Writers, Make Your Doubt Your Mirror

If I told you that doubt could be a friend to your creative process, would you believe me?

It’s true. Let me explain. 

Credit: Nono Fara
Credit: Nono Fara

In general, doubt is a big pain in the writer’s backside. It’s got the power to stop chapters in their paths, erect dams that get in the way of creative flow, and be an all-around nuisance.

Doubt is right up there with that one humblebraggy friend on Facebook giving her entire Newsfeed the play-by-play as she books her latest tropical vacation (bonus points for wondering out loud whether Aruba or St. Thomas is nicer this time of year).

As annoying as it is when you’re doing the just-sit-down-and-write thing, doubt has a far greater power: It’s a mirror, reflecting your biggest fears right back at you, laying them out for your study. Insofar as you’re in the business of writing more, better, faster, the doubt-mirror is a huge advantage. Here’s how you can use it.

How to Look at Doubt

Like I said, doubt is a mirror. But looking straight at your doubts isn’t as simple as wiping away the steam from the glass above your bathroom sink. It’s more unpleasant than any bad hair day and more honest than the bathroom scale—staring straight at what scares you, acknowledging it, even cataloging it, can be humbling, disturbing and even painful. I’ve eaten up a lot of well-meaning advice that says to simply ignore the doubts, stuff them down, shove them away.

But you look at them. You take them out of the checked-luggage line and haul them in your carry-on. Maybe you even write them down.  Here’s a sampling of doubts I unearthed about my latest project, a narrative nonfiction piece about the role of photography in an age of selfies and vicarious living, to help you get started:

What if this is old news by the time I’m done with it?
Does finishing this mean I have to break down and get a Snapchat account?
I don’t know anyone else who uses Snapchat besides my husband’s college-aged cousin.
What if these ideas are only coherent in my head?
Will anyone even understand my point?
What if this topic is a waste of time?
Will anyone care?

And many, many more, but you get the idea. Face ’em, get ’em out in the open. Then…

Credit: The Ewan
Credit: The Ewan

Locate Imaginary Problems and Snuff Them Out

When you’re honestly considering your doubts, as a whole or one by one, the first thing you’re sure to notice is that more than a few of your worries hinge on “what if?” scenarios. They’re not about your creative weaknesses (you know about those already). They’re about things like “What if this novel is too much of a risk? Should I stuck to subjects I know better?” or, like I recorded above, “What if this topic is a waste of time?”

Here’s the thing. You got into creative endeavors, and writing specifically, because you’ve got things to say, and you’re advanced enough in your craft that you know, deep down, that they’re worth saying. You might not feel it all the time (that’s another post altogether), but you know it, or knew it once. That’s enough.

Pick off the “what if?” statements first. Don’t answer them. Just strike them out. They’re merely manifestations of our natural fear of failure, and have only tenuous connections to art and to your work in particular.

Highlight the Short-Term Fixes

Heres where the doubt-as-mirror concept really shines: In your doubt audit, you’ll turn up some doubts that have a basis in reality, and that you can fix. Quickly.

For example, in the list of my own doubts (above) there are one or two doubts that can be assuaged with nothing more than a few keystrokes or clicks of my mousepad. If you find a few of these on your doubt list, jot down a quick solution to each.

For example, my list of solutions looks like this:
What if this is old news by the time I’m done with it? I’ll do a quick trending topics search on Google when the essay is ready to go, and I’ll feel better. People aren’t going to stop using the cameras on their smartphones anytime soon. Unfortunately.
Does finishing this mean I have to break down and get a Snapchat account? Probably. Suck it up and do it.
I don’t know anyone else who uses Snapchat besides my husband’s college-aged cousin. Put out a call on Facebook and G+ see who responds.

Done and done.


Phone a Friend for Doubts You Can’t Quiet

Some of the doubts in the list I mentioned above don’t have a quick solution, but neither are they pointless, imaginary fears. To make sure my work is on the right track, and answer the What if these ideas are only coherent in my head? and Will anyone even understand my point? questions, I’ll show my essay materials to a trusted friend, mentor or colleague, with those exact concerns in tow.

Sounds pretty simple, but there’s a catch: If edits and major course corrections are needed, you have to be willing to make them, or at least change something. But in the changing, you’ll gain a measure of strength from the doubts you are easing.

Jettison the Rest

If you’re keeping track, there’s one doubt left on the list I haven’t covered in any of the preceding three categories, and that’s because “Will anyone care?” doesn’t fit comfortably into any one of them. While it’s a real concern, your opinions or the assurances of a small group of writing friends is not going to dispel it. Instead, the only thing to do with real doubts that are unanswerable is to do as the advice gurus tell you: Dump it, flush it away. Jettison it. Think about it no more.

When all else fails, you’ve got to break the doubt-mirror to break free of it.

What are your strategies for making doubt work for you? Do you prefer to face your fears head-on, or do you find it’s better to ignore them, and keep on keeping on? Share your experiences in the comments.