Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Nuts or Normal?

Before I share my existential angst for the day, I need to categorically state: I am not fishing for reassurance or sympathy. If I get that in response to this post it will be confirmation that I’m unable to express ideas through the use the written language and I will go out into the back yard in my purple pajamas, dig a deep hole and pull the dirt in on top of myself.

It’s a niggling, hollow, anxious feeling of self doubt I’m having today. Just when the rhythm of writing, the study of craft, the balance of creativity and process seemed to be coming together, a chasm of uncertainty opened up beneath my feet.

Does this happen? Is this normal? Do “real” writers ever get part way through a draft and suddenly wonder if it’s all a big pile of crap?

I wonder if it’s like that phenomenon that used to happen back in the seventies, when experimentation with mind altering substances was a great way to spend a Saturday night. We’d stay up all hours of the night, chain smoking Marlboros, getting all excited about our radical new ideas and philosophies and by morning, the genius had all left the room and we found ourselves wondering what the hell we could have been thinking?

Is it because I turned in the first excerpt to my workshop instructor last night for critique and all the way home I couldn’t help but pick my own work apart? That before even getting the feedback, I know some of the problems already?

Is it that I’m thinking maybe this whole time, without getting any authoritative feedback on what I’m doing, I’ve been living in that shadow world of 1977 in that ratty apartment in a New England mill town, incense burning, pupils dilated until the irises are disappeared, cross legged on the floor with two or three other psilocybin deluded nutcases under the spell of imaginary promise?

Or is it just the opposite?

Would it be more deluded to press on with confidence, never experiencing moments of gripping self doubt? Typing and editing away without a doubt in the world that the end result will be a fine read? Or that maybe it will be good and published and people might like it? Do we need to build up the illusion of confidence in order to keep doing what we do, knowing that we can't stop, but that the reality is the vast majority of us will fail?

I know this will pass, probably by the end of the day, but it was a surprise that it hit so hard and so unexpectedly.

Do you ever have moments of intense self doubt? When? Why? What triggers it?

Post Script: In case you doubt the veracity of my comment about jumping into a hole wearing purple pajamas, go here to see my first online photo debut. I am a contest winner and will receive a signed copy of Carleen Brice's new novel , Orange Mint and Honey which will be released by Ballantine in February -- same time as Therese Fowler's US debut for Souvenir. Carleen has also written three non-fiction books and the one I think I need most right now, Age ain't Nothing but a Number is on it's way to my house right now. Carleen is the original Pajama Gardener! It is a testament to serendipity that although Carleen and I both live in the Metro Denver area and Carleen has been a long time member of my new home away from home, Lighthouse Writers Workshop that we met through Olufunke at her delightful blog about writing, iyan and egusi soup.


Charles Gramlich said...

I've had many many moments of intense self doubt about my personal talent. Sometimes I realize later that the stuff was pretty good despite my doubts. Other times the doubt lingers until I change something. I don't think this ever completely goes away for any writer.

kristen said...

Sorry, Lisa, Charles is right. It doesn't go away. And it pops up when you least expect it and sometimes, if you are very lucky, it is gone by the end of the day. Other times, it makes itself comfortable on your couch and stays awhile.

Funny, I posted about a similar feeling (though not necessarily tied to writing) today. I attribute mine to the weather -- do you, by chance have grey skies over Denver?

I'm a terrible gardener, so I can't find solace there. We opted today for baking choc. chip cookies and a barrel of Lincoln Logs. Somehow, it's helping.

Anonymous said...

Yep. I vacillate between believing I can write better than many stories that are published in well established lit journals, to totally feeling my stuff is immature and unskilled and dumb.

susan @ spinning

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Oh yeah, the doubt is always there, sometimes in the basement, sometimes right on the sofa next to me sipping coffee. There are moments (sometimes even days!) when it's dormant, but I think it all has to do with risks. I mean, if I never took any, there'd be no room for doubt, but what's the fun in that? So, I write (but it can be any creative endeavor, I think), and there are days I know it's good, days I'm sure it blows, and lots of days in between. When I was teaching there was a similar rhythm. Days I was totally on target with my classes and days I was sure they were going to confiscate my license.

I like Kristen's solution of baking cookies.

And wine every evening with my honey helps too.

iyan and egusi soup: said...

dear lisa:

from my experience, and from that of those writers (of various levels of accomplishment) with whom i've talked, intense self-doubt--the kind that sinks deep into your being, and causes you to ask whether you are being foolish to continue on a path fraught with such uncertainty--is a part of the writing journey.

what i've learned to understand (and this has taken months of intentional practice) is that the doubt is often not the truth--it is mostly a distorted form of it. and doubt can surface most strongly at those moments we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with our work--e.g. sharing a piece in progress for the purpose of critique.

i can share that i've experienced this sort of doubt you describe, when things were moving along well (during the process of my first publication), and when things were quiet (moments that felt nothing was soon or quick enough).

what i am learning is to seek daily gems wherever they might be found--markers on the road (small and large) that remind me i am on the path that is meant for me. i began the blog for this very reason: to remind myself of the treasures i might otherwise miss.

i don't claim to be confident; sometimes, i am not. i do claim to have a knowing that is ultimately, unshakable. and this knowing is what keeps me writing, no matter what.

Lisa said...

Ahhh -- and at the heart of it all, this is one of the main reasons to blog -- to not be like that dog Judy talked about in one of her posts -- just howling balefully into the night and hoping for a response. You are all great.

Charles, Knowing you're a published novelist, scholar, poet and essayist and you still get hit with it and you're willing to share that means so much. And based on your upcoming semester teaching about psychopharmacology, all recommendations welcome :)

Kristen, I know you freelance for a living and it it pops into your world uninvited, then I know it's not a danger that just pertains to newbies.

Susan, My absolute hero when it comes to prolific, thoughtful, beautiful writing -- et tu? My, it is normal then, isn't it?

Judy, Knowing how wonderful All the Numbers is and that you have a book in progress that may be even better still -- it must be a built in part of the job description, yes? Baking, eating very bad food, staying in pajamas all day, crawling into bed and watching Annie Hall for the 200th time -- all good options for me!

Olufunke, you offer such wonderful insights. Doubt is not often the truth -- mostly a distorted form of it (yes) -- and seek gems -- markers on the road that remind me I'm on the path meant for me.

Yes, this is why I blog. It's always such a comfort to know that we're not alone. You guys are great!

Shauna Roberts said...

Yeah, those feelings sometimes sneak up on me too. Things that help me keep going and ignore them:

•it doesn't really matter whether I, Shauna, think my work is great or terrible. People are not good judges of their own work. The person whose opinion ultimately matters in my getting published is the editor. And that person won't get to see it unless I finish the book.

•You can fix bad writing, but you can't fix an empty page. (paraphrased from a Nora Roberts quote)

•The more one practices a skill, the better one gets. Things that seem to be insolvable problems now in my novel may not be by the time I get to the second draft.

•I subscribe to receive an inspirational quote each day by email. These are usually from people who have achieved great things against high odds, which is a good reminder that the impossible can be done.

Lisa said...

Shauna, You are always sooooo practical. Thanks for these gems. I really like -- you can fix bad writing but you can't fix an empty page -- that's really good. Thank you!

Carleen Brice said...

Feeling like a lousy hack seems to be of the process. Goes hand in hand with the occasional feeling that I've WRITTEN THE BEST THING EVER. Fortunately, neither feeling lasts forever. As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Good for you for blogging your way through it.

Lisa said...

Carleen, It has been such a relief to find that it's not just me -- hooray to that. Now -- if I could now and then get that I'VE JUST WRITTEN THE BEST THING EVER feeling -- even for a little while, that would be OK too :)

Larramie said...

Hmm, how about putting this into perspective, Lisa. How often do you doubt your writing and how often do you have a "bad hair day?"

Just think about it. ;)

Lisa said...

Larramie, I can always count on you for perspective.

And tomorrow -- back to something more POSITIVE :)

cs harris said...

No book ever lives up to the idea I have when I start writing it. By the time I'm finished, I'm convinced my latest WIP is the worst thing I've ever written, an unadulterated piece of s**t that will kill my career. This belief persists until I've written another 2-3 books, then I look back at my earlier work and think, Wow, that was actually pretty good. Why can't I write like that anymore?

Lisa said...

Candice, I guess I should not be too surprised that even published authors like you and the other authors who've commented here, even with multiple books out and in the world, still get that feeling from time to time. From the unpublished perspective, I think I (maybe it's not just me) tend to sometimes imagine all of you as having the hang it it, knowing all the secrets and living in a magical literary realm beyond self doubt. It sounds silly to me even as I type it. I suppose any creative endeavor will inherently bring with it those negative impulses. I won't say misery loves company, but I will say that it's reassuring to know that anxiety and self doubt are a normal part of this process. Thank you so much for stopping to comment.

Therese said...

Hi Lisa--great post!

Here's a direct quotation from my writing journal almost exactly a year ago today. On Aug 22 I mailed Souvenir to my agent, who knew almost nothing about the story I was sending; on the 23rd I wrote:

"Tonight I am sure that Souvenir is shallow and sucky, and expect to remain so convinced until W. says otherwise--if she does."

You learn to inhabit the feeling but to also take it in stride.

Lisa said...

Therese, Oh my God, your journal entry cracked me up (although I'm sure you weren't feeling great when you wrote it). I just love the fact that someone as normally articulate as you are chose to use the word "sucky". Sometimes it's the only one that fits how we feel!

Learn to inhabit it...that is a great way of putting it. Thanks for sharing something the feelings of suckiness that preceded what turned out to be a fairy tale success.

Ello said...

Hi, I've been lurking in your blog all month and have enjoyed it very much. Thought this was a really good thought provoking post with great comments. Was curious if you had your critique yet and if yes how did it go? I find that self doubt is the hallmark of any writer and it is only natural for all of us to at any given time seriously think about chucking our WIPs out the window. But how have you handled negative criticism from other sources? I experienced a vicious critique from my sister of all people which nearly put paid to all my writing aspirations. It was hard to overcome and I have learned to never ask my sister to review my work again in order to save our relationship.

It's funny because I would much rather have a negative (but fair) critique of my work rather than a effusive flattering critique, but there are times when a particularly harsh one (which seems more personal) can really get you down. Couple that with a writer's own self doubt and it can trigger the worst type of writer's block.

Lisa said...

Ello, I'm so glad you commented and I've just been reading your blog and I think it's great! Actually, I'll get a critique back from my instructor on Monday and I'll provide copies of an excerpt to my fellow workshoppers and get critique from each of them the following Monday. This is really the first formal critiquing I will get. I have gotten what I'd call more general feedback from a couple of people, and it's been generally positive with some suggestions for what I could do to improve it. In a way, I think I almost want some tough love. I do have a pretty thick skin and what I'm working on now really is at a pretty early stage, there are a number of things that need to be significantly strengthened, but I also don't completely trust my own instincts yet. Getting 10 people to provide critique on the same excerpt will be invaluable to me, since with that much input, if I hear the same thing from several people, I can feel pretty confident it's probably valid and if one or two people come up with things that seem off target, I think I'll be able to put it into the right context. A relative once called me "pulseless", which was meant to be a plus at the time (he wanted me to sign as medical proxy on a living will), but I have mixed emotions about appearing too unemotional! I do think it will be a good thing in this case, but truly, I don't expect to be upset by anything anyone tells me (again, I may be devastated, who knows?). I think I would be upset by a critique so negative that it felt vicious or personal, but I wouldn't be upset about it because of my writing. I think I'd wonder why the person was being so hurtful. I totally agree with you about the flattering critiques. I do have some close relatives who know what I'm up to and who I think would love anything I put on paper. I love them for it, but I can't take any of it seriously. Sooo -- maybe I'll post about how my first group critique feels after it happens and maybe I won't :)

Ello said...

Thanks for coming to my blog! You were up late last night! I loved your comments!

One of the best things that came out of the last writing workshop class I took was my current writers group which has now been going strong for nearly 2 years. And what I liked about everyone in my group is the ability to give thoughtful analysis on what works and doesn't work in a piece. I read the post in the Writer's Group about how they critique and I can say that is how ours works and why it works so well. It took 3 different workshops over several years before I found a group that made sense to work with. But its been great because we work so well together. I hope your workshop works out well for you and look forward to hearing about it.

PS - I love the painting of sunset on your homepage. It is incredibly beautiful. I loved the previous one also, but this is my absolute favorite. It makes me feel quiet inside,does that make sense?

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf