How to K.O. Your Writing Doubts

Editor’s Note: the original version of this article was first posted on the C2C in 2010.

“It never occurred to me to doubt myself.”

– Katherine Hepburn

Katherine you big, fat liar. The audacity really. How could you tell artists that somehow you can be impenetrable to the artists constant unhappy friend: doubt? Even if you are some kinda of magical, fearless android who can take creative risk after creative risk without any slight hesitation, how dare you assume that we would find your comment inspiring.

With your words you seem to be challenging others to do the same thing you (supposedly) did. Live happily without doubt.

Now I may be a beginning novelist, but I’m still gonna safely assume that the words of Ms. Hepburn are total BS. I want to make sure that I don’t pass on the same BS to those who seem to believe that I or any other artist are somehow without the same insecurities of most all people. I want this to be an honest blog that tells the true story of the pain and sacrifice and yes DOUBT that writers go through to publish a work.

Here are the doubts that constantly run through my head:

What if I suck? What if I’m wasting my time? How the frak am I going to make a living out of this? I’m too young to write a novel. No one will like what I write. My grammar blows. No one will publish it. Who will even read it? I should have stuck with acting, people always said I was good at that. I should have gone in a field that was more practical like what my friends did. They seem happy. I’m running out of time, I’ll miss the opportunity I was meant for! NO ONE WILL UNDERSTAND ME….!

And so on and so on. Sound familiar?

If you have writing doubts or fears, you are not alone. It’s part of being human. I’m starting to believe that “fearlessness” is only a fictional trait. You can never be without fear. It’s like saying you can experience happylessness, or sadlessness, or any other emotion that is just wired into us as humans. So, the key for me has not been trying to get rid of Fear or Doubt (impossible), it’s how I deal with Fear and Doubt.

Does that mean I have mastered doubt as a writer? No. But what I have been finding helpful is balancing all my cold, itchy doubts with those warm, fuzzy certainties. It’s kinda like I’m in a boxing match, and the guy hits me with doubt, and I hit him back with a certainty, and that keeps me from being knocked out.

Foooor example:

POW! Doubt: I should have picked something more practical do to.

BAM! Certainty: I love to write. What else would I do?

POW! Doubt: No one will like what I write.

BAM! Certainty: I love what I write. Would I prefer writing something that I hate that others would love? No.

KA-POW! Doubt: I’ll run out of time.

KA-BLAM! Certainty: It took seven years for Tony Award-Winning Playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda to write his Tony Award-Winning Musical In the Heights. I have 7 years before I can start to worry.

It’s boxing match that I’m not sure ever ends. But I’d imagine if I ever do get published that would be one nice KO of my doubts.

I think this approach is more practical. What do you think? 

In the meantime:  I’m sorry Ms. Hepburn, but all artists can’t be perfect, fearless beings like you. I’ve got my doubts. But thankfully, I also know that there ARE things that are certain in my life, and I’ll keep holding on to those to keep my fears at bay and my hopes afloat.

much love,

Ollin

What do you think? Is fear an emotion we can get rid of? Is doubt something we will eventually “defeat” or “avoid”? How do you deal with your fears and doubts?

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38 comments on “How to K.O. Your Writing Doubts

  1. Christina says:

    Great post Ollin!

    I think the real accomplishment in writing, or life for that matter, is simply persevering despite the lack of certainty and despite the fear and self-doubt.

    If you don’t have any fear or if you don’t have any doubts, then what’s so special about the risk you’re taking? What kind of sense of fulfillment will you have when you do succeed?

    The definition of bravery is taking a risk despite the fears. To be brave you have to face your fear. There’s nothing heroic about what you’re doing if you’re not simultaneously afraid, doubtful or taking a chance.

    I really like the way you punch your fear and self-doubt out of the way!

    And while you’re waiting to get published and working toward that goal, each and every one of your blog posts and all the feedback you get from readers is another way of fighting back your fear and doubt in a very tangible way.

    • Ollin says:

      Yet again, Christina. What a deep, insightful comment!

      “There’s nothing heroic about what you’re doing if you’re not simultaneously afraid, doubtful or taking a chance.”

      So our fears and doubts remind us of our heroism and courage. Wonderful point. Thanks for sharing.

  2. You have to embrace the fear. Especially the fear of rejection. We all have to deal with it. That “yes” or “that’s great writing” is out there: it just needs us to find it. I have no doubt in one thing, Ollin. That I will suck, at least a little bit, and the suckiness is my path to being better. At writing or whatever. Your analogy is a good one. The struggle between fear and certainly may never end with the knockout, but rather with the most points scored. So keep scoring, and get the inevitable win.

    “Hopes afloat and fears at bay”…great post!

  3. Sheila says:

    I don’t believe we can rid ourselves of this fear, but we can learn to overcome when faced with it. (Kind of like the devil–he’s always there, enticing & taunting us. It is up to us whether we succomb to him or not)

    • Ollin says:

      Great point, Sheila. I think the point is to remind us every time we face that fear that it needs to be overcome and we need to not let it be our master.

  4. Conor Ebbs says:

    Ollin,

    You are a lantern.

    Thank you.

    Conor

  5. I have that conversation on a semi-daily basis. Usually, I manage to power through it by looking through the wanted ads, realizing I don’t want any of the jobs advertised. Next time, I’m gonna try your way: I do love writing. And I’ve only been doing it for a year. Six more to go before I need to doubt myself!🙂

  6. I don’t know Christina, but she beat me to the punch. 🙂 It’s normal and okay to feel fear, but it’s even better to find the courage to work through the fear. I think that’s the only way to get anywhere in life.

    I’ve come to realize that there exists not only the fear of failure, but also the fear of success. For me, it would work like this:
    1. I actually write an entire screenplay which could someday become a movie. Yippee! Success!
    2. I now have to fly to LA, hit the pavement, get in front of the right people and try to sell my script. Holy crap.
    3. Someone bought my script. Yippee! Success!
    4. They want massive revisions. D’oh!

    For writers (novelists, especially), success often requires a level of marketing and self-promotion that not all of us are cut out to do. I just know there exist writers (like me) who prefer to hunker down somewhere, write, write, write, let the marketing be someone else’s problem, and collect royalty checks as they trickle in.

    The truth is, succeeding in this business is hard work and it often leads to even more hard work. The lazy among us have much to fear. 😉 -Jen

    • Ollin says:

      Yup, fear of success is also hard to deal with. But like a reader said here in the comments we have to focus on what we can control and execute an small action towards our goal today.

  7. winn taylor says:

    I love your blend of humor and honesty. “Katherine you big, fat liar. The audacity really,” made me laugh out loud. A saying that I heard some time ago, which has always stuck with me, “courage is action in the face of fear”. It is a simple concept that encourages me to embrace the discomfort of fear and doubt, considering that it is just an invitation to act and each time I accept, I strengthen my faith in my ability to handle the consequences. The outcome really isn’t the point anyway…not really.

    • Ollin says:

      “embrace the discomfort of fear and doubt, considering that it is just an invitation to act”

      Wonderfully put winn! I like that outlook, I’m gonna try it next time.

  8. Nice, Ollin. I think self-doubt pushes me that much harder.

    Oh, and Ms. Hepburn was one in a million — that *could* be 100% female-power talking. I wouldn’t mess with her😉

    • Ollin says:

      She is one in a million, but I do think she wasn’t being serious. Maybe she really meant that she didn’t let doubt get in her way and said this quote as one last punch to doubt in doubt’s nose, to show it whose boss.

  9. Nancy Sima says:

    Great post Ollin! My husband has a great philosophy that I try to remember when my doubts get the best of me…Respond Don’t React. If I let myself react to my fears and doubts, my emotions send me into a tailspin. But instead if I ask myself what can I do today, what is there to feel good about today, then I can move forward with intention and presence. The world becomes a brighter place.

  10. Of course we writers doubt – and we’re right to doubt. Finding the courage to start a novel or some other writing project: that’s hard. finishing what we started: harder still. Writing/completing/editing something that’s objectively good by the standards of others than ourselves: getting harder. Getting our work published: now you’re talking about something so dauntingly difficult it boggles the mind… And those last two are completely outside of the writer’s (or any other artist’s) control.

    So yeah, the deck is stacked against us from the start. That’s intimidating… and that can lead to doubt.

    The trick is to keep going in spite of all of that, to not give up even though you know, with your logical mind, that you don’t stand a snowball’s chance in the Sahara of making it all the way through to the end. That’s hard to do, too… but that’s what we have to do.

    • Ollin says:

      Great point Stephen. The whole undertaking is daunting, which always reminds me that if you’re doing this you must REALLY LOVE writing, otherwise you would have ditched it long ago. That’s why I always admire any writer who does this work, and any artist who follows their passion.

  11. Marvin says:

    Sort of reminds me of the yin/yang principle. If we can find a “cautious” middle ground to balance, it would be optimal. But the struggle lingers on. Keep up the good fight!

  12. Ollin, when I first read the quote, I thought, it must be nice not to doubt yourself. I wish I were more like her and less like myself. I think that we all live with fear and doubt, it’s just that some of us hear the sounds of fear and doubt louder than the self-confidence. I have doubts every day, and I live in constant fear, but I force myself to do that which I fear — all the time — because as loud as the fear is in my head, there is also another dimmer voice inside that tells me, “you can do it.” I don’t always listen to it, but when I do, life is so good.

    I love how you concentrate your blog on the hindrances that get in our way — or we put in our way towards being writers and fulfilling our dreams — you’re like a writer whisperer. It does take courage to do what we do — especially when people laugh as soon as we say “I’m a writer.” Here’s to all of us writers! We can do it.

    • Ollin says:

      Haha! The writer whisperer! I love it. Thanks, I think shining a light on the true obstacles we face makes them a little less daunting I think. Knowing the problem is the first step, so they say in 12 step programs. Welcome to writers anonymous!🙂

  13. Haha! You’re funny. And this is a great post. I love how you’re more interested in the truth, by far!, then in appearing faultless. Thanks for that.

    But that aside, I do love audacity. I’m finding it one of the only ropes long enough to reach me when I’m falling into a chasm of despair. That and faith. If I wasn’t audacious in my art and in my belief that I can succeed, I would have quit long ago. Still, Katherine’s quote is a bit too bold for my taste. Love audacity, but not at the expense of reality.

    • Ollin says:

      Haha! Yes audacity is definitely a good thing. Maybe Katherine doubted herself but she had the AUDACITY to pretend as if she never did. Maybe the real lesson here is just to have the audacity to keep going even if you fear you’re licked. Like Atticus Finch would say. Thank god for Harper Lee.

  14. tahliaN says:

    Grusome picy. I guess that’s what we do to ourselves everytime we believe our doubts. I figure they’ll come up every now and then, that’s natural, I try to treat them with humor and say – ‘hi, you guys, back again. See you later. Have a nice day.’ The point being to realise that they are just doubts, not reality, just your fear playing out and like all our thoughts and feelings they’ll pass.

    It also helps to look at what you have done, and celbrate that, no matter how small it is. Give yourself credit for what you have done.

    • Ollin says:

      Great advice tahlia! I’ll keep that mind. I love your humor approach to it. Maybe it’s better to just laugh at my doubts and keep going.

  15. Jerry says:

    I once heard a story about a famous boxer who called his doctor because he was concerned about a negative thought he had earlier in the ring while preparing for a upcoming fight. In which, the doctor responded with, “just one negative thought?” The doctor answer was pretty incredulous, I must add. The middleweight champion said, “doc you don’t understand a single negative thought is what would get you hit in the face.” Being in sales for nearly a decade, I know what it feels like to get the crap beat out of myself by the small negative voice in my head, and Ollin you head the nail on the head. One of the best ways to combat doubt is with positive self-talk. The other is daily visualization of you accomplishing your goals. Listening to the comments from this blog, I realize there isn’t any difference between being in sales and being an artist, and I know for a fact that some people are naturally gifted with more optimism than others. There is a test called, the Attribution Style Questionnaire developed by Dr. Martin Seligman which proves this theory. Dr. Seligman believes we all can learn to be more optimistic. However, I didn’t need to see some questionnaire to know that some people were flying higher than others, just by pulling up last week sales numbers I could figure that out. And I agree with you Ollin, knowing the problem is all we need to beat this monster. Because in the end, we are all in sales right? I’m starting rant, so I will close with a reminder that fear is often False Expectations Appearing to be Real…

    • Ollin says:

      Fascinating point, Jerry! I’m not sure if I’m one of those natural optimists. I generally have to work at it. Still, it is a challenging time for even an optimist, so I think we all need the tools that will help us continue to surge ahead. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  16. Um, I see where you’re coming from, Ollin. But what Hepburn said a life time ago is out of context now. I mean really, what did she have to doubt? Sure the thoughts are there, she was human as far as we know. So the thoughts were there. Allow me to read between and revamp and update her words: “It never occurred to me to accept my doubts. In fact, I do things in spite of them.” How about them apples?

    • Ollin says:

      Yeah, I think THAT is what she meant. Either way, I think my point in general was that I don’t think anyone lives without doubts or fears–and I don’t think we can ever live without them. I think it makes more sense for us to learn how to deal with these two obstacles to our growth in a healthy productive manner. Because fear and doubt are actually good to a certain extent. You know, every thing in moderation.

  17. Ollin,

    I could go into the diatribe with big sweeping words and massive paragraphs to explain doubts as a writer yet there are two quotes that beautiful distill everything that I would end up saying. So here they are:

    1. Feel the fear and do it anyway. – Susan Jefferies

    2. Everything you want is on the other side of fear. – Source Unknown

  18. Leslie says:

    I do always find it comforting to know that I’m not the only one with massive doubts. And it makes me feel indescribably better to know it took Lin-Manuel Miranda 7 years to finish In the Heights. So if my musical sucks by the time I finish writing it in a year, I’ll just say I have 6 more years to polish.🙂

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