“Our doubts are traitors…” Measure for Measure (I.iv.77)

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In his collection of journals entitled Confessions of a Barbarian, the twenty-five-year-old Edward Abbey ponders the progress he is making on his first novel:

“The novel, my terrible novel, will drive me to ruin…A frightful labor!

“And the worth of it, the quality—the problem worries me night and day. At times I’m afraid to read what I’ve written, almost superstitiously afraid—and then at other times I do work up enough courage to hastily read snatches chosen at random. The effects are mixed—parts of the book seem hilariously funny, beautifully written, packed and quivering with life. And then I’ll read the same passage again, or another, and it will seem dead as junkyard iron, pretentious and false, weak, thin, spineless, empty and hideous.

“Who is right? The critic or the author? I swing constantly, if erratically, between power and confidence, and antipodal despair; between surges of triumph when I look at myself grinning at me in the mirror and can say, “Abbey, oh Abbey, you monstrously clever fellow,” and dank gloom of dark defeat, convinced of failure, crushed by doubt…”

I think all writers can empathize with these sentiments, regardless of their inherent abilities or levels of success. Writing is a lonely business, and when we are “in the zone” and experiencing the sweet rush of creativity, nothing seems impossible. But of course, those rushes don’t last forever, and at some point we go back and reread what we’ve written and wonder if what we’ve crafted is really any good at all. “I’m a hack!” we say. “A fraud! Why would anybody want to read this?”

On the one hand, it’s comforting to know that a gifted and respected wordsmith like Ed Abbey experienced the same ups and downs the rest of us do. For most of us, it is a natural part of the creative process. Yet this knowledge does little to shake off our self-doubts.

Speaking personally, I’ve found that being part of a writing group does wonders to keep my creative fires burning. Part of this is the accountability it affords, but more importantly, the honest and encouraging feedback my group provides is enormously helpful in pushing me through the “desert moments” of the creative process.

What about you? How do you combat the struggles and doubts that come with writing?

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About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.

Comments

  1. Eric Bahle says:

    For me it’s almost like a split personality. I let the part of me that’s convinced I’m a hack rave and sputter all he wants. Then I cheerfully pretend I can’t hear him and keep writing. It works pretty well most of the time. It doesn’t really take away the anxiety but at least I keep going.

  2. Emily Dickenson wrote around 1500 poems in her life time. Only 6 were published when she was alive. It’s inspiring to think about her working in solitude, basically for her own pleasure and satisfaction. That’s what I keep in mind during those moments of tormenting self-flagellation.