The Benefit of Doubt

CC image by Alyssa L. Miller

You know how when you’re writing sometimes, it’s like your fingers can’t possibly keep up? A word becomes a sentence, then a paragraph, and then a page, and you’ve barely even blinked. And you know how sometimes it’s just not like that? At all. You stare at the empty space, wondering how you could possibly fill it with something worthwhile. You type then delete over and over again. Your mind is suspended in some strange déjà vu world where the same thought pounds at you, but you are unable to give it an existence through words.

CC image by Kiran Foster

CC image by Kiran Foster

I don’t call this writer’s block. To me writer’s block is when a writer doesn’t know where to take the story next. This mind-numbing, soul-crushing, unproductive mid-sentence void is different. I call it doubt. Or, more specifically, self-doubt.

I think that all writers experience self-doubt because I’m fairly certain all writers are human. I’ve met many writers who make a good show of confidence, pushing toward conceit, because they don’t want to acknowledge the wavering, uncertain writer inside of them, much less let others see.

Where a writer is in his or her writing career does not change the duel with self-doubt, because as one’s success goes up, so do the standards. New writers doubt if they can ever turn those inspiring ideas into a completed novel or achieve publication or be noticed after publication. Established writers doubt if their next work will be as good as the last, if they will keep their audiences happy, if they can write apart from the series that everyone adores.

But all writers especially doubt the words they put to the page. Self-doubt strikes us in those moments when we’re tired, when inspiration feels like a distant dream. It strikes us when we least expect it—an imp on our shoulders, telling us we’ve used that sentence structure too much, that those words are too dramatic, that the metaphor just sounds stupid.

And sometimes that voice in our ears is correct. Sometimes our words fall flat.

People say that doubt is a bad thing—a negative emotion like anger or sadness or guilt. I’m not saying those people are wrong, but I do disagree with people that say you just have to learn to deal with it or find a way to ignore it or silence it. Emotions are wild and fickle, and to believe that you can always control them is akin to believing you are a machine. I know that makes you feel powerless, but that’s the truth everyone is afraid to admit. We are all powerless on our own.

The thing about these negative emotions is that if we don’t let them have power over us, we can learn from them. Anger can call us to action. Sadness can teach us to stop, to reflect, to heal, and to learn compassion and grace. Guilt can lead us to change, to forgive, to make amends. While we can all admit that giving in to doubt is bad, I would dare argue that ignoring it is just as dangerous. When you brush it aside, you plow ahead like a bull into a brick wall. Maybe you’ll break through, or maybe you’ll make things worse. Of course, if you let it control you, then you are defeated, you give up. While doubt might mean that we never take a risk on our writing, ignoring it may mean we push forward too soon.

So this is what I propose. When you feel that self-doubt itching at the back of your mind, listen to it. Acknowledge it. Question why it is there. See what it has to say, and then let it go. Don’t be a slave to it. Doubt telling us we’re not good enough can push us to improve. It can teach us to give ourselves the grace to admit that we may not be doing our best work, but to push on anyway because the story must be told. If we ignore it, we may deceive ourselves into thinking that our writing is perfect, infallible, and above all reproach. This may feel like a victory against self-doubt, but you’ve only tricked yourself.

If doubt tells us that we will never succeed, then we should ask ourselves what success means to us. Maybe our current goals are a step too high. Maybe they are attainable, but only after slowing down and working up to it.

Learn to listen to your doubt as you would your least favorite critic or creative writing teacher—the one that has no tact but always gives their honest opinion. Take everything it says with a heaping grain of salt, but trust your gut. Maybe that scene is too over the top or that character is too one dimensional. Doubt can be like growing pains, clueing you in to the fact that you’re entering new territory, stretching your comfort zone, or breaking rules that perhaps need to be broken. You cannot make your doubt disappear, but when your turn it into a tool, it can no longer control you.

This is also why it is important to share your work with others that you trust and whose opinions you value. They can help you confirm if there is any truth to your doubt or if it is unfounded. See? It’s just a tool. If you don’t need a screwdriver, then leave it in the toolbox where it belongs.

The day I acknowledged my doubt, it made me realize my priorities were wrong. I realized I was writing for myself and my own glory. When I put my writing and my future of writing into God’s hands, I came to peace with the fact that wherever He took it, publication or not, that I would be fulfilled in Him. While I never forget that through God all things are possible, I also know that those things may not be what God has for me. What He has for me is better, though I may not yet see that.

Learning to trust in Him made me realize that doubt was a silly distraction, and I have learned to use it for my own benefit, which is like laughing in the face of all that stands against me—a satisfying feeling, indeed.

By Rachelle Clifford