“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, 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. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.” -William Goldman, Princess Bride
You know the feeling.
The words come tumbling out, fast and sure, faster than you can write or type. You feel the passion and power of your voice. The rock-bottom certainty of your insights. The current is strong and it’s all making sense at last! When you’re spent, you’ve got a thousand, maybe 1500 words on the page. And there’s this triumphant feeling that you’ve finally nailed it.
You transcribe it. You read it over. The feeling is still there, though not as strong. You see the sentences that will work, the ones that won’t. Yes, of course, you’ll need to change the structure a bit, develop a point here and there. No problem, you think.
You begin revising. This is the danger point. Why?
Because the fire of the first draft has gone out and you’re no longer held aloft on wings of inspiration. You may even doubt that the inspiration ever happened! You’re a creature of earth again, crawling around on the ground.
The Demon Enters
This is where judgment, aka Self-Doubt, takes its cue. Waving its red pen, it swoops down and slashes across your cherished pages, all the while telling you how boring or irrelevant or just plain bad your work is. You are tempted to believe this voice for two very good reasons:
- The feeling of being enamored has passed.
- The flaws, the holes, the lack of logic—the Chaos—is all too apparent.
The hard fact to face is that the inspiration you felt while writing isn’t necessarily there on the page now. Or it got transferred in bits and unrecognizable pieces that aren’t making the sense you were so confident in while you were in the flow. It doesn’t mean the raw gold isn’t there, but it still has to be mined, fired, and shaped.
The Good News
This is where the battle is won or lost. This is where the work starts. And it is good news. You have to lose the glow. It’s a very necessary stage. Without it, you can’t begin to really shape the silkworm spit into silk. But first, before you begin to revise, you need to deal with this intruder.
You can’t just ignore it. It’s not going to go away.
Enter the ring with a 3-point strategy.
- Recognize it
- Respond with speed
- Face it directly
Recognize and unmask it.
As writers, we can never eradicate self doubt. It will fade in and out, sometimes with noise and aggression, but more often in the form of a whisper. The key to overcoming it is to recognize its appearance on the spot. Notice the words and phrases it uses; write them down. Knowing the words prepares you to deal with self-doubt on a daily basis, especially when you are at the beginning phase of a new work. My recurring favorites: I can’t possibly do this! and Why bother?
Here’s the kicker: This voice is masquerading as you. It is pretending to be you—that is its secret weapon. By naming it you draw a line between You and Self Doubt. The thinnest of lines is all that’s needed.
The line is sacred. It deprives self-doubt of its power. You are on one side and it is on the other. You are affirming and practicing your Authorial Presence.
The Perilous Pause
The second you recognize it, object! Refuse to consider its allegations. If you delay, self-doubt will get the upper hand or derail you completely.
You have to do more than object. Replace the words of self-doubt with your words of encouragement and affirmation. My favorite: I can do this! I’m a writer and I’m going to write this! Nothing is going to stop me. Period.
What you have done is to choose to believe in the value of what you are writing. Self-doubt cannot stand in the light of that.
Face it directly.
Self-doubt doesn’t play fair. It often hovers sub-verbally. Give it your full attention. Call it out. Stop trying to write. Instead, turn and face it directly. Don’t just flick it away like an annoying fly. You have to go after that f** fly with your full awareness.
What about the days when we just feel pummeled? When the demon has seemingly taken over? Then it’s time to shake things up a bit. Interrupt. Disrupt. Here are some of my successful tactics:
- Get angry and rage about it out loud
- Call a writer friend and rage about it
- Walk or run around the block
- Vacuum (surprisingly effective!)
What you may discover is that although the fire has gone out of your draft, the coals are still red hot
Sally Wolfe is an author, book coach and editor. Her novel Consolations was published in 2014 by Luminis Press. She is currently working on her second book: “Wish You Were Here: Tales of Courtship and Separation.”
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