent inside our own heads. Unlike painters or chainsaw wood sculptors, there isn’t some obvious physical product to create. Even when a novel is finished and polished, it’s still an abstract thing, just a string of 90,000 words that happens exclusively in your brain. And it’s dark in there, with plenty of corners for nasty words and mean names to hide in.

The doubt comes in a smorgasbord of flavors. My two favorites are constantly comparing my work to an author I admire (what’s the point? It’ll never be as good as her novel) and losing faith in the story I set out to tell (will anyone care about this except me?). I’ve found I spend more time ignoring the negative voice than actually writing. When you write consistently, the mechanics become second nature. Need some dialogue here. Good. Describe the topiary here. Appeal to the senses. Great! Slay that adverb. You did it! Nicely done. This is especially true in the late stages of editing when most of the big decisions have already been made. Poring over your words draft after draft can be a real downer because you aren't distracted by the fun and breezy part--the broad strokes. This is when the bad thoughts have the biggest doorway into your head. Dont' listen to them.

And yes, I said ignore the negative voice. Not overcome. Not conquer. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I don’t believe self-doubt can be vanquished or eradicated like the T-1000 in a vat of molten lava. It will always be there. I guarantee Stephen King still feels it. I guarantee Neil Gaiman still feels it. If these giants have doubts about their work, why should you beat yourself up over it?

No, I think the monster of comparison and jealousy and self-defeat is intertwined with the life of an artist. Our true struggle is learning to live with it, learning to ignore it, learning that what it says is meaningless and counterproductive. That’s more important than knowing how to best introduce new settings or structure a dinner scene with ten characters talking over each other.

Don’t ignore the mechanics. Learn them by reading a lot and writing even more. But always remember that skill isn’t everything. The best writer in the world would never achieve success if she couldn’t make peace with self-doubt. Conversely, a decent writer who understands self-care and persistence will have a much better chance at actually finishing something she can show to the world.

As always, thanks for reading.

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