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Why are writers so prone to self-doubt?

We asked authors, editors, instructors, and psychologists to find out.

INTERNAL SOURCES OF DOUBT

Fear of failure/of your vision not being good enough

As writer Kate Sloan says, “Good writing is a pretty nebulous and subjective concept, so who really knows when you’ve hit the bar?” The fact that there isn’t a universal “bar,” below which bad writing rests and above which good writing shines, leaves many writers to wonder whether their writing is “good enough.”

Andrew Najberg, author of The Goats Have Taken Over the Barracks and Easy to Lose, says that, in general, insecurity about the submission and publication process does not plague him, but when it does, it usually springs from insecurity about whether he is succeeding in creating “compelling and recognizable characters and/or relationships among characters.”

Add to our fears those notes from agents and editors that say things like, “I’m just not in love with this” and “I don’t see a spot in the marketplace for this,” and our anxieties ramp up, so that what we hear is “your vision is a failed vision.”

Imposter syndrome

LOTS of writers weighed in about imposter syndrome: the belief that, no matter what kinds of writing success they’ve had, it’s only a matter of time before someone “finds them out,” at which time they’ll be dropped by their editor or agent or will never publish again.

Cindy House won an emerging artist grant from the St. Botolph Club Foundation in 2018. She has published work in a variety of journals, and prior to the pandemic was a regular opener for David Sedaris (who, she says, also struggles with self-doubt). Then, last May, she landed a six-figure book deal with Simon & Schuster after her book went to auction with five publishing houses.

“I am shocked by the fact that it has not eased my imposter syndrome,” she says. “I just sent my editor a big revision and I’ve spent the last few days sitting around thinking she will come back and ask me to return the first payment they gave me because I suck and she made a mistake.”

Comparison with others

In her 1989 New York Times article, “Envy, the Writer’s Disease,” Bonnie Friedman wrote, “Envy is a vocational hazard for most writers. It festers in one’s mind, distracting one from one’s own work, at its most virulent even capable of rousing the sufferer from sleep to brood over another’s triumph.”

Kathryn Chetkovich’s 2003 essay in The Guardian, called “Envy,” candidly and painfully details the envy she felt regarding partner Jonathan Franzen’s success.

I myself have written at length about how envy of my husband’s successful art career very nearly derailed my writing career (“To Love and to Envy,” Psychology Today, 2017).

“Creatives bathe in self-doubt,” says freelance writer Meredith C. Kurz. “My self-doubt sparks when I’ve just read a piece that catches me by the collar – shaking my head, thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I could write like that!’ instead of analyzing WHY the work works.”

Personal expectations

Sometimes, our own expectations about what our writing could or should be doing – for us, for the world at large – can put an inordinate amount of pressure on us, and inflame our self-doubt. Oksana Marafioti is a book coach and freelance editor who published her memoir American Gypsy with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2012. Despite her successes, her self-doubt has increased over the years, something she chalks up to the kind of success she has had.

“…The more activism I’m involved in, the more I realize my writing must mean something, create change, etc., which raises the bar pretty high. When I write now, I look at it and think, this is just too frivolous and without substance. I struggle, as an activist and a writer from a marginalized community, to give tons of meaning to everything I write.”

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