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Posts Tagged ‘doubt’

etsy print by Andrekart

etsy print by Andrekart

I keep a magic wand on my desk. It’s a simple, unassuming implement made of basswood. I picked it up at a Renaissance Faire a couple of years ago because I liked the feel of the smooth wood and the look of the ash-gray striations that run along its slender length. Also, I didn’t have a magic wand.

I use my wand all the time. I have yet to see it display any overt magical properties, but it is a comforting talisman when I find myself confronted with a writing task that feels beyond my ability. This happens almost every single time I sit down at the keyboard.

I had an honest conversation with some writer friends about this recurring and paralyzing lack of confidence. It was immediately clear that this condition is common among writers. Each of us could relate. Each of us had her own methods for getting past the fear. Whether we chipped away at our anxiety word-by-word, or tried to slingshot past it, each of us knew this chronic ailment intimately.

To be clear, our commiseration was not about suffering from a lack of creativity or battling that shape-shifting foe known most commonly as writer’s block. This was a little different. This was more about feeling like a fraud. More specifically, this was about feeling like a fraud who was about to screw up big time and expose herself as a fraud. This feeling of despair and dread is sometimes called The Impostor Syndrome, and it’s not pretty.

Very often (almost always) when I sit down to write something (an essay, a column, a page of website copy, a case study, a blog post … pretty much anything), I am immobilized by the certainty that I have no idea what I’m doing. Despite the fact that I have been making my living as a writer for nearly seven years, I am sure that the entire experience has been a fluke.

There is a (not so) helpful soundtrack that plays in my head as I sit, staring at the blank page on my screen. It whispers in my ear that the jig is up. It tells me what I think I already know – that there’s no way I can pull off this heist again. The whispering voice marvels at how lucky I’ve been so far, at how gullible my clients have been to accept my work as The Real Thing.

I sit and I stare. The voice rattles on, subduing me with its hypnotic babble. I am sure that the voice is right. After all, here I am – sitting and staring and not writing. Clearly, I have no idea what I’m doing. Clearly I have just been faking it all this time, but my luck was bound to run out and today is the day and oh-my-gods-what-will-I-do-now?!? I type a few words and delete them. Type. Delete. Type. Delete. Type. Delete. Everything sounds staid, crass, cliched. The whisper is getting louder and louder and …

Cue the sound of a needle scratching across a record that has suddenly stopped spinning.

Breathe.

Know that this is completely normal.

You are not a fraud. You are a writer. And this is part of the writing process. At least, it’s part of the writing process for most of the writers I know.

Sure, there are those glorious and golden moments of pure  inspiration when the words fly from your fingers as though coursing through you from some alternate universe where writing is as easy as eating pie. But most of the time, writing is hard. Most of the time, each assignment feels like a new territory and you feel like a lone explorer who is venturing forth without a map or proper supplies or any idea of how to get from point A to point B. You feel like you faked your way here based on false bravado, but now as you stand on the edge of the jungle you’re finally realizing what you’ve promised to deliver and you’re scared.

It’s all going to be okay. Remember – you’ve stood here before and you’ve made it through to the other side. You will do it again.

Each of us has her favorite tricks for hacking past the fear and doubt and paralyzing lack of confidence. Some of us start in the middle. Some of us go for a walk. Some of us set up our page with placeholder headlines and subheads. Some of us read the praise of past clients and editors. I’ve used all these tricks and then some, but the thing that ultimately gets me through a rough start is invoking the thing that scares me most – being an impostor.

Instead of cowering before this supposed flaw, I embrace it.  After all, what is a writer if not a person who makes things up? A writer conjures places, characters, and ideas with words. Why shouldn’t we use this same skill to our own advantage? When I am most stuck, I take “fake it ’til you make it” to a new level. I fabricate a story for myself and I step into it with all the conviction of a method actor. I transform myself into the writer who knows exactly how to tackle the project at hand. I inhabit my role so completely, that pretty soon I have forgotten about the ruse and am thinking only of the words that are flying from my fingers like sparks from the tip of a wand.

That’s when I pause for just a moment and smile to myself. The trick, you see, is not about fooling anyone else into believing I’m a writer. The trick is about fooling myself just long enough to figure out that this writer identity I’ve created for myself is the reality, not the role. I am the writer who knows exactly how to tackle the project at hand. I’d just forgotten my own magic.

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Red-headed_vultureIf hope is the thing with feathers, then Doubt is the thing with claws. After writing gloriously since August, I’ve come to the end of yet another draft of Ellen, a novel. No sooner did I lay my keyboard aside, then Doubt barged in and started clawing at my confidence.

Hope sings the tune without the words; Doubt whispers: This story’s no good, you’re no good, and who cares about Ellen, anyway? Doubt might as well just pluck out my liver and be done with it. I think about consigning my typescript to the wood stove and getting a day job with Dilbert.

But Doubt is no stranger to my door. By now, I know he’ll always return at my most vulnerable moment – when I’m flush with achievement and have a new draft in the box. By now, I know that I can’t lock my doors against Doubt; I can’t starve him, poison him, or get a restraining order to keep him away. So this time, I’m trying something entirely different: I’m befriending Doubt. This time, I’ve offered him a perch in the corner.  Now, at least I know where he is.

I don’t think I’m unusual; aren’t all writers plagued by Doubt? First come the doubts of ability: How can I possibly tell this story? Then the doubts of endurance: Will I live long enough to finish? And finally, the doubts about worth: Is it any good?

If the questions don’t paralyze me, the answers might – but only if I lay down my pen in despair.

For years, it seems, I’ve exhausted myself locking Doubt out of the house, and I’m tired of toiling against the same old demons. So when Doubt arrived last week, I smiled weakly and said, “Come on in.”

I figure Doubt’s like one of those relatives we all endure, the cousin who never misses a family gathering, always drinks too much, tells off-color jokes, brags about things you don’t care about, and asks in a tone of slimy superiority, So, have you written a best-seller yet?

Like  Emily Dickinson’s Hope, my Doubt also wears feathers – shaggy black ones, like a vulture. And he’s hulking in the corner right now, as I write this. It turns out, he’s splashing his tea, pecking at a Christmas cookie, and making a mess. But that’s okay, because he’s also leaving me in peace. And I’m comforted to know he’s there, comfortable by the fire and unlikely to blindside me at the moment. In fact, he’s just about to nod off.

I’ve come to the radical belief that while Doubt isn’t my best friend, he’s not my enemy, either. Doubt is just something a writer lives with, like hope.

Wishing you all light and love as the earth turns back toward the sun, and holidays filled with hope.

dll2013Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist and educator. She’s a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio and the author of Into The Wilderness, an award-winning love story set in Vermont in 1964.

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You’re a writer on a deadline. You know you should be cranking on your assignment, but instead you’re staring at a blank page with your mouth open, your heart pounding, and your mind doing its best impression of a black hole. You have no good ideas. You can’t string together a single sentence. The lifeless forms of impotent words are strewn around you like so much literary roadkill. You’re suddenly sure that everything you’ve ever written is crap. The void of the stark white and oh-so-empty page starts to give you a bad case of vertigo.

Writer’s block – the kryptonite we dare not name. 

Whether writing is how you make your living or how you feed your passion, there are few things more terrifying to a writer than sitting down and finding the words have stopped flowing. But what causes this sudden paralysis? It’s not a virus or a temporary gene mutation. It’s not hereditary or influenced by environmental factors. In fact, there is no clinical proof that writer’s block exists, and yet writers routinely claim their muses are held hostage in its grip.

What if writer’s block is simply a convenient name for a collection of common roadblocks that keep writers from writing? What if, instead of fearing this mysterious affliction, you could break it down to its most basic elements and wrest yourself from its control? I believe that’s not only a possibility, but also our obligation. As writers, we have a responsibility to create. We don’t have time to waste with fabricated demons.

Writer’s Block Cause #1: Fear

Yes, it’s that obvious.

Writer’s block isn’t about some external force sucking your ideas and talent away. Writer’s block is about your own fear taking over your nervous system and depleting your confidence to the point of paralysis. It’s about attempting to avoid pain and disappointment by eliminating risk. Putting your thoughts out into the world requires courage and conviction. When your fears inspire a case of vicious self-doubt and second-guessing, it’s no wonder you end up feeling sapped of creative juices.

The bad news:

You have every right to be afraid. Your fears are not unfounded or irrational.

The most common fear – fear of failure – is totally justified. There’s every chance you might fail. You might find that you don’t have the chops to deliver a particular assignment. You might come under fire for “doing it wrong.” You might find yourself suffering the slings and arrows of self-appointed critics. You might have to endure public exposure or ridicule. Worst of all, you might be awoken one night by the initial tremors of your writing dream’s death throes.

There are so many things that can trigger our fear. Apart from the human impulse to imagine the worst case scenario, writers have a particular aptitude for self-flagellation via comparison. We read the brilliant work of someone else and start to wonder why we even bother. We dread putting our own work out into the world for fear that someone else will make the same comparison and find our efforts wanting. The world is full of heartless assassins who won’t hesitate to put a bullet in our writing.

The good news:

The good news is that your fear comes from love. You love writing. You love story. You love your craft. Your fear mirrors the depth and intensity of your love. No wonder it’s powerful enough to strike you dumb! Your fear is just a normal reaction to your desire to protect something you care about. It’s not unusual for a stressful situation to send even the most rational of us into that fight-or-flight space. And what could be more stressful than risking the survival of something that is such a big part of who we are? Bring on the lizard brain and forget about sticking your neck out. Give in to writer’s block and keep your tender dreams alive, right?

Wrong.

Now What?

You’ve identified and acknowledged your fear. You understand that it’s holding you back. What’re you going to do about it? Fear is a pretty tenacious emotion. It’s not impressed by logic. You aren’t going to argue your way out of this one. Instead, let’s try a story.

When you start to feel the waves of doubt and fear creeping up from your heart into your brain and then down to your fingertips where they rest motionless on the keyboard, tell yourself the story of your journey as a writer. Start with gently reminding yourself that it is a journey. No one wakes up one morning a fully formed writer. The transformation from aspiring writer to accomplished writer requires traveling a usually long and almost always twisting road. Your writer self needs to grow and learn and evolve, just like you do. Be gentle with her. Don’t expect her to be a master craftsman the first time out.

Remember that you are the hero of your story. Guess what – the hero never has it easy. If you’re going to have your happy ending, you’re going to have to go through some stuff. Some of it will be good, some of it not so good. You will be challenged. You will fall down and have to get back up. You will face demons and dragons and bad guys. You will lose your way and find it again. Each time you get derailed or discouraged, remember that this is just part of what it means to be a hero. These are the experiences that will prepare you for later victory.

Accept where you are in your journey. Celebrate your triumphs and embrace your failures.  Know that you must experience both to become the writer you’re meant to be. Count each elated high and each desperate low as equally valuable notches on your literary belt. Remember that your fear comes from love and is a completely normal reaction to the stress of potential failure. Feel the fear and write anyway. Savor the lessons learned at least as much as the outcome of your efforts. You may never fully eradicate your fear, but you will at least learn to live with it and – more importantly – write through it.

How does your fear keep you from writing? What are your biggest fears? How do you push past them? 

This is the first post in a series about the causes of that fictitious condition known as writer’s block. I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone who feels they have suffered from this inability to put words down. I just believe that if we can uncover and face the root causes of this uniquely literary affliction, we can slay the writer’s block dragon and get back to the work at hand. Who’s with me?


Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: Darren Hestor

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Why do you write?

What small yet untamed beast lives inside you, driving you to put down the words?

I am a writer, but I am not the writer I want to be. Each time someone asks me what I do, my writer’s heart dies a little death when I answer that I am a writer, but then have to explain that I’m not that kind of writer. “No,” I say, “I don’t write books. I blog, publish the occasional print piece, and mostly make my living writing marketing copy.”

Of all the things you can do in this world, why write? Writing is not easy. It does not typically bring fame or fortune. People often look at you funny when you say you are a writer, and your brain is never truly at rest.

So, why write?

Simple.

Love.

Stop laughing and, please, no eye rolling.

Love is the only possible explanation. Not so much for commercial writing, but certainly for creative writing. Each word we write is an expression of our love for the world, life, nature, humanity. Whether we are writing an essay, a blog post, a poem, a story, or a novel – each piece we create is a proclamation, a confession of the heart.

And that’s why it’s so damn scary.

When you love something so much, there is a part of you that would rather see it dead, than subjected to cruelty, disappointment, or pain. There is a part of you that would prefer to keep your story pristinely unmade, rather than risk destroying its perfection by creating it.

I have been writing for my whole life. I began journaling when I was seven years old. Though my practice has fluctuated with the uneven rhythms of my life, I have never stopped putting words down. Three-and-a-half decades of words, but it is only in the past three years that I have shared any of them. Though I now earn my living as a professional writer, I am still only taking baby steps towards owning my work, my beast.

Because, you remember, I am not the writer I want to be. I hold her hostage, in a high tower of doubt and fear. And while the writer-I-would-be languishes in her protective prison, my feet-on-the-ground, commercial writer walks free. She crafts her product and collects her respectable paychecks. She is pragmatic and slightly smug. She is, after all, bringing home the bacon. She is pulling her weight. She is living in the real world.

And yet …

… and yet sometimes I feel an unbearable ache to tear all of this away, to stop inhabiting the skin of this almost-writer. I have an urge to recklessly lay it all on the line, gamble the whole thing. I want to stop contaminating the words of my heart with the words of commerce. I want to divert my life force back into the stories that sing through my mind, instead of siphoning that energy off to feed the machine of business.

But, I don’t.

It’s not just that I have a living to make and a daughter to provide for. It is my heart that stays my hand – my writer’s heart, full to overflowing with love for the world, the stories, and the craft. “What if you fail?” it asks. What if I fail? What if I cannot do justice to this love, but only mar it with imperfect words? Would the story be better off dead than maimed and mutilated in my inept hands?

No. Emphatically, no.

No one else can tell my story. No one else inhabits my world.  No one else can even dream of bringing this love into the light, except for me. If I stumble, I will find someone to help me back on my feet. If I lose my way, I will find someone to guide me back to the path. If I lose hope, I will find someone to believe in me more than I believe in myself.

That is what’s in the writer’s heart – a story all her own; the drive to bring it to life; and a sometimes fragile, sometimes ferocious hope that the journey will end with happily ever after.

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who, among other things, works as a marketing strategist and copywriter. She helps creative entrepreneurs (artists, writers, idea people, and creative consultants) discover their “natural” marketing groove so they can build their business with passion, story, and connection. She also blogs. A lot. She is a mom, a singer, and a dreamer who believes in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Look her up on facebook or follow her on twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: Luke Hayfield

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