This week, I had a moment of self-doubt. OK, it was more than a moment. It was an avalanche of crippling, all-consuming doubt in my ability as a writer. It was so real to me that I was ready to hit the delete key on my entire manuscript. I’m not kidding.
Writing a novel is one of the hardest things I’ve ever tackled, second only to raising children. Both come with oodles of unsolicited advice, but no instruction manual. Both have their moments of heart-skipping joy, black pits of despair, and many hours of what feels like thankless labour. (In my opinion, parenting wins by a whisker in the difficulty stakes because, unlike writing, you can’t press pause while you catch your breath.)
I got serious about writing this story five years ago, although I’d been playing with the idea for some time before that. I churned out 80,000 words – close to the length of a full manuscript. Then, one day, I just stopped. I couldn’t bear to look at it any longer, so I put it on hold. I knew there was a lot of work to be done on it. A fuck-tonne, to be honest. While some chapters were polished to a point I was happy with, many needed re-writing at best. A good 40% were destined for the trash, and the entire structure needed fixing. It was a daunting task. So daunting, in fact, it was paralysing.
Admittedly, a lot else has happened in my life in the last five years. I’ve been building a business in photography and copywriting. I bought and sold property, moved house, and got my eldest daughter through her final years of high school (one more kid to go – woot!) Then there were the millions of everyday tasks that consumed my days – the same that probably consume yours. For the best part of those years, I doubted my manuscript would ever see the light of day again. All the while, though, it niggled at my conscience like a neglected child.
Then I met this amazing bunch of women. All are writers who live in my local area – published authors, poets, emerging writers and non-fiction writers. What started as an online group became a monthly meeting in the real world. Those of us who have space in our homes take turns to host. Others show up with wine. We critique, workshop, and brainstorm one another’s work. We bounce around ideas. Above all, we support one another in our diverse writing journeys.
Buoyed by my new support network, I brought my manuscript back in to the light after five years on the shelf. We critiqued a chapter back in March. It was tough. On Tuesday night, we workshopped one of my most ‘finished’ chapters. Even after all the work I’d put into it, there was more to be done. Much, much more.
For the next two days I played with the words, I rearranged paragraphs. I got inside my characters’ skin and tried to see the world from their point of view. I did little else but write. My house was a tip. My family ate pizza for dinner. But after two days’ solid focus on this chapter, it just wasn’t working.
When self-doubt hit, it hit hard. Other writers – real writers – did not need to make this many changes to chapters they’d already edited to such an extent. I was never going to get this. I was never going to be the writer I wanted to be. At age fifty, it was time to hang up my keyboard and let go of that long-held dream of having a published novel with my name on the cover. I was a dismal failure, and probably a rubbish photographer to boot.
I decided to share the tragic demise of my writing career with the women in my group. Their responses were kind, uplifting, encouraging. I remained unconvinced. They didn’t really mean it. They were just being nice. They all claimed to have experienced self-doubt. Of course they did! They were human after all. But unlike their self-doubt, mine was rooted in fact!
A couple of the women sent me private messages. One wrote, ‘usually following doubt comes clarity and breakthrough.’
I mused over her words, and then slept on them. Hoping for an overnight miracle, like a skincare product that claims to knock ten years off your face, I sat at my desk the next morning to give it one last shot. All of a sudden I knew exactly what I had to do. The words flowed from my brain to my fingertips as they danced across the keyboard. The chapter worked. I felt it in my bones.
Self-doubt is endemic. It sneaks up on you and envelops you in a fog so dense you can’t see the other side. It can bring you to your knees. For some of us, it’s a matter of waiting it out. Others swear by switching to a physical activity – go for a walk, clean the house, paint a room or do a gym class. All of these things have worked for me during various episodes of self-doubt. But there are times when it takes a small army to drag me out of the quicksand. This time, my little cheer squad donned their combat gear and came to the rescue.
It’s not that my family and friends are unsupportive. They’re cheering as loudly as the writers’ group, but that’s what loved ones are meant to do. They’re supposed to tell you how clever you are, even when you suck. Validation from your peers, who have no vested interest in the outcome, carries far more weight. I don’t know any of my writers’ group women well. Some of our lives converge in other spheres, but mostly we would be strangers were it not for our common love of writing.
Reflecting on my early parenting years, I see many parallels. Everyone had an opinion on the ‘best’ way to raise a child from the second I conceived. Bottle vs breast, paid work vs stay-at-home, co-ed education vs single-sex and so on. Much like my writers’ group, my mothers’ group was a diverse bunch of women drawn together by a common thread. Their support was a lifeline through those years.
You may find your A-Team in the last place you’d least expect, but you’ll know them when you stumble upon them. And, when you need a winch to haul you out of the depths of self-doubt, there’s no stronger cable than solidarity.