Monday, March 3, 2008

A Study in Self-Doubt: Anne Bradstreet's "Author to Her Book"

by Jo Robertson

Colonial American poet Anne Bradstreet wrote a poem titled “Author to Her Book,” in which she uses a lovely metaphor. She compares her book of poetry to a child being sent out into the world unprepared by its parent -- dirty-faced, tattered-dressed -- not ready for the world to see it, judge it, or evaluate it.

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did'st by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view

I identify with Bradsteet’s sentiments. Most writers never feel their works are complete or polished enough for the world to view and judge. Every time I read through one of my older manuscripts, I think of dozens of ways to alter it, make it better, or just fiddle around with the damned thing!
Extending her metaphor, Bradstreet insists that the book’s “visage was . . . irksome in [her] sight,” but because it was hers, she believed that affection would amend its blemishes. However, the more she scrubbed its “face,” the “more defects [she] saw” till at last, her poverty “caused her to thus send [it] out of door.”

Sound familiar? Your book is your child, birthed in sweat and pain. But there's a point when you have to send it "out the door."

It’s a given that we writers have a lot of angst. If we’re unpublished, we doubt our worth as writers; if published, we believe someone made a monumental mistake in acquiring the first book and surely it'll be a fluke if we sell another.

Self-doubt is one of the most debilitating of traits, and yet, most of us constantly denigrate our best efforts in spite of the evidence around us.

What do you think? Are you one of those who doubts yourself?

Do you always second guess your decisions?

Put yourself down when someone compliments you?

If you’re a writer are you too hard on yourself? Do we writers fail to admire our strengths and dwell instead on our weaknesses? Why do you think we do this?

35 comments:

p226 said...

Back for more training?

p226 said...

Man. This post really hits home for me. I've stalled on my writing. And you know why? Cowardice. Fear that the "child" I'm creating will be ill suited for the world. I can blame other things, like being appointed VP of a state political org, getting busy with work, or a million other excuses. But I considered this on a recent drive. And after careful consideration, the reason why I've stopped, or more likely paused in my writing, is fear.

I've done some things in my life that very few people would call cowardice. I've stepped up in the face of danger more than once in my life. And where I am right now, my own words on a screen are terrifying. I find this to be singularly unnerving. This realization. Though, it is somewhat comforting that I'm not the only person who's ever experienced this anxiety.

Oh, and today's training objectives for the GR are classified. Sorry ladies (and occasional gents) but the rooster's down in a hole for a while. He'll be back tomorrow.

jo robertson said...

Ah, p226, congrats! Be gentle with the little guy. He's been enjoying the California sunshine and may not be ready for boot camp!

We've all been down that road of letting life be a writing excuse. It's so good an excuse because it's true!

Take heart, you are not alone!

p226 said...

Hahah, an example...

I came about four inches from being killed this weekend. Doesn't bother me a bit.

The thought of opening my WIP sends anxious butterflies through my stomach.

The mind is truly a strange place to live.

Keira Soleore said...

What do you think? Are you one of those who doubts yourself? Do you always second guess your decisions?

Oh, Jo, constantly. While we talk about shutting up the inner critic and writing in a stream-of-consciousness to get the story down, there's something to be said for reflection and re-evaluation. To constantly go through the years without thinking back upon what has come and to think forward to what will come is like eating bland food. Unless you spice it with intention, learning from the past and from those around you and applying that knowledge to the future, how do you savor the colors?!

Then again...

P226, you'll be pleased to know, you're in fine company. Bertrand Russell was known to be fond of saying, "The mind, he be a strange fellow. Where there's no problem, he creates one."

Helen said...

Congrats p226 he made need some training after all the fun and good food he has been having

Jo what a beautiful post I always doubt myself as I have said before when I post something I read it over a few times before I hit the button and then I am still thinking it wasn't good enough. The posts that everyone puts on here are really good and I know that I can never compete with them you all write so beautifully. Although I am proud of the fact that I actually post things it did take me a long time before I would.
Have Fun
Helen

Beth said...

Actually, I've given up doubt for Lent *g* I decided doubting myself never did me any good anyway so I might as well give it the old heave-ho :-)

Yes, it's easier said than done and sometimes those nasty doubts worm their way back into my brain, but I've found I can actually ignore them long enough to get my pages written *g*

doglady said...

Boy, is the GR in for it now. All that sunshine and all those drinks and rich foods. Chin up, GR.

This post certainly hit home. I am the world's worst at doubting every word I write. I send it to my BFF or my CP and say "This is crap." or "What's wrong with this crap?"

There are times I have to close the document and go do something else to keep from deleting every word. I have finally gotten to the point where I don't delete anything. I move it to another document if I think it doesn't work. Then if I go back and look at it later I may find something I can use. I have a file just for cut material.

I mean when Deb Marlowe called to say I made the finals in the Ascot I actually said "Are you sure?" She got a big kick out of it, but I was serious!!

Ask me about running a bakery and I will answer without hesitation and KNOW my response is the correct one. Now if I could just make myself believe that in my writing!

MsHellion said...

*looks sheepish* I do all those things. I used to be worse about the compliments; I actually have to make a concentrated effort not to downplay a compliment and actually thank the giver.

Of course, I secretly don't believe them--but I don't say my doubts aloud. Of course, if you know me at all, you know they're implied.

And I also have to say this post hits home. I'm revising a completed WIP and all I can think is: This is complete codswollop!

Kate Carlisle said...

Oh, Jo! Second thoughts? Doubt myself? Heck, I even edit and re-edit my comments here on the blog!! And after that, I have to shut my eyes and cringe before hitting the send button. It's pitiful. Imagine what I go through with my books...

p226, you'll probably hate to hear this, but you are such a joy. Your posts make me laugh out loud as well as think more deeply every time. That's a real gift you've got.

But jeez, man, you've got the GR down a hidey hole? That's intense. But discipline is important. Carry on. :-)

Now Beth has the best idea of all -- giving up doubt for Lent. Makes much more sense than giving up chocolate!

jo robertson said...

Keira, excellent comment, and love the Betrand Russell quote. It's likely we sabotage ourselves if no one else does. LOL.

P226, as our solitary male, you MUST NOT let anything happen to you!

jo robertson said...

Helen, you sound just like me -- obsessive to a fault!

Beth, excellent idea -- giving up self-doubt for Lent. Wish I were Catholic.

Doglady, I'd trade the bakery skills with you. I LOVE to bake, but only sweet goodies you understand!

jo robertson said...

Mshellion, it takes time to learn to say a simple thank you when someone compliments you. I mean, like about 30 years LOL.

Oh, no Kate, YOU TOO??

jo robertson said...

Have fun in the Lair today! I'm off to Mexico for the week. I hear the weather is beautiful down there and I'll be thinking of my Bandita and Lair friends.

Don't have too much fun while I'm gone!

Angie Fox said...

This is the best post I've read in a long time. The doubt is so real for authors and I think we tend to forget that everyone else has it too. We think we're the only ones who have no idea what to say, how to say it, why we spent an afternoon writing 132 words that we're going to tear apart tomorrow.

My editor actually has to tell me what "not" to change, since it's so hard for me to re-read a manuscript and not start fiddling with characters.

I'm not sure there's a cure for author self-doubt, but I think you have the right idea in shining a light on those nigglings of fear that live in the corners of our minds.

Thanks for the insight. I'm going to post that Ann Bradstreet excerpt on my computer and do what we all have to do - keep on writing.

Donna MacMeans said...

Oh - I'm the Queen of self doubt. If you don't carry it before you begin the submission process, you have it once your start. This industry will do that to you.

It's hard to sit down and face a blank page. It's hard to stop the polishing and submit your baby to an editor or agent. But it must be done. I figure it's practice for when the book comes out and goes to reviewers - who really twist those self-doubts *g*.

Thank heaven for readers that email to ask for more. Thank heaven for readers who remind you that this exercise in self-doubt is worth it. Because now you have to start all over and face self-doubt again...and again.

Cassondra said...

OMG. If Donna is the queen of self doubt, then I'm Cosmic Empress of the Self Doubt Universe.

I am not published right now because self doubt has stopped me so many darn times. THAT is the sole reason.

Beth, I'd love to know how you managed to kick that mother to the curb. It's the worst enemy we have. I would do almost anything to get rid of it.

Jo, I have not read a more profound piece of writing in a long while. You nailed it.

There's not a whole lot I'm afraid of. But my own worth and the worth of what I create--that's when you're playing in the big league, where the fear has real teeth.

I'm not afraid of dying. Okay, I don't want it to hurt, but the actual dying part--I have no trouble with it. If it happens while I'm writing this post, before I hit send, that's okay. But sending my stuff out? Nuh-uh.

Physical fear is easy to kick.

Self Doubt is the Devil.

Cassondra said...

Jo,just because you're going to Mexico, we're going to have so much fun you can NEVER catch up. Bwahahahahahahaha!

And we're going to behave badly too.(evil grin)

I do hope you have a great time. (But I'm not kidding about the behaving badly while JoMama is not watching!)

Nancy said...

p226, congratulations! As for the classified, thing, you do know he'll tell all once he comes back to the Lair, right?

Eric Maisel has two books I find help with the self-doubt thing (I have boatloads, so if anyone's feeling short on it, I can share). Deep Writing is about facing those inner demons and moving past them. Write Mind: 299 Things Writers Should Never Say to Themselves (and What They Should Say Instead) is just what the title describes. Both are out of print but available used on the net. His Toxic Criticism is fairly new and deals more generally with life issues but still is applicable to writing.

Jo, I question everything I submit, be it fiction or freelance nonfiction. I didn't with my first manuscript because I was certain, as so many new writers are, that it would sell because it was so inherently fabulous. Not! I look at it now and cringe because I not only sent it out for people to read but asked them to give me actual money for it. Yet I think--hope!--this is a good sign, an indication that I've learned a lot in the meantime.

As Keira says, there's value in reflection. Some famous philospher said you can't know where you're going unless you understand where you've been. Wish I could remember who. Keira, I love your quote. I spend much of my time in the Land of Worst-Case Scenarios.

Helen, we love your posts! They're always great. I know what you mean, though. I never post without using the Preview function.

mshellion and doglady, good luck with your revisions!

Beth, I wish I could give up self-doubt. I just kind of shelve it, but every once in a while, it comes back for a day or so that ends up being major for Tetris.

mshellion, I think compliments are really hard. Women are especially, I think, taught not to put themselves forward (at least in my generation), so accepting a compliment seems to call for a show of modesty. After years and years of effort, I've finally trained myself to say "thank you" and shut up, but it doesn't always work.

Angie, that urge to fiddle just keeps on coming, doesn't it? I'm approaching the state now, though, where I'm so sick of these fictional people that I'm ready to leave them alone for a while.

Great post, Jo!

Aunty Cindy said...

Behave badly? US???? MUAHAHAHAHA!

But seriously, Anne Bradstreet was one of my favorite poets back in my early college days, so BIG THANX Jo-Mama for posting this VERY RELEVANT poem.

Welcome to the world of the Writing Doubt Demons, p226. Betcha never thought it could happen to you, huh? Well, those horrid lil critters attack all of us, constantly!

Doglady, I too have a file for material I have cut. Sometimes it's only a phrase, sometimes it's an entire chapter. (SIGH) I've heard some authors actually post deleted scenes on their websites as "bonus" material. Personally, I don't think I have the cajones to do that (yes, some things scare Aunty too)!

And I won't even bring up "Tinker-itis!" Can't read through anything I've written without the overwhelming urge to CHANGE something, ANYTHING! Yes, this includes blog comments. :-P So do not think you are alone there, Helen. But we are all VERY GLAD you faced down your doubt demons and leave us your wonderful and insightful comments most every day.

Now, let's concentrate on this behaving badly!

AC

Aunty Cindy said...

Nancy, LOVE your Land of the Worst Case Scenario! I travel there... A LOT!

Actually some self-help guru I read once (can't remember who) called it "awful-izing" and suggested carrying it to its farthest extreme -- the world as we know it will cease to exist!-- in order to defuse it. Sometimes that works. Sometimes...

AC

Suzanne Welsh said...

p226, you sound like one ofoour characters. Willing to put body and life on the line when called for, but actually talk (or write) about what's on the inside? Now there's a truly frightening prospect.

Have heart, I'm currently at the same spot on a MIP, too. This particular project is way off the norm for me. Early evaluations is it is fantastic. BUT can I achieve the desired affect I want? Can I sustain the intensity throughout the entire works? Will I ever be able to let my mother read it? (Fanning self, here).

Oh yeah, major self doubt!

Suzanne Welsh said...

While we spend time tearing the words or dialogue apart, trying to create the best book, there is something we need to keep in mind. One thing I think we, as writers have to do is read our work as a reader. Do the characters engage us? Do we find ourselves laughing or going huh? In the black moment are we in tears as we feel the turmoil the characters are in? If at the end, you have that same satisfaction as when you read one of your favorite authors, then you have to kick that security blanket of self doubt aside. Yes, I call it a security blanket, because it keeps us from being arrogant. And truly the fates would shoot us down for that arrogance. And who wants to tempt those fickle women?

Donna MacMeans said...

Hey Cosmic Empress - Next time those Self Doubt Demons try to face you down, remember you pack bigger guns and know how to use them.

Christie Kelley said...

Great post, Jo.

Me, self-doubt? I sent book 2 out FexEx on Thursday. I cringe every time the phone rings because I think it's going to be my editor telling me how bad this book really is.

Seriously, I doubt every thing I do. I'm not just being humble. It's all doubt.

Susan Seyfarth said...

Hey, Jo--

I love this post. It really gets at the heart of what we as writers have to get past every single time we sit down to the keyboard.

I think sometimes it's especially easy to get discouraged about writing romance, though. Romance seems to requires an emotional availability on the author's part that other genres benefit from but don't necessarily require as much. An inner well of joy or humor or love or something. A willingness, at the end of the day, to look on the bright side, I guess.

A couple years ago I had a pretty traumatic set back in my personal life & for months I couldn't write. It wasn't that I didn't have the time or the creativity, it was that my inner well of joy was gone. I had nothing to tap into to give my characters any humor, or drive, or compassion or, well....joy.

And it terrified me to think that maybe I'd lost that part of myself permanently. Eventually, I forced myself to sit down & write anyway. Over the course of the next year I wrote a book with the darkest, sexiest, most lost hero I'd ever come up with. My heroine, interestingly, is more of a blank. I think she's me, or the me I was then, & that's why that book has never met a lot of success. She just wasn't...there exactly if that makes sense.

But by the end of that book, a solid year later, I was able to write a happy ending. It came back to me, that conviction that life is mostly not all crap. That, on the balance, it's an amazing & wonderful gift. To this day, I believe that book helped heal me. It was scraping up the courage to write through that blinding terror that convinced me I was brave enough to survive a lot of other things, too. And I did.

That book will never get published. But I think I'm prouder of it than any other book I've ever written.

hrdwrkdmom aka Dianna said...

P226, in defense of the GR, he knows he is out of shape and he really did work hard trying to get off those few extras before he got back to you. He wouldn't tell me where his training area was in WV so he just ran up and down my steps a lot.

hrdwrkdmom aka Dianna said...

You guys slay me, from a readers viewpoint I don't see why you should doubt yourselves. The Banditas that are published, I have read your books and loved them all, each one held my interest and made me want more. The ones who are not published, I have read your excerpts, I want more. Even P226 who hasn't given us an excerpt, just his little "example" was great. I mean he wrote it in the space of seconds and it was interesting, caught my attention, and made me want to know the rest of the story.
I am not kidding folks, it makes my day to come on in the mornings and see what you all have written just while "blogging", your personalities, or "voices" come through loud and clear.

p226 said...

Well... I'd say Dianna just gave us the best reason to overcome that doubt that I've seen to date.

Readers.

Aunty Cindy said...

You are sooo right, p226, READERS (like Dianna and all our other wonderful Bandita Buddies who read and comment here) MAKE IT ALL WORTHWHILE! The whole point of writing is TO BE READ. We writers need an audience, no matter how small. So THANK YOU to all our readers. We wouldn't be here except for you.

AC
P.S. So Suz, if you don't want your mother to read your book, how bout yer ole Aunty??? (Evil Grin)

Christine Wells said...

Jo, great post! I think that self-doubt must be almost universal among writers. As for me, there is a reason my writing buddies call me Eeyore! My CP even gave me Tigger to remind me to bounce, once in a while. I have a lot of self-doubt, which is coupled with a superstitious need never to be too optimistic or hopeful about anything, in case I get disappointed.

I heard Nora Roberts say once that the fear all writers experience is a good thing--let the fear be the force that drives you. I've stopped trying so hard to conquer it and now I'm trying to do just that:) Embrace the fear...

P226, great to see you and congrats on the GR! I hope you can be kind to yourself and get back to the writing soon.

Gillian Layne said...

Doubt?
Nah....like the fact that I'm avoiding my big mother/daughter scene cause I don't think there's a chance in Hades I can do justice to the pain my heroine is feeling?.....nope, couldn't be that.

I beat Doubt down with a snow shovel.

Susan, never say never! I'd love to read that story, just based on your hero's description. And your heroine might be a "still waters run deep" gal. :)

Gillian Layne said...

Jo, Mexico???

Color me jealous. How 'bout sending the GR on a recon mission.....or at least a tequila run.....

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