Being a Writer: Commitment vs. Self-Doubt

by Jami Gold on October 1, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Close up of a chain with text: Is Self-Doubt Holding You Back?

I thought about titling this post “How Committed Are You?” But with writers, that phrase could be taken many ways. Some of us wonder if we should be committed. *smile*

We writers balance on many thin lines. We have to be willing to listen to criticism if we want to improve, but we also have to be confident enough in our work to send it out and not just revise endlessly. We have to share our ideas clearly, but we can’t be too tell-y. We have to make our characters likable but flawed.

It’s enough to make us certain we should be committed. How many opposites can we embody and still keep our head straight?

Another area we often struggle with is commitment and self-doubt. We need to be committed to our writing and yet self-doubt makes us question that commitment.

What It Means to Be Committed to Writing

Being committed to our writing career requires time. We spend thousands of hours learning the craft, understanding how the publishing industry works, and drafting and revising our words.

Many times, we have to be committed enough to spend money—that we might not have—for our career. We might buy a new laptop, a domain for our website, or go to a writing workshop. We might even attend a writing conference like RWA or WANACon.

Dedicating time or money shows a level of commitment that most who say they’re going to write a book never demonstrate. In other words, that commitment means we’re special.

What It Means to Battle Self-Doubt

I missed this year’s RWA National, so I didn’t see this live, but luckily the fantastic Keynote speech by Cathy Maxwell is online. Her speech illuminated another important aspect of writing life: self-doubt.

She shares a story about a friend of her ex-son-in-law, who took up art later in life. He was committed to the idea that he had an artist lurking inside him even though he’d never even doodled, and despite the teasing, he decided to go to school to learn art.

To the surprise of everyone, he turned out to be good. Really good. Maybe even a prodigy.

He was good enough that people were willing to pay over a thousand dollars for one of his pieces. He was good enough to be accepted into a prestigious Master of Fine Arts program. He was good enough and committed enough to complete that degree.

But that commitment to his art wasn’t enough. Despite the acclaim he experienced, he never signed any of his pieces. Why? He never felt he was good enough.

He died before he could ever accept his talent and skills and what he had to share with the world. He never felt his work was worthy of the world’s attention. And that doubt destroyed his ability to succeed—in the art world, unsigned pieces sell for less money.

In the writing world, self-doubt can destroy our ability to succeed too. We can be committed enough to write, to learn, to improve, and to finish a book. But if we let self-doubt hold us back, we won’t succeed. Self-doubt will undermine all our other efforts.

“Nothing can get in the way of our success, of our sharing our stories, of us becoming exactly the people we’re supposed to be, except for our self-doubt. … Self-doubt kills creativity.”

— Cathy Maxwell
RWA National 2013 Keynote Speech

What It Means to Believe in Ourselves

We are special. We are unique. Only we can share the stories that live in our heart and in our head.

We have to push ourselves not only to commit to getting those stories into words, but we also have to push ourselves to let others read them. To know our stories are worthy of the world. To believe we’re deserving of the world’s attention.

Unless we’re keeping our stories private for reasons that have nothing to do with self-doubt, we should push ourselves to share them. Our stories are a gift for the world.

“Sharing stories isn’t just a career. Sharing stories is the way we reach out to others.”

— Cathy Maxwell
RWA National 2013 Keynote Speech

It’s great to have commitment. I’ve attended three in-person writing conferences and this weekend with WANACon will mark my second online writing conference. I know many of you are committed to your writing as well. Some have even signed up for WANACon along with me.

But commitment without follow through robs the world of our contributions. Don’t let self-doubt prevent you from sharing your gifts. Don’t be stingy. Share. *smile*

Registration is currently open for my workshop on how to do just enough story development to write faster, while not giving our pantsing muse hives. Interested? Sign up for “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.” (Blog readers: Use Promo Code “savethepants” to save $15 on registration.)

How are you committed to writing? Have you let self-doubt hold you back? How have you shared your writing—a blog, a published book, submitting to a beta reader or agent? Will you be at WANACon with me?

Pin It
22 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

tam francis October 1, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Self doubt is something I struggle with daily. I do let critiques get me down, often going home and having a good cry, becoming despondent and ambivalent. I let myself wallow for about 24 hours and then get to work. I take into consideration comments and critiques and research them and try NOT to write by committee. I remember that I am writing things “I” like to read and hopefully someone else will like them too.

I do worry with all these pep talks (not that yours does this), it will encourage writers NOT to listen to critiques and close off the part of themselves that allows them to drop their ego long enough to take in the criticism they need to make their writing stronger. It’s fine line and I’m often off balance ending to fall on the self-deprecating side.

Thanks for a great post.

Reply

Jami Gold October 1, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Hi Tam,

I think we all feel sucker-punched after a hard critique. The important thing is that you get up and get back to work. 🙂

Yes, as I said in the post’s introduction, we do have to be open to criticism or we’ll struggle with trying to improve. Just because we’re special and unique and have stories worthy of being told doesn’t mean that we’re perfect and have no room to improve. 😉 It is a balancing act for sure! Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Serena Yung October 1, 2013 at 2:20 pm

Haha, I laughed at the “don’t be stingy” part. XD

I totally agree that we’re all unique, and nobody else can write what we can write. Thus, though we may “say” that X is a “better writer” than Y, this only means that X is a more SKILLED writer than Y, not exactly that their CONTENT is objectively “better”. A certain story’s content may interest and engage more readers than another story’s, but I don’t think the number of interested readers should dictate the value of a story–partly because there will always be SOMEONE in this world who enjoys the less popular story more. Some stories appeal to fewer people simply because they describe a more specific, less universal experience. That doesn’t mean that these stories are inferior. It just means that only the few people who HAVE that experience can relate to and understand it. I wish more people would understand this principle, and know that no one story is inherently “worse” or “better” than any other. There are only more widely appealing and less widely appealing stories, and stories expressed more skillfully or less skillfully.

However, even when we talk about skills, it isn’t that easy to judge which story is “expressed MORE skillfully” either, as different readers prefer different styles of expression. Different readers have different experiences and come from different writing backgrounds, so different styles will have different psychological/emotional impacts on them. (Sorry, too many “different”s in one sentence. XD) An obvious example is how some people prefer very economical, detached prose. Others prefer very emotional, elaborate, and flowery, even Victorian prose. Still some others like something in between.

About whether X or Y is the “more skilled writer”, unless X and Y are very disparate in their amount of writing experience, it’s probably quite hard to say who’s “more skilled”, because X and Y are likely more skilled/ specialized in different areas. I.e. X may be better Y at character development, whilst Y is better at writing lyrical prose than X. Have you ever had that experience where you hear so-and-so is a great and amazing writer, yet when you read their story, you find flaws in them that even some less famous (or newer) writers don’t have? E.g. the writers who are extremely incapable of being concise. XD I don’t mind flowy, meandering prose, but if a sentence takes up TOO many lines, then it’s a bit hard to process, lol. Plus, it’s kind of unpleasant for the reader to read a paragraph that’s 6 pages long. >< (The latter was Tolstoy, lol. One reason why I like Dostoyevsky far more than Tolstoy, haha.)

Okay, back on topic:

About having no self-confidence to show your writing to others, hmm, at first glance, this sounds like me. XD , because I’m so fame-phobic and unwilling to market and advertise my book, haha. However, I’m not really THAT lacking in self-confidence, because I’m very happy to let my friends and family read. Like I guess most people, I do anticipate with dread the criticisms I’ll get, but usually the criticisms are reasonable and helpful, which I’m grateful for. And the “suggestions for improvement” comments are among my favorite kinds of feedback. There are also some well-meaning criticisms that are unfortunately not too reasonable, like asking you to change the protagonist’s gender… OTL And of course, there are criticisms that contradict each other, like how some say my story’s pacing was too fast, and some say it was too slow…who am I supposed to believe??? XD (I myself thought it was too fast, haha.)

I do have friends who are too shy to show their work to others, though, and that makes me super curious to see what their stories are about! Hopefully they’ll be willing to share one day! *fingers crossed*

Hmm, thinking back to myself, the reasons why I’m unwilling to advertise my book to a wider audience (i.e. strangers), apart from SOME degree of a lack of self-confidence, are:

1) Mass advertising will be very costly (unless it’s just creating a Facebook page and inviting people to like it);

2) Mass advertising will be very time-consuming (I’d rather spend that time reading, writing, studying, or drawing);

3) A big factor is that I don’t want to become one of those people who spam and annoy others, lol, though of course not all people promoting their books are like this;

4) This might sound kind of funny and strange (and maybe even unbelievable) to some or even most people, but—I want to make sure I stay modest. If I even AIM for fame or IMAGINE myself being famous and popular as a writer, that would inflate my ego and I would think I’m all that and everything. Eek. XP I think this is partly because of my Christian influence that made me so determined to keep myself humble and to never become arrogant or think that I’m better than others. (Yeah, such a strange reason, right? XD)

5) Probably the greatest reason of all, is that I want to retain complete artistic freedom. The more popular your books are, the more you will INEVITABLY be PRESSURED to listen to what your readers want, at least to some extent. I don’t want myself writing to cater to others. I want to write about what I genuinely care about, not some other random popular topic that I’m uninterested in. Maybe what I’d fear most is if I have a lot of fans that beg me to do this or that: “Oh please don’t let X die!” “Please let X and Y get together”, “Why don’t you create such-and-such for so-and-so, so that this problem will be solved?” and all sorts of requests to influence my later plot for a series. Of course, it’s my CHARACTERS who are in control of what happens, not my readers, and I think it will be very distasteful, even wrong, to “make up” the plot, because to me, the plot is not made-up. The plot is a series of events that have already happened in that yonder world. The plot is history, not a picture in progress that you can CHOOSE to draw any way you want. And the terrible thing would be that I would feel too grateful for my fans for liking my books, that I would feel OBLIGATED to please them! Now my poor characters would suffer so much from that. I would be writing something that isn’t true. : (

So yes, I’m one of those writers who have a PARTICULAR need for artistic freedom, lol. Without freedom, a big part of my enjoyment in writing would be gone. : ( Plus, as I grow up, my interests keep changing. I don’t want my readers to “define” me as “the writer who writes X Y Z” or “the writer who would never write about A B C”. I don’t want anybody to limit me. I want to write about whatever topic, whatever scenario, whatever theme, and whatever kind of people I want. What’s more, there are very often times when I REALLY want to defy reader expectations because—I just really want to, and it’s so FUN to surprise (or even to disappoint) them! I’m talking primarily about romances. Some people always believe that if a novel has two opposite gendered protagonists who are both young (teens or twenties, especially), similar-aged, have similar interests, similar personalities, have satisfying or even cute interactions with each other, like each other very much as friends/are close or best friends, and spend a lot of time with each other, they are sure to fall in love and marry and have kids!!! This kind of expectation isn’t always bad, but it annoys me a bit, because it sort of implies that there is “no other way” it can go, that “this is the destined path”—that there is no free will to do it differently, or to live out our relationships differently from what everybody expects. XP

My desire to rebel against this norm and write about characters who have all the above qualities but who are NEVER attracted to each other, stems from my own experience. I have two similar-aged male friends whom I could call close friends, so we obviously like each other very much as people, have satisfying interactions, lots of similar interests, are similar in personality, but we are completely NOT attracted to each other and don’t intend to EVER be attracted to each other! (We’re not even each other’s “type”, anyway.) I have more than once been teased by friends that me and either of my two male friends “look good together”, and it’s SO annoying, for both me and them. XP Some people are just too unpleasantly romantic-minded, argh. It was even worse in primary school though, where people would accuse me EVERY SINGLE DAY of being in love with X or Y or Z. When I was clearly uninterested in ANY of them. Yikes. (In fact, these people were so persistent in their daily accusations, that it was virtually harassment or bullying. 🙁 )

Sorry for that rant. XD But yeah, artistic freedom and the freedom to go against reader expectations all the way!! 😀

Reply

Jami Gold October 3, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Hi Serena,

Honestly, I think those that write “off the beaten” path might be even more valuable because of what you mentioned.

There’s almost always going to be some audience for any kind of story. But think of those readers who don’t get much choice for the kinds of stories they like. For those readers, the authors who meet their needs are rare and precious. 🙂

I don’t see that sharing our story–allowing others to read it–has to equal actively selling it either. Sharing and being sales-y aren’t the same thing. 🙂

And believe it or not, I have a definite fear of fame, like your #4. Luckily I don’t think it will ever happen. LOL! But yes, I do fear all the badness that comes with that.

It’s interesting about the opposite-gender thing. Obviously, as a romance writer, I’m always on the lookout for it. 🙂 But I’m also okay if it’s not there.

I rewatched Pacific Rim a couple of weeks ago, and I think the reason it bugged me so much that the romance wasn’t there was because they did hint at it–even more that I caught on the rewatch. If they’d left it as a strict working relationship, I never would have thought twice about it.

So it’s their fault my mind went to that expectation. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Serena Yung October 4, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Good point about the sharing vs actively selling. That makes me feel better about it. Lol.

Reply

Gary Kriss October 1, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Ah, Jami, another fine, provocative post.

Consider that fear can either be crippling or the impetus to accomplish even more than thought possible.

Consider that writers satisfied with their work should fall on their pens in shame.

Consider that there is a distinction between confidence in what you’re saying and confidence in how you’re saying it and that makes all the difference.

Consider these foolish observations ended.

Reply

Jami Gold October 3, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Hi Gary,

Very true! I try to make fear push me. (I have been known to jump out of a perfectly good airplane–just to prove I could. 🙂 ) Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Carradee October 1, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Everyone has self-contradictions. Everyone.

I see this all the time (and then get treated as if it’s all in my head when I point it out). I suspect writers are just more aware of the dichotomies than a lot of people.

Reply

Jami Gold October 3, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Hi Carradee,

Great point! Yes, we probably are more analytical of the human condition than most. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Kerry Gans October 1, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Self-doubt can be crippling, but it can also show that you are going in the right direction. A small amount of self-doubt is crucial to continued growth as a writer (or a person). I find in many areas of life that the people who feel they are not “good enough” are often the ones doing the best work, the best jobs, and growing their skills. The ones who feel they’ve got it all figured out are often the ones who fall by the wayside in the end, even if they seem to start out with an advantage. So self-doubt can make us better at what we do–as long as we don’t let it consume us.

Reply

Jami Gold October 3, 2013 at 10:21 pm

Hi Kerry,

Yes, if we were completely confident, that would mean we weren’t pushing ourselves, wouldn’t it? 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Lisa October 1, 2013 at 8:49 pm

I was committed. Finished the book. Published it. Sold several copies, all with positive feedback. Met with a publicist that suggested ways I could improve my books marketability with a few tweaks so I started a re-write. I’ve been stuck editing my book ever since. I don’t know if my tweaks are enough. I’m paralyzed by self-doubt because I thought I had it right the first time.

Reply

Carradee October 2, 2013 at 8:48 am

Then leave it and go write the next one. The book’s out there. People are giving you positive feedback. Go write something else.

There’s no such thing as a perfect book.

My first novel is currently having the audio version produced. That means I have to listen/reread it, and I’m cringing. There are so many little “problems” with it—but those “wrong” things are part of what produce the overall whole, which is exactly what I was going for. (And what the fans of it love, because it's unusual—for a reason, but unusual.) If I go back and fix those "problems", I'll damage what the book is.

No such thing as a perfect book, Lisa. 🙂

Reply

Jami Gold October 3, 2013 at 10:24 pm

Hi Lisa,

“Enough” is such a subjective word. Enough for what or who or why? Are they enough for you? Okay, then you’re done.

We need to trust ourselves enough that we don’t let others lead us astray. That’s another balancing act. We want to be open to listening to advice that once we hear it (and accept it) we agree, but if we patently don’t agree with the advice, we have to remain true to ourselves. *hugs* Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Rinelle Grey October 1, 2013 at 10:09 pm

Ugh. Self doubt. I think that’s one that every writer struggles with. There’s a tendency to compare ourselves to the greats, those authors who are household names, and find ourselves lacking. I know I do it.

But I think it’s hard for us to see the beauty in our own works if we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others. Every novel I’ve read has offered me something to think about, and taken me to a world I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. I do agre that every book has something to offer us.

Reply

Jami Gold October 3, 2013 at 10:27 pm

Hi Rinelle,

Serena pointed out in a comment above that comparisons are empty. Are we comparing on content, prose, characterization?

If we compare at enough levels, we’ll always be able to find an aspect that someone is “better” than us. But that also means we might be better than them in a different aspect. So I try really, really hard not to compare. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Donna Hole October 2, 2013 at 10:04 pm

Self doubt is difficult to get past.

Lots of inspirational quotes in this Jami. Thanks for sharing.

……….dhole

Reply

Jami Gold October 3, 2013 at 10:28 pm

Hi Donna,

That it is. But know that we’re not alone. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Teri Anne Stanley October 3, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Great post, as usual!

I’m in the throes of editing my first sale, and working on a proposal with my agent for what might be another sale, and have been back and forth and all over the place with the Self Doubt monster.
I’m trying to be like Russel Crowe in a Beautiful Mind. I recognize that Self Doubt is there, but I’m not going to hang out with it.

I get a critique, and I wallow around for a while, thinking I should pack it in and just forget the whole thing, and then remember that I have a contract. I kind of have to finish this book. That’s usually enough to get me past the beast. Until it pops back up out of the sewer.

I think, though, that we writers tend to thrive on the roller coaster of emotions that is writing…we read because we like the way it makes us think and feel about the world…and writing stuff ourselves just intensifies all of that. “Someone loves what I do, I must be wonderful, life is great,” then, “Oh, but they’re going to tell me how much I suck soon, I’m unworthy of life,” then, “Oh, but my critique partner would just stop answering my emails if I was that bad, so I must be okay…” and so on.

At some point, you just have to hold your nose and jump in.

Reply

Jami Gold October 3, 2013 at 10:30 pm

Hi Teri Anne,

Interesting idea! I generally try to live drama free (I leave all that to my characters 🙂 ), and maybe that helps the hills of my rollercoaster stay more mild.

Of course that also means that I have a hard time really enjoying my “highs.” It’s always something. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

Reply

What do you think?

22 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Previous post:

Next post: