the perils of self-doubt

This morning I opened a Word document I hadn’t touched in several weeks. It’s the beginning of a short story* – one that I’ve gotten sidetracked from. I wrote the four pages that exist in the Word document in one sitting and I haven’t looked at them since. I had, in fact, forgotten what I had written in those pages. I mean, I knew who the main character was, and what, generally was going to happen in the story, but I had no recollection of the tone, the mood, the point of view… or even, how far I got. And, for some reason, I had convinced myself in the weeks since I created the Word document that what I had written was horrible. I remember feeling frustrated with the way the story was going when I saved and closed the document, and that feeling was what stuck with me in the subsequent days and weeks, not the good feelings about having made a start.

This morning I stumbled upon the title of the document as I was looking for the other, linked story. I read “hurricane.doc” and thought, hurricane? what is that? That’s how disconnected I have been from that story, and from writing in general. I opened “Hurricane” and began to read. And read. I was pleasantly surprised. Not bad is what I thought. And then I thought about how often this sort of thing happens: I’ve barely finished writing for the day, and already I’m telling myself it’s awful. Sometimes, as in this case, I’m barely into the story or essay that I’m berating myself about, and it has detrimental consequences. My hard drive is littered with beginnings I’ve deemed not worth finishing.

After I read this section of story, I thought about how pleasant it is to be surprised by what you’ve written. It’s a great feeling. And, unfortunately, it’s one that’s short-lived. Writing is always like this: it’s a bit of a manic hobby/profession/obsession. Most writerly people I know experience these highs and lows, the self-criticism and doubt, along with brief, brief moments of elation.

I don’t have a solution, I’m just noting some observations. These sorts of emotional ups and downs are on my mind right now, as I’ve been polishing a story to submit to the writing workshop I’ll be attending later in the summer. I haven’t been workshopped since finishing my MFA coursework in the spring of 2006, and I have little experience with fiction workshops.** I have until quite recently been focused only on nonfiction writing. I told myself that I was not good at fiction writing; that fiction wasn’t for me. Self-doubt that I listened to for a really, really long time. Even now, now that I’ve allowed myself to experiment and focus on fiction for a while, now that I’ve gotten a story accepted by a lit mag, and now that I was accepted to the workshop itself, these doubts persist. And so, I’m still nervous about sending a story off to a workshop full of people I’ve never met, run by a well-known, published author.

I’m trying to look at this way: after sending the story off, I will have a month away from it. And when I come back to it, in the workshop, it will seem (I hope!) better than I thought, just like with the four pages I reread this morning. And, after all, isn’t the point of a workshop to get feedback so that you can improve your writing?

*It might even be the beginning of a novel-in-stories… I’m not sure yet. I’ve written another story with the same characters, and it seems to be something I want to continue. The idea of writing an entire novel, now, while I’ve got a lot of other (mostly domestic) things on my plate, freaks me out. The idea of writing a novel in bite-sized chunks makes me feel slightly better about it. As long as I don’t think about the novel part.

** I took only one fiction workshop as part of my MFA — I took nonfiction workshops, publishing-related courses, and various fiction and nonfiction lit classes instead. The fiction workshop I did take was run by a sweet woman with a few story collections under her belt who did not criticize or offer constructive feedback, ever. It’s nice to have encouragement, and it was especially nice for me, since I felt so uncertain about fiction writing, but ultimately I didn’t feel I got much out of the course.


4 thoughts on “the perils of self-doubt

  1. I can relate! My mantra: if I enjoy this, it’s the world’s problem, not mine, if I’m not any good. I know, kind of lame and negative, but it’s honest and a bit feisty. On bad days I usually at least can admit that I really do like making sentences, even if I can’t make the whole work cohere, and even if, on that day, I can’t even make a decent sentence . . .

  2. Pingback: Monday things: the L edition « Fog City Writer

  3. Ah–that’s the fiction class I was in, too. I always think of that as my least useful grad school class. I wish I had either learned anything at all from that class, or that I had taken something else instead.

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