Monday, 19 April 2010

Bottling It

(or Does Self-doubt Make you a Better Writer or Just a More Miserable One?)

Before I start this post, I am aware that there are some of you who don't suffer from self-doubt. Impossible as this may seem, some view writing as a constant life-affirming joy.

God, how I envy you.

Picture the scene:
I am nineteen (yeah, I know. You're writers, use your imagination)
I am on Blockbusters, the TV quiz show hosted by the venerable Bob Holness. I'm in a team of one, against two other teenagers who are nice enough and smart enough but not totally outclassing me.

I am winning.

It's the best of three and I've blazed straight through the first game and am two questions away from winning the second.
And then it happens. I realise that I'm going to win.

And everything falls apart.

I stumble, I falter. I buzz in too early for questions I could have easily got right if I'd waited slightly longer.
I lose the second game and go into the deciding third. We battle hard, but my confidence is gone gone gone.
I return home from Nottingham with 65 quid and a signed dictionary.

For years afterwards, I will justify my defeat through strength of numbers, and people will support this notion. "It's not fair, two against one," they'll say, and I will nod agreement. Holding the real truth inside me, that I could have easily won but...

I bottled it.

The fact that this event - almost exactly half my life ago - holds such significance for me is worth exploring. Well, worth exploring for me anyway - you might want to go off and catch up on the latest volcanic ash movements for the next few paragraphs :-)

The point at which I snatch failure from the jaws of success has assumed mythic qualities in my mind. But it belies all the things I've done successfully since. Just two months after Blockbusters, I met the woman who became (and is still) my wife. A few years later, I got a first class degree and since then I've managed to continuously hold down a full-time job. Oh, and I've written a couple of books, too.

But it still haunts me. Especially now, when I am a week from submitting the-most-important-draft-of-my-life (until the next one, that is). The book is great so far, I can see how to finish it, I have a plan in place and yet... Well, I lay awake in bed last night wondering about that one!

Self-doubt crops up in many walks of life, but writers seem particularly prone. Many a manuscript has been almost burnt by the self-doubting author (in fact, I know one of the other Undiscovered Voices winners whose spouse saved their book from a similar fate). The action of writing is often to question accepted norms, to explore society and our place in it. It is inevitable that those people who are constantly questioning themselves should feel drawn to this kind of activity.

We hold ourselves to high standards, or at least we have to if there is any hope of ever being published. Clearly, a background level of self-analysis is a good thing because it forces us to attack the problem from several directions and boost the likelihood we'll find the right approach. But high levels of self-doubt are crippling and counter-productive. As ever, it's a case of finding the right balance.

Let me take some comfort from the classic three-act structure. At the end of act 2, our hero/heroine's plan will be thrown into utter disarray. But they must prevail, holding their nerve and self-confidence to emerge triumphant by the end of act 3.

Maybe I'll try to sleep on that.



  1. If your book is anything like your blog you have no need for self-doubt!

  2. LOL Nick! I so my case though, when I think I'm being rubbish, I usually am. Some how I doubt that's your problem....Oh God, am bursting to say this, I can't stop myself, it's coming, it's coming....
    "Can I have a P please Bob?"

  3. Thanks for this - very timely for me. I have creeping self-doubt and though I always do at this stage in a story (about three-quarters done) I still think that, well, yes, this time it's justified because it is an absolute pile of slop. When I am teaching I address doubt in young people by saying - if this task were a stinking ditch that you had to jump in your best trainers you wouldn't stand a chance dithering about on the edge like that. Trying to take my own advice today and you've helped. Good luck Nick - go for it!

  4. Ouch: that Blockbusters story has that haunts-your-small-hours quality. (My equivalent relates to inadvertently eating someone else's lasagne. Still makes me shudder.)

    The self-doubt thing is brutal! I suppose the only solace is that we all do it. I just wish it didn't eat into my writing time by consuming my confidence for days on end. If my editor wasn't currently reading my new MS I would be toasting my hands on it quite happily right now...

    Good luck with broaching The Final Week! I always love it when the last page is in sight.

  5. Thanks peeps - your words of encouragement are always welcome! It seems like I get a slightly different flavour of self-doubt, one that's predicated on me screwing it up when I've almost got it right.

    Val - I've tried to jump many ditches and mostly landed ok. I did get one foot very wet once. Or am I missing the metaphor somewhere? ;-)

  6. I was trying to say that it's the doubt that makes you question your abilty and that's what then makes you give an under-par performance; whether it's jumping ditches, knowing the right answer to a question or being able to understand division. You're right: it's different from the kind of malaise I get when doubt stops me writing. Your reminder that it is crippling and counter-productive made me sit up and take note. Thanks

  7. Let's hope with this draft you can put your Blockbusting to bed . . . that's quite a heavy load you've been carrying!

  8. Val - Your idea of treating the doubt itself as a tangible thing is brilliant. I'd never really thought about it like that before. In fact, I visualised it as a snake and then proceeded to bludgeon it with an imaginary hammer. Yep, not actually joking here and it really seemed to help!

  9. How we suffer! Thanks for sharing this, I'll keep reading it whenever I need motivation. It's good to be reminded that we all (well, most of us) suffer self doubt when we don't need to.

  10. But you know Nick, self doubt can make us better writers. it always works for me. what is hard is to believe that you can get out of the dark dark tunnel.

  11. I don't believe in self doubt or writers block! We all have an infinite capacity for greatness (or maybe that's the wine talking) ;-j

  12. This post resonates with me today. Are you sure you didn't eat my brain? Why is it such a crippling, counter-productive soul-sucker which creeps up on you, unannounced? Ugh, elation to sticking spoons in eye sockets... spot on, Nick.