Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 31, 2015

Writing Doubt

Barbara Claypole White

I’ve always been comfortable in my own skin, and yet I’m a hot mess of insecurity about everything I write, including this blog post. Why? Because it matters to me. Writing is my passion, which makes it a soft target for that inner voice of worry. Doubt has been my constant companion through four manuscripts—one unpublished—and is now cutting its teeth on number five.

Earlier this month I came back from vacation rested, ready to detox from rum cocktails, and desperate to jump into my second draft. I hadn’t finished shaking sand out of the suitcases or putting away deflated pool floats before my work-in-progress was open on my laptop.

I steamed through a serious edit of the first fifty pages, which I’d already polished multiple times for my contract proposal, and then slowed to a turtle’s pace. The low point came when I wasted ten hours editing five pages…before I realized that I had the wrong POV.  You can figure out what happened next. Yup, anxiety pounced: I was never going to make my deadline; I’d have to return the advance; the manuscript was worse than crap; blah, blah, blah. To up the ante, I added a few personal catastrophes related to aging parents.

In the language of OCD, an anxiety disorder known as the doubting disease, this is called awfulizing. Your mind latches on to the worse case scenario and refuses to budge. When I reached page 125, I could barely hear anything beyond the ticking bomb of my deadline. Nevertheless, I turned up for work each day, even hauling my laptop to my OBGYN appointment. In the exam room—typing away in one of those natty, front-opening gowns—

something clicked: I wasn’t listening to doubt anymore. I was listening to my characters.

Here are some of the positive thoughts that helped me reach that moment:

  • Doubt is omnipotent for writers. I’m sure even Stephen King occasionally believes he produces crap. (Right?) Acknowledge the doubt; accept it. Acceptance doesn’t make you a quitter. It gives you power. Think of it as waving to a talkative houseguest and saying, “I can’t chat right now but feel free to forage for breakfast. We’ll catch up later. ‘Bye!”
  • Always keep writing. Writing through the bad days makes you a better writer. Others have said it before: writing isn’t for wimps. Lick your wounds until they heal, but always limp on.
  • Bad writing days end, and every tomorrow brings a fresh start. Corny, but true.
  • Anxiety isn’t logical, and logic is your best counter-attack. My family reminds me constantly, “You say this every time.” That’s the logic I grasp: writing isn’t easy, but I’ve completed four manuscripts. I can do it a fifth time.
  • One rejection, one bad review, one weak chapter can eclipse everything, but it doesn’t have to tarnish your writing for all eternity. This time last year, I returned from vacation to discover that my contract for THE PERFECT SON had been cancelled. My amazing agent landed me another deal almost immediately and foresaw great things with my new publisher, Lake Union. I tried to believe her, I really did. But I’d been dumped, and my inner voice whispered constantly that the manuscript was to blame. When THE PERFECT SON was chosen for Amazon’s Kindle First Program, I told her it would be their first dud. I’m happy to report that my doubting Thomas was wrong, and that second pub deal has turned into my golden egg.DSC02479
  • KBO, keep buggering on. This is my writing mantra, and I stole it from Sir Winston Churchill, who defeated the Nazis and won the Nobel Prize while juggling a learning disorder with undiagnosed mental illness. Go, Sir Winston!
  • The best way to reduce anxiety? Laugh. Repeat keep buggering on Laughing yet?
  • You can’t please every reader—including that voice in your head—so don’t try. Make peace with the realization that you are not, and never will be, everyone’s cup of Earl Grey. Reading is subjective. The end.
  • No one else can tell your story; no one else has your voice. You’re unique, baby! I write about mental illness and strangely functional dysfunctional families. Oh, and I use the f bomb. Combine those factors and I’m way outside many people’s comfort zones, but I’m writing what I want to write the way I want to write it.
  • When the crap of life pulverizes your writing focus, fold whatever crisis derailed you back into your story. Steal mercilessly from the potholes of your life. The great Lydia Netzer reminded me of this a few days ago. After an emotionally draining four-day visit with my 99-year-old father-in-law—around page 125—everything I wrote fell off the page, flat and boring. But I had all these great anecdotes about old people behaving badly in a retirement home. “Weave them into your manuscript!” Lydia said. I did, and I started having fun again.

My favorite weapon against doubt is a technique used to combat OCD. It’s called boss it back. This can be as simple as saying, “Go to hell,” or “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. Tell me something new.” Boss back that worry and then write over the doubt.White-ThePerfectSon-21053-CV-FT-v4jpg

Do you have a strategy to boss back the worry?    Please share with us!


barbara-1English born and educated, Barbara Claypole White lives in the North Carolina forest with her family. Inspired by her poet/musician son’s courageous battles against obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Barbara writes hopeful family drama with a healthy dose of mental illness. Her debut novel, The Unfinished Garden, won the 2013 Golden Quill Contest for Best First Book, and The In-Between Hour was chosen by SIBA (the Southern Independent Booksellers) as a Winter 2014 Okra Pick. Her third novel, The Perfect Son, was a Kindle First Pick for June 2015.
For more information, or to connect with Barbara, please visit barbaraclaypolewhite.com.



53 comments on “Writing Doubt”

  1. Good morning, Barbara. I appreciate your post. When I feel the weight of worry or doubt, I walk it off. And my mind goes into pep talk mode - "Worrying is a waste of time."
    But I like "boss it back" better. Instead of blaming myself for wasting time, I will confront the worry. Thanks!

  2. This blog post appear this morning like a divine message written especially for me...that I desperately needed to hear. Love your voice! Look forward to checking out your books.

      1. Thanks guys, and sorry for the tardy responses. I have an aging parent situation unfolding, and I completely lost all focus this morning. Happy writing, Itrovi.

  3. OMG Barbara, your blog post came at EXACTLY the right time in my life! I'm struggling with my fifth ms, and after just finishing final edits for two publishers on the second and third ones, I'm thinking, "Did I write these? How did I do it? How am I ever going to write this well again?"
    Then a particularly stinging critique came in from a trusted, though painfully honest partner. Is this just subjective? Perhaps this particular book is just not her cup of Earl Grey?
    But I'll admit, it stopped me dead in my tracks. I found myself staring at a blank page for Chapter 12 and thinking, "Maybe she's right. Maybe I should just hit delete on the whole thing."
    But you saved this manuscript-in-utero. I'm going home tonight and posting "Keep buggering on" over my monitor, and that's exactly what I'm going to do.

    Thanks for well-timed, and badly needed, encouragement 🙂

    1. My sister and I use KBO for everything! And yes, my manuscript is such a pile of crap right now, but I refuse to give up hope that it can be polished into something passable.

  4. KBO! I now have a name for my ONLY super-power! Thank you.

    I'm the poster-child of buggering on...there are MANY much more talented writers (you know who you are) who would be vastly more successful than I, but they never finish the damned book!

    Here's to the tortoises out there! KBO, Dudes!

    1. That's exactly how I feel, Laura! I know several writers who are way more talented than I will every be, but they walked away from their manuscripts. I can't do that. I'm a KBO tortoise! Can we get T-shirts?!

  5. Barbara, I've come to realize that doubt is part of the job description of being a writer. I usually can accept it the way I accept looking in the mirror and realize that time marches on (and its marching all over my face, as they say). Not happy about it, but it's part of who you are. However, when the doubt reaches critical mass, it's crippling and self destructive. It's creepy crawlers burrowing under your skin and you want nothing better than to dig them out. But that would leave scars, so you wait it out until the sensation passes and you start over again. Your writing trajectory gives me hope. Write on!

  6. I love you! This is exactly what I go through with my stories. I am going to reblog this and save it, and try to read over this post every time I go to edit or my brain starts yelling at how horrible my writing is...

    Thank you so much for showing that this is normal and it can be overcome.

    1. You are so welcome. It is possible to function through even crippling doubt. My son does it every day, and I figure if he can live his life to the fullest despite a major anxiety disorder, I can boss back the writer angst. KBO, dudettes!

  7. I'm not the only one who doubts Every Single Book? The relief! Thanks, Barbara. I just "bugger" through even when I think my words are pure drivel. Often, I read them later and think 'not too shabby at all.'

    1. That's it, we live for those brief moments when we think, "Not too shabby." Sadly I haven't had one of those in the last few days, but I'm buggering on through.

  8. I think you just saved my book. I don't suppose the world will be grateful for that, but I am. I guess I thought I could just park myself down at the computer and spin out a wonderful novel, but that's not happening. Who knew writing was hard work, filled with dangerous swamps of self-loathing and mountains of unedited crap? Yes, I think I will keep buggering on. Thank you.

  9. Barbara, I can't tell you how much I appreciate this post--like every other reader lucky enough to read it, I'm sure. Your word "awfulizing" perfectly describes what I do to myself when I'm struggling with a manuscript. My strategy to get through these crises in confidence is to talk (and laugh) with other writer friends--or to read posts like yours. Thank you!!

  10. You had me at "soft target," Barbara. I have never had any doubts about my "other" career as a mathematician, even when that work seemed impossible. But adding emotion to my writing? Ha!

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts today!

  11. Barbara, thank you for the kick in my creative ass this morning. Mondays are such blank sheets of paper that we can shower our genius on ... or be cryogenically paralyzed by when doubt saunters in. I recently had my doubt bucket emptied and kicked aside by the women of the Anaheim Hills Book Club. They didn't know they did it. But I knew.

    For three hours they talked about my recent book, Blossom, with ownership and insight. For the VERY first time, I was surrounded by people who wandered into and engaged in the world that was previously only in my head. Sure it was on paper now, but they asked me questions about characters and motivations and conflicts ... and craved to know all the potential what lurked ahead in the Blossom trilogy. That experience of sharing an instant and profound connect with a perfectly lovely group of strangers was transformative.

    I can confidently (at least for now), give DOUBT a big playground-bully shove and get on with my writing!

    Thank you for capturing that same spirit of I-can-do-this in your blog!

  12. "Awfulizing" ... that's so me. But after all the awful things that went down the last year and a half, I'm choosing to latch on to the good things. And will proudly be wearing my KBO T-shirt. 🙂

    1. Amen. That's why I love the name of this blog site. We are writers in the storm--every day. I'm currently juggling a killer deadline with two aging parent situations an ocean apart. If I couldn't KBO, I'd be sunk.

  13. I hear you on the doubt, Barbara! Such a hard line we writers walk, between believing in our talents and pressing on despite the crap we produce. Sometimes we just need a pep talk ~ thanks for giving this one today. 🙂

    1. Amen--about the hard line. I don't know why it's so much easier to believe the negative than the positive. It really shouldn't be.

  14. Thanks so much for reminding me that I have the choice of focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses. My worst moments, oddly, occur when I'm reading someone else's really good book. "I'll never be able to write like that!" But I can write like me, and maybe other people can't. That helps a lot!
    On my blog last September, I wrote about an article I'd seen in the New York Times, “Learning to Love Criticism” by a writer named Tara Mohr. Mohr was reacting to a study that found that women in business seemed to receive more negative comments than men. She pointed out that criticism from others actually tells us more about the criticizer than about us: what that person is looking for, what he or she values. That doesn't necessarily have anything to do with what WE do poorly or well. We can take criticism as information, not punishment. Hearing that advice helped me with a good bit of "awfulizing" I was doing at the time!

  15. I know! That happens to me, too. I was reading THE NIGHTINGALE while on vacation, and it's so wonderful. I could never write a novel like that, but then I realized I don't have to. I just have to be authentic to me.

  16. Great post, Barbara! I definitely do the "you always say that" with myself. I think my WIPs are terrible and boring, or I worry when the book comes out that no one will be able to relate to the m.c. and I'll get terrible reviews... but for the most part it all works out fine each time. So now while I'm working on my current WIP and thinking it's terrible and boring, I keep reminding myself that "I always say that!" ("Awfulizing" - never heard that term before but love it. And am guilty of doing it!)

    1. And sometimes we have to give ourselves permission to really write crap. I can't start a new project any other way.

  17. I have an anxiety disorder so doubt is a constant (toxic) friend. But, when it strikes or when things get overwhelming I channel Dory. 'Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.'

    1. I love that! I also use a trick that seems to help my son when the OCD is particularly loud: think small. I never try to swim beyond the day I'm in, even though I have the big picture tucked away at the back of my mind…

  18. I constantly doubt myself, especially just before going to bed. With more than one manuscript, I've found myself thinking at 2 in the morning, "No one else will like my hero or heroine. I like them, but no one else will," and with the new one, I keep thinking, "This plot is flat." I liked what you said about awfulizing (hadn't met that word) and humor. My brother and I sometimes play a game of thinking up the absolute worst consequence of something, making it as extreme and implausible as possible and laughing. A month ago I was reading an article by a man whose extreme, merciless and sometimes very naive opinions offended me, but I didn't feel like mustering the energy for anger late at night, so I began reading his words in tones of exaggerated horror and condemnation. This made him seem ridiculous and less powerful in my mind. Just tonight I was planning to do the same with some patronizing, negative book reviews that I expected to see excerpted in the introduction to the 19th-century African-American memoir I'm about to read. That made me realize that although my therapist has suggested using humor to combat the things over which I obsess, I haven't tried doing this with my own voices of doubt or others' words about me that I find hurtful. I wonder how well it will work in those situations. I'll try it. Thanks for underlining that for me with your blog.

  19. I have a slapstick sense of humor, which my OCD son shares. When he was little he had a debilitating fear of delays and traffic jams. (And he hated being driven on the interstate.) One day, we got stuck on i-40 in the worst traffic jam in the history of the Triangle (where we live). I could see his anxiety rising, so I started making up silly stories about the driver next to us, Mr. Nose Picker. The sillier we got, the lower his anxiety became until he said, "Mom. I'm not anxious anymore." For years after that we made jokes about Mr. Nose Picker when we were stuck in traffic. When he started driving? His favorite thing was to drive on the highway. (He said he had to focus too much to listen to this anxiety.) Silliness rocks!

    1. Got your back, Barbara! Took three reads to find it.!That's what happens when you get sucked into the writing...

  20. Hi Barbara
    I know you from WFWA, Western Writers Cafe and Jamie Raintree post. Some know me as 50 some Jo Smith. I just wanted you to know I so admire you. Instead of a son to deal with I have a 80 yo husband with more problems that time will allow to list. I don't have the knowledge or patients you have in dealing with the messes but I do know laughing will over come almost all of it. My problem is I've almost lost the ability to laugh, funny or not. Your post today I'm going to print off and try to read every morning .I want and need the laughter back in my life.

    1. Hey, Jo. Goodness, bless you. My husband is 14 years older than I am and I'm already worrying about what happens when he hits 70 let alone 80! I so hope I don't lose my sense of humor.

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