I’m scared right now. Scared that I won’t be able to write another novel, or at least, not one worth reading. Sure, I know that I can finish one—that I can sit for hours and days and weeks and months at a time with a handful of characters and a setting—I’m not scared about the discipline of the process. I love the process. (Ten years ago, the necessary discipline would have scared me, so at least I’ve made progress with the process…)

I’m scared about the content. The voice. The authenticity of the characters. Can I write a novel that keeps readers turning pages? One that matters? This past weekend I watched a movie that entertained me, but at times I could feel the writer trying too hard to make a scene work. He wanted to establish a character’s motivation, create tension, get a laugh… and his presence took me out of the story. I fear that I make the same mistakes with my own writing, and the fear is blocking me from writing anything worthwhile.

Philip PullmanWill people read my books? Will they re-read them? I need to get past the self-doubt! I turned to interviews with prolific author Philip Pullman for advice, and found some here. About one of his own works-in-progress, he says, “I read it all again and think it’s horrible, and get very depressed. That’s one of the things you have to put up with.”

In this pep talk to National Novel Writing participants, he says,

… page 70 is where the misery strikes. All the initial excitement has drained away; you’ve begun to see all the hideous problems you’ve set yourself; you are horribly aware of the minute size of your own talent compared to the colossal proportions of the task you’ve undertaken; that’s when you really want to give up.

Then there are these words from an interview with Pullman at PsychCentral:

… don’t listen to people (such as publishers) who think that you need to write what readers say they want. Readers don’t always know what they want… So the only thing you need to do is forget about pleasing other people, and aim to please yourself alone. That way, you’ll have a chance of writing something that other people WILL want to read, because it’ll take them by surprise. It’s also much more fun writing to please yourself.

Thank you, Philip Pullman! I needed to step away from my fiction to wrestle with my doubts and draft this post… needed to accept the depression and fear as part of the process. This part isn’t fun, but I’ve said my piece and gotten it off my chest. Now I’m ready to dive back in. Come to think of it… I’m working on a scene in a chapter that’s pretty close to page 70…

7 thoughts on “Self-Doubt”

  1. I’m right there with you, Anne! It is a relief to hear that Philip Pullman is occasionally in the same boat, too (although perhaps on a very different lake). Thanks so much for this post.

  2. Good to hear from you, Caroline! You know… it’s kind of funny that we can actually feel relief over someone else’s despair… but then, I guess the relief is in feeling that we’re not alone. We’re not crazy! We plow forward despite the self-doubt.

  3. Anne, I relate to this post all too well…I think we have to go through these feelings in order to have something to push against—to make the work the best it can be. The first Pullman passage you cite is a pep talk? Yikes! I say focus on the second passage—the one that says to please yourself alone.

    In fact, his comment reminded me of something I once read about the iconic New Yorker editor William Shawn. This was his philosophy of publishing:

    “In the realm of literature, of art, of creative journalism, to attempt
    to give readers what they ‘want’ is, circularly, to give them what they
    already know about and have already had, and thus to give them nothing.
    People who are creative are eager to strike out into new territory and to
    see, discover, and say what has not been seen, discovered, or said before.
    The writers and artists and editors of THE NEW YORKER simply go where their own talent, imagination, energy, curiosity, and conscience take them.”

    Go where your imagination, talent, energy, curiosity, and conscience takes you. If you believe in the dream you’ve created, we will, too. We’ll be happy to follow you!

    Now get back to that computer file and wrestle page 70 and beyond to the ground!


  4. Good to hear from you, Melanie! I saw your own blog post earlier today, and realized we were going through similar struggles right now.

    And Marci — I love this. Both the quote from William Shawn and your comment about needing something to push against — good stuff to think about. Right now I’m headed to bed so I can get up early and write. Even when I’m struggling, I keep writing. Tomorrow I’ll have your words of encouragement with me… Thank you!

  5. Oh Anne, it’s such a cycle and I’ve been there, and you’ve been here before, and you just have to remind yourself that you will cycle out of it if you just keep pushing forward. I love what Pullman says about not writing what the reader says he wants, it’s the only way to surprise the reader. It is one of the things I like most about books, when it has a surprise. Something I couldn’t anticipate.

    I hope knowing that you aren’t in the boat by yourself makes the gloom lift a bit, and I hope tomorrow you get hit by fantastic inspiration. That’s what we keep writing for. That moment when we get hit again. It’s a drug, that inspiration moment. And send me something when you’re ready, I love to read your words!

  6. Thank you, Meredith! You are so right about the inspiration moment being like a drug. And sure enough, a few days after that post, I found myself in a new place with my current work-in-progress. A surprising place. I’ve been writing a lot–and not checking my website! I will definitely take you up on the reading offer when I’m ready, but it could be months. I went back to square one on this novel. For a while I was keeping track of different versions, and after version 14, I quit counting. Let’s just say I’ve started over… and a new character has emerged and I believe her presence is going to make the story work…

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