Last week, I was practicing reading one of my poems aloud by recording it on my iPhone and then listening to the recordings. I did a few I thought were pretty decent, and decided to set them aside so I could listen to them later with an unbiased ear. Maybe I’ll put one of them up on a blog post, I thought.
Several hours later, I plugged in my headphones and listened to the recordings again. My first reaction? “Goddamn. That fucking sucks.”
I hit delete on both recordings without a second thought.
I do that sometimes with poems I write. I do that sometimes with passages I’ve written. I do that sometimes with entire chapters.
“Goddamn. That fucking sucks.” Highlight. Select. Delete.
Every writer, I imagine, is prone to bouts of writerly self-doubt. Art in general is such a tenuous thing – striking the right balance between vulnerability and confidence, emotion and skill, power and finesse, is astonishingly difficult – that it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the work you’re doing is shit.
Highlight. Select. Delete.
The trouble is that, as any artist knows, loads of the time, the work you’re doing IS shit. How many words have we cut from our first-draft manuscripts? How many times have we painted over that canvas? How many times have we practiced those chords, that piece, failing a thousand times along the way? Practice makes perfect, they say. What they don’t say is how frustrating it is to practice a thousand times to get it right once.
The joy is, though, that once you get it right, you’ve got it.
I am not an artist, or a musician (though I wish I were both). But I am a writer. And I know there’s nothing more debilitating than that crush of self-doubt, that sense of failure, that anxiety that accompanies a vicious feeling of inadequacy. You read over a chapter you wrote a few weeks ago and say, “Dear GOD, did I write that, or was I temporarily possessed by evil typewriter-monkey demons from Argentina on cocaine?” You hope for a split second it was the latter. Because if it was the former, that means you really did write that. And that means you probably suck a lot at writing.
And that thought is unbearable.
But I like to think that, as fucked up as this self-doubt is, it’s also helpful. It encourages us to be better. It pushes us to read more, so that we will better know what truly good writing is. It forces us to revisit our passages again, and again, and again, to be sure of every word, every idea. Self-doubt, that nagging voice of insecurity at the back of your head, is what keeps you moving forward.
As long as you keep it in check.
Because if you let it get out of hand, it’ll consume you. If I allow myself to believe that because one poem I wrote sucked, every one of them from now until forever will also suck, I’ll never write a poem again. If I believe that because I sound like shit on one recording, all my recordings will always sound like shit, I’ll never have the courage to read any of my poems out loud. And if I allow myself to believe that just because the first draft of my book sucks, and will never get any better, I’ll never publish another book again. Because, after all, what’s the point? It’s always going to suck.
But that’s just straight up not true.
I might not be able to play Chopin’s Preludes today, but if I let that stop me from ever practicing again, I’ll never play them. I might not have the authorial voice of Cormac McCarthy or Anne Rice today, but if I let that stop me from writing, I never will. I might not sound like Garrison Keillor, but if I let that keep me from ever practicing another poem, I will always and forever sound like a toneless robot on Xanax.
Your manuscript might be shit today, but that’s okay. In fact, it’s good that you know it might be shit. That means you have the necessary knowledge to make it better. Just don’t let it stop you. Because if you do, it will always be shit. But if you keep working on it, there’s a half-decent chance that one day, maybe, it’ll actually be, well, pretty damn good.