No doubt the topic of writerly insecurity has been covered before. And it will be again. And we will probably all quote Neil Gaiman’s story about calling his agent to say how awful his latest book was.
But the thing is, this writerly insecurity is a persistent infection. It’s a nasty little bastard that makes life hard. So we need to innoculate ourselves frequently. It’s not a waste of time to repeat the story. It’s a damned survival skill.
I read that story of Gaiman’s years ago, and it was a kind of lifeline to me. The news that Neil Gaiman experienced the same doubts that I did was a revelation. The fact that his writerly insecurities happened so often that he talked about hating every single word as simply a regular phase of writing made me feel so much better as a writer.
I mean, if Mr-Hugo-Nebula-Carnegie Winner feels that way too, then it’s obvious that I’m not alone, and that all writers must get attacked by the same collywobbles in much the same way.
Furthermore, that means that the voice in your head telling you that what you’re doing is rubbish is not necessarily telling you the truth, and that the little bastard is certainly not your friend.
Obviously, it never hurts to assess what you’re working on, and to work on it till your fingers bleed and your eyeballs dry out from staring, to ensure you are doing the best work you know how. But if you are working like a Trojan already, then chances are that the snide little voice in your head is what one playwright called a ‘Vampire of Doubt’.
In the musical [Title of Show] there is a whole song and dance sequence about the self-doubt that creeps in. With wit and nifty harmonies, the song Die, Vampire, Die identifies that voice of doubt and disparagement that whispers in your ear to “give up, you’re no good, blah blah blah” and gives some quite good advice about it.
(Here it is – with a language warning!)
By the way, one of my favourite bits of the lyric, which is a spoken section, is:
“Why is it that if some dude walked up to me on the subway platform and said these things, I’d think he was a mentally ill asshole, but if the vampire inside my head says it, It’s the voice of reason.”
We are always all too ready to accept our vampire of doubt as the Voice of Truth. And it’s not.
Of course, writers need to develop a rational and balanced sense of our work, to know when it’s not coming together as planned, when to do better. But we need to learn to separate the rational practice of improving as writers from the simple fear that we’re not good enough.
If you want to improve as a writer, then write more. Write differently, experiment, play around with ideas, push yourself, ask for external feedback, collaborate.
Start, continue, finish – then start again.
But don’t let the vampire of doubt make you stop.
Stake that bloodsucking bastard right in the heart and keep on writing.