What do lack of motivation, creative block and procrastination all have in common?
It’s all that’s needed to make a writer freeze up, and stop making things.
According to Charles Bukowski, doubting yourself is a good sign:
Now that sounds nice and validating, but don’t let it make you feel too good about not working. After all, it doesn’t matter how much of a good writer you are according to Bukowski — a good writer shows up to work, self-doubt be damned.
So how do you do it?
Stop Comparing Yourself to Other Writers
You were once a teenager who fantasized about being a writer. You read all the stuff that influenced you, and lived for the dream of captivating someone with your writing the same way someone did it for you.
In your pursuit of being just like so and so, you started comparing yourself to other writers. And you’re not only comparing yourself to the ones you look up to — you’re measuring your work against the work of all other writers. This kind of thinking is not productive.
You think looking up to a writer because they’re great is working well for your motivation (“when I grow up, I want to be just like ____”), but what happens when you hate what you’ve written for a week straight? Are you looking up to them still, or beating yourself up because you know you can never achieve their level of greatness?
When you see not-so-good writing, don’t you feel at least a bit good that you’re better than them? Does that last very long? Bad writing isn’t hard to find — so what happens when some of it inevitably ends up being popular and widely acclaimed? Do you feel good then?
If you’re comparing your writing to the writing of others, you don’t truly have a sense of how good you are. You have a sense of how better or worse you are compared to others. This leaves you vulnerable to bipolar-style swings from “I’m the best ever” when you’re on track with all your work and liking what you’re producing to “I’m the worst writer in the world” when you hit a speedbump.
This is a problem.
Stop Using Yardsticks
Raj Raghunathan, a University of Texas professor, recently wrote a book called If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? In it, he outlines the elements that make up a happy person. A key element, he says, is the need for mastery in a domain, and since that isn’t easily measured, people opt for the yardstick — the easy way of telling how good you are. Here’s something he said in an interview for The Atlantic. Substitute “professors” for “writers” and “school” for “publication” in this excerpt:
You’re using external markers — number of publications, the popularity and flattering remarks your work enjoys, amount of notable mentions you’ve gotten, literally anything else — to quell the self-doubt. And the more you get, the less they excite you.
This stifles creative work like nothing else.
Getting external validation works like a drug: when you get some, the good feeling is short-lived, and instead you’re only left with wanting more of it.
“But isn’t this how people become motivated to move further and further in their career? Isn’t this admirable?”
Only if you find an addict working 80 hours per week to support his habit admirable.
Enjoy Making Things
This is the only solution to self-doubt, and it’s finding joy in the process of writing.
“Was I ever meant to be a writer? If I were, why am I not any good?”
These kinds of questions don’t matter as much as you might think. It’s a very self-indulgent thing to think about this constantly, and if you find that you’re thinking about this question more than about your actual writing project, rest assured that you weren’t meant to be a writer.
If you believe in destinies, try thinking about it in this way: a person who is meant to be a writer, writes. A person meant to wonder if they are meant to be a writer, does just that.
You think you’re a writer? Get to work.
Read this quote by the painter Lisa Golightly:
If you learn to stop thinking that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to write, your self-doubt will evaporate. If you learn to stop thinking the outcome of writing matters more than enjoying the work, your neuroticism will seem ridiculous.
Find the joy in the process of writing and putting something together, and the endeavor’s value will become self-evident.
But before you do that, you’ll need to answer a tough question.
Define Good Writing
A significant part of doubting your ability to produce good writing is that you never stopped to consider what good writing is in the first place. And since you’re not comparing your work to that of other writers, how do you even measure if something is good?
You’ll need to sit down and figure out what good writing is to you. In the spirit of greats that came before you, it’s time to write a manifesto. Speaking in the broadest terms, what is your writing trying to achieve? Is there an end goal? What are you fighting for and what are you up against? Answer these questions in concrete statements.
Once you come up with a clear definition of what good writing is to you, you can use it as a benchmark for everything you do. You’ve come up with something to measure your work against, and you don’t have to use the writing of others to do it anymore.
On this blog, we’ve already covered Steven Pressfield’s War of Art in a previous post, but it deserves another mention here.
Not only is it a perfect description of the psychological process behind making art, it’s also a kick in the ass that every self-doubting writer needs.
The book personifies the fear and anxiety holding back creative people as Resistance, and gives readers the tools and frame of mind necessary to beat it. The antidote to Resistance is becoming “a pro” — showing up to work, day in and day out. Because that’s the job. It’s not a romantic answer, but it’s the correct and actionable one.
To overcome self-doubt that prevents you from working… work through it. That’s all there is.
And now, a word from Mr. Pressfield: