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Overcoming Writer’s Doubt

As writers, setbacks are part of our experience. Whether in the form of a bad review, an outright rejection, or a day so packed with the tasks of day-to-day life that there’s no time left to write, setbacks of any kind can become draining.

Fortunately, there are strategies we can employ to beat back rejection and work toward creating a writing habit that works for us. Sometimes, though, those setbacks take root somewhere far more daunting—not from without, but within.

So what do we do when we find ourselves doubting the quality of our work? What if we’re worried we’ll never be read?

What if we start thinking it’s time to give up?

Trust me: it’s not. It’s never time to give up.

Dark thoughts of failure are natural; everyone has them. Don’t believe me? Pick up a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing and tell me there aren’t moments where even he reckons with his mortality as a writer (and, frighteningly enough, as a person). J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was famously passed over by a number of publishers, and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 121 times before it reached publication.

Aside from the fact that they’re all published, what do those writers have in common?

They. Kept. Writing.

They wrote not because they were driven by the profit motive or the need for self-aggrandizement; they wrote because they had stories to tell, advice to give, literal and figurative dragons to slay.

So if you’re struggling with writer’s doubt, remind yourself the joy comes in the work. It’s the fingers on the keys or wrapped around a pen, the fresh-brewed cup of coffee that keeps you writing onward, the silence of the apartment once you’ve fed the cats. All of it is part of the act of creation, the process through which we translate the pictures in our minds into words at which others can later smile, laugh, or cry.

“But the writing itself is what has me down.”

If the above doesn’t speak to you, the writer’s doubt might really have you in its grasp. And that’s okay—I’ve been there, too: so deep that even the act of writing itself seems a chore, one you’d like to abandon in favor of (dare I say it?) actual chores!

I can say from personal experience, though, that whenever I’ve found myself on the verge of giving up writing for good, there’s always been a breakthrough just around the corner.

One example: I can’t tell you how many short stories I’ve had rejected or how many times each one has been passed over individually (well, actually I could get into the specifics because Duotrope is great, but that’s not the point). There were a few times as recently as this summer where I’d find myself driving or at breakfast or in the shower, questioning whether maybe it was time to move on. Heck, I’d even forgotten I still had some stories out on submission at that point; I’d just accepted those places would never get back to me.

So you can imagine my surprise when I checked my inbox to finally find an email of acceptance.

Then, a month later, another one came. Then another.

Over the course of three months, I went from nearly unfurling a white flag to having two stories and one article published.

And guess what? I’m not Stephen King. I’m not J. K Rowling. I’m not Robert Pirsing.

I’m me; you’re you—we have to judge our success not against that of others, but against what makes us happy. For me, I had stories to tell, and finally knowing they’d be out there for others to (hopefully) enjoy was just the boost I needed to climb out of the hole into which I’d burrowed.

Of course, then, that doubt still managed to creep in: was I writing just for the approval of others? If so, was I in this for the wrong reasons?

It took me a few days of self-examination to realize that the true reason I was so pleased to have finally had those breakthroughs wasn’t because it finally meant to some extent I’d somehow “made it” (whatever that means). Rather, it was because I was pleased to finally share those pieces with the community at large.

For me, anyway, sharing that content was what counted in the end, and having the ability to share it on an expanded platform was a cherry on top of that sharing sundae.

Knowing that, then, I had to ask myself what would happen if those publication opportunities were to dry up. Would I go back to wanting to give up? Would I stop writing altogether?

No, because I found ways to keep sharing that don’t rely on the necessity of another’s platform.

Whether it’s through this blog or the writescast, there’ll always be opportunities to share what it is I’m working on. And, more importantly, through engagement with my clients, the writing community on Twitter, and my critique partners, there will always be ways to share in the work of others as well.

Summary

If you’re experiencing writer’s doubt, remind yourself that a breakthrough may be just around the corner. If you’re still feeling stuck thereafter, maybe take some time for self-exploration: why is it that you’re really pursuing this, and what can you do to define success in such a way that it remains within your control?

Trust me: keep writing. A breakthrough, no matter how small it may feel at the time, is on the way. Make friends. Enjoy the ride. Learn from the successes and mistakes of others.

This is your dream. You’re already on the way to making it a reality.


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