Self-Doubt and the Ego and All That Gubbins

Writers and their egos, aye? I mean, blimey. Yowza. We’ve got ‘em, all right.

            There have been a few flare ups online recently, a few megaton drama disturbances in the force set off, shall we say, by a writer’s ego. There was the very recent self-publishing hoo-ha featuring the author now referred to in our household simply as 92K (a drama that has probably actively harmed the profiles of all self-published writers, so thanks for that). And there was the infamous blog post by Christopher Priest concerning the Clarke Awards; say what you like about him, but Mr Priest clearly isn’t burdened with a howling lack of confidence in his own abilities (I loved The Prestige, didn’t love the blog post so much, mainly because it was a bit rude, and the need to be polite at all times is written in big bold letters on my British DNA).

            Self-belief is good, I think. It’s important even. There are times, of course, when it tips over into a slightly obnoxious belief that you can do no wrong, but I suspect you need a strong core of self-belief just to keep going with writing; the road is long, and the set-backs are many.

            Which worries me sometimes. Where others have self-belief, I have doubt. Lots of it. You know, I think I’m pretty good, and I’m proud to have earned compliments from readers and writers I admire for my work. But I doubt everything I write (I’m doubting this right now), I agonize over every line, even continually reassessing the current project to make sure I’m not thundering off in the wrong direction. This doubt, this lack of confidence, can make writing very hard sometimes, because the sense that I might be writing a load of old gibbering rubbish is always there. And maybe it would be easier if I just believed that every word dripped from my pen was glittery deep fried genius. It probably stems partly from shyness, a general dislike of blowing ones own trumpet, and partly from feeling that super over-confidence is unsightly and rude (that British DNA again).

            The writers I most admire are not, I believe, towering ego monsters. Writers like Neil Gaiman, Michael Marshall Smith, and John Connolly are always gracious, witty, wise. They are extraordinary writers, which I am sure they are aware of, but always you sense that their feet are planted safely on the ground somewhere, and there is no danger of any heads disappearing up buttholes. I admire writers who behave with grace and charm, and twitter is gratifyingly full of them (you only need to scan the list of people I follow to find a ton of them). Terry Pratchett, who I sense probably doesn’t suffer fools gladly, radiates kindness and wisdom, and at no point can I imagine any of these writers having a hissy fit online or banging on about how everyone else is wrong.

Perhaps my discomfort with writers who are utterly convinced of their own genius is my own problem, and perhaps I need pump up my own ego, but there is a kind of wisdom, I think, and even a joy, in knowing that you haven’t quite learned everything yet. 

7 thoughts on “Self-Doubt and the Ego and All That Gubbins

  1. I fundamentally believe that the best writers are, and always will be, the self-doubters. Even the big ones are crippled with self-doubt, I’m convinced, even (especially?) the ones who ooze confidence.In the case of 92k’s brilliantly hilarious breakdown, and Mr Priest’s shockingly ill-judged rant, I think both of them are motivated by their inner insecurity. With 92k, it’s why he oversells himself and is so vulnerable to the slightest perceived criticism, resulting in him acting like an utter twatstaple. And as for Christopher Priest… The way he disparaged everyone else’s work so rudely just screamed to me of someone who didn’t feel so confident about his own. Why else would he feel the need to go off like that?The good thing about self-doubt, I think, is that it pushes us on. If we’re never happy with what we’re producing, we’ll question and we’ll strive and we’ll try with every fibre for the next sentence to be better. And that’s the only way any of us as writers can hope to better ourselves.

  2. Well said Jen. Very sensible points and yes! – being polite and gracious are not things I considered important as a wild teenager and never thought I would be advocating them now, but all the best people out there have them in spades. It’s a continuous balancing act this writing malarkey – humility and assertion, sensitivity and determination, passion and objectivity. Great post :)

  3. I think I suffer from crises of confidence far more in my writing than I do in any other aspect of my life. One of the big things I’ve noticed since actually (gasp!) letting people read my work is that I am perpetually surprised by positive reactions. There was something in Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech for Philadephia UArts that resonated very deeply with me and that was the sense that he was somehow “cheating” by writing, and that at any moment someone was going to whip back the curtain and reveal his life as some kind of fraud. Every time someone says something positive to me about it, especially in person, I freeze up because I’m afraid that if I move, or speak, or do *anything* then the spell will be broken and they will realise that it wasn’t that good, after all.I’ve made a conscious effort not to get too involved online. Drama is always a sticky, sticky thing and it’s very easy to find yourself at the end of a day’s blogging and tweeting sporting no small share of tar and feathers yourself. Likewise with reviews and “state of the genre nation” discusssions. Gritty? Too gritty? Not gritty enough? Is grit dead? Grit revival? I think if I actually sat and read every single opinion blog on SF/F at the moment, I would be too scared to write anything for fear of offending the entire spectrum of possible sensibilities.In the end, it’s about tempering those fears with the conviction that you are making an effort to say something worthwhile…and, hopefully, marketable.

  4. I remember listening to an interview with someone once (might have been Alan Bennett ) where they said that writing is pretty much the only job where you always feel like a fraud, unless you are actually sitting down and physically writing. The rest of the time you don’t really believe it…Thanks for all the excellent comments, people! :)

  5. To semi-quote Marvin “Self doubt? Don’t talk to me about self doubt…”I’m always doubting myself, even now with a handful of paid for short stories out there I still feel my work isn’t good enough. Recently I sent a few of my stories to a couple of writers I know online, so they could read through and highlight anything I might have missed in the dozen or so read through’s I’d done myself.As soon as I’d sent them I thought “My god what have I done” panic set in, i thought they’d read them and think “What they hell is this guy playing at thinking he’s good enough to write.” I’ve had one lot of feedback already, and yes there are areas that need looking at – some I already knew about but tended to gloss over them – but on the whole the comments are positive.Yet even with someone else’s insight I still look at what I have laid out before me and wonder if I should just say “sod it” and just read what other people write.

  6. I think self-doubt is a healthy thing for a writer. It pushes you to do better, to work harder, to keep learning and above all to listen to people when they offer critique. Whilst it’s true that you can’t please everybody, I think the best writers (yourself included, Jen) work hard to please their readers, and that always leads to a better product at the finish. A doubting writer will try new things, and that keeps your work fresh.Egotistical writers, on the other hand, don’t necessarily try new things. They fold their arms and decide that their work is pure gold simply because they write it. Yes, these people often find an audience, and yes, these people can make a living from it, but after a while people get bored with them. Take Alan Moore, for example: I gobbled up his early work with a spoon, but now it seems almost formulaic. Gaiman, on the other hand, never ceases to delight me.I’m terrified every time I let anyone see my work. I’m always convinced that they will tell me it’s rubbish, and that I need to stop trying and just accept that I’m an accountant. Handing my first novella over to my test readers – two of them in particular, as they’re very analytical – was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life. But that fear DRIVES me. It pushes me forward, makes me tweak and edit, makes me consider different ways of doing things. I’d hate to think what dross I’d be churning out if I was complacent and full of myself. Maybe I should ask Mr. 92K?

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