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This Writing Life: When Self-Doubt Stops You Writing

11 April, 2011

Every now and then, when I try to write, I experience something that probably falls between panic/stress/depression. That sounds very intense, but I would suspect most writers feel similar things from time to time. “Oh god, this is the worst rubbish ever committed to paper. I’m never, ever, ever going to be readable, let alone published.” Or: “I’m going to be broke for the rest of my life. Why couldn’t I have gotten a real job?” Or: “I really should just quit now because this novel is going nowhere.”

There are a thousand variations and usually I only find myself thinking them for an hour or so before I snap out of it. It’s very easy to sink into a malaise though, and those few hours can be a horrible morass of crippling self-doubt that keeps you from writing. Writing poorly then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you stop writing because you’re not very good, you’re not getting any practice, so you’re never going to improve. So, I thought I’d share a few ways that I cope with the bad days and keep myself writing.

Just keep going.  Sometimes, the best thing you can do is just push on through. Producing something, anything, makes you feel productive, which makes you feel better about yourself and your work. You realise that you’re not writing absolute rubbish after all, so you keep going and, before you know it, you’re back to normal and wondering why you ever had a problem. This is probably my number one solution, but it’s not always the best. Conversely, sometimes the best thing to do is…

Take a break.  If you can’t work your way out of the funk, just stop. Step away from the computer. Do something else entirely. There’s always the danger that you’re going to do something really stupid, like scrapping a whole load of words that were salvageable (and nearly everything is salvageable). And you’re bound to regret that the next day.

Exercise.  If you need a break, going for a walk or otherwise doing some exercise is the perfect activity. Not only is it good for your body, but sometimes exercise shakes things up in your head as well. You see things in perspective, you come up with new ideas, you just generally feel better about yourself. Always a good thing, because confidence is key to creativity.

Read.  This one can be useful, but with a word of caution. Reading something brilliant can be incredibly inspiring – but it can also leave you feeling inadequate about your own writing. Read if you feel it’s going to be helpful, but don’t allow it to make you more stressed than you already are.

There are also a couple of things you really shouldn’t do.

Wallow.  For me, this usually takes the form of using computer games to procrastinate. Any form of entertainment can be fine as a break, but if you find yourself fretting over how much time you’re wasting and how you’re never going to be a decent writer – whilst wondering what the point is anyway, so you might as well just do this next quest or watch this re-run of The Simpsons for the fourteenth time – it’s time to do something else.

Eat.  Unless you can absolutely guarantee that you’re going to eat something healthy, try to stay away from the biscuit tin and the fridge when you’re feeling down. Grab a piece of fruit, yes, but then stay out of the kitchen. Spending the afternoon on the couch eating your way through a tub of ice cream isn’t going to make you a better writer – and it probaby won’t make you feel any better either.

So, there you have a few of my suggestions from leaving that “oh woe is me, my writing sucks” attitude behind and getting back to “I can do this!” What else would you recommend?

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