Theodora Goss wrote a post called Value Yourself yesterday. It’s generating a lot of positive response, and it should. Read it now, please, if you haven’t yet.
Although her post addressed the topic in a broader sense, I’m thinking of it today chiefly in terms of writing.
I’ve alluded to last year before, but it bears repeating in this context. I didn’t write much of anything all year, and a lot of it had to do with the very problem she cites in her post. I had this core belief that nothing I was producing, or had ever produced, mattered at all. Of course I’m far from alone in this. I think most writers who grapple with those feelings at least some of the time.
And it seems that these feelings are completely independent to whatever level of success you might have achieved. My stories have all been well-received, with lots of Year’s Best reprints, praise and respect from writers I admire, and a Shirley Jackson Award. You’d think that stuff would provide some sort of buffer for the times when the doubt comes crashing in on you, but it doesn’t. I have no doubt that bestselling authors feel it too.
Last year I let the doubt become so virulent that I considered quitting writing. I let deadlines slip by. I had only one story to write to finish the manuscript for my collection, which would have provided a significant morale boost, and I didn’t even start it. It’s possible that I damaged a professional relationship or two: when you lose faith in yourself, other people can sense that, and they begin to lose it too.
All of which is to say that doubt can do far worse than slow you down. It can stop you cold. It can kill you if you let it.
I wrote a little bit about this earlier, in a post called “Talking to a writing class.” Reading Dora’s post last night, I was reminded of how I’ve come to understand, finally, that writing is an act of faith. At least, it is for me. It’s how I have to think about it. Faith that it means something, faith that it will find a reader, faith that the words flow in a graceful and meaningful way. Faith that, even when I despise every sentence appearing on the page before me, they’re better than I am prepared to recognize. Writing is as close to religious practice as I have ever been in my life.
This is a lesson I should have learned from bartending, strangely enough. Years ago, when I told a friend that I had been hired to tend a bar, she was incredulous. I was painfully introverted, and the thought of me running a neighborhood bar was a little absurd. But that was exactly why I did it. I was determined to change that about myself. So I bullshitted my way into the job, got back there, and just pretended that I belonged. I pretended to feel confident and I pretended to be witty. And because I pretended to believe it, other people did believe it.
Within a month, I wasn’t pretending anymore. It was real.