Saturday, July 6, 2013

On Self-doubt

by Tammy Kaehler
Author of the Kate Reilly racing mysteries

A really amazing racing blogger I follow—someone I'd read if he was writing about toilet-seat manufacturing, because I enjoy his writing that much—recently posted a general sigh of self-doubt about his writing ability to social media. I, like many of his friends and admirers, jumped in to reassure him. The whole time I wrote my "of course you’re amazing!" note, I thought, "Please, please, please, be ready to say this to me."

Because he was right when he said we all go through this. All of us creative types. All the time.

Now, this post isn't meant as a plea for assurances that my writing is amazing, my plots are epic, or my concept is ground-breaking. I want to talk seriously about self-doubt for a minute. Because I think (and this won't be ground-breaking either, but it can't be repeated enough) that how we handle our inevitable self-doubt is what separates the pros from the amateurs—the women from the girls, if you will.

If you let that nasty inner critic stay in your head, it’ll keep whispering "maybe you're not very good" and "that sentence really sucked." If you allow that critic to keep seducing you with thoughts of the new book on your TBR pile or that episode of Dance Moms on the DVR, you're not going to reach your creative finish line. If you give in to that voice, you're not going to get it done.

I'm not telling you if you ignore that voice, all will be unicorns and rainbows. Just getting it done isn't a guarantee it'll be GOOD. But you're never going to have a shot at your work being good (or great) if you don't have any work in the first place. As they say in auto racing, "To finish first, first you have to finish."

And let me assure you, EVERYONE feels self-doubt. Sue Grafton has said she's never sure she'll be able to write another book (and she's closing in on the last letter of the alphabet). Danny Elfman (composer of music soundtracks and the Simpson’s theme) doubts himself at every project. My racing blogger friend worries about his marketing writing and his racing analyses.

So when I’m in the throes of self-doubt, mired what I call the “hot mess middle-muddle”—as I am now—I start by consoling myself with the thought that even successful artists doubt themselves. This only helps a little bit on the day I end up curled on the bed, crying and telling my husband, “I’ll never be able to write another book.” (He loves that part of the process, by the way—insert heavy sarcasm.)

But when the “even famous people feel this way” pep talk doesn’t get me past the tears and paralysis, I try a mantra I’ve developed in my fledgling fiction-writing career: Butt In Chair.

You see, I’m not someone who’s stumped by the blank page. After nearly 20 years spent as a technical or marketing writer in my day job, I have no fear of the blank page. If I sit down at the computer and open the Word document, I’ll write something. It’s the sitting down that is the problem. I tell people I don’t have writer’s block, I have butt-in-chair block.

Yes, my mantra has become “Butt In Chair.” I’m thinking of having it printed up on a mug or a sign—maybe a dozen signs to post all over my house and get my behind over to my desk. Because I’ve learned if I simply spend enough time at my computer in a day, I’ll write something. Enough days of enough time at my computer, and I’ll write a book (at least that crappy first draft).

But it’s hard, right? I mean, we know carrots and broccoli are better for us than doughnuts and chocolate. I know that future-me will be happier with myself if I go for a walk now instead of sitting in a chair and reading a book. But it takes willpower to put off the tasty—indulgent?—item now for future gain or happiness.

Even though I know I’ll be happier in a month if I sit down and write—if I work past the self-doubt right now, rather than avoid it—it’s still hard to put my butt in the chair.

So ultimately, how do I do it? I slap my inner critic quiet, look my self-doubt in the face, and banish both of them. I put my head down, ignore the mountain range ahead, and focus on the next steps in front of me. It always works.

Now if I can only remember that for the next time….

But hey, I’m always looking for more tips and strategies. How do you all cope with bouts of self-doubt?

Tammy Kaehler’s career in marketing and technical writing landed her in the world of automobile racing, which inspired her with its blend of drama, competition, and welcoming people. Her debut, Dead Man’s Switch, was praised by mystery fans as well as racing insiders, and she takes readers back behind the wheel in Braking Points, the second Kate Reilly Racing Mystery. Tammy works as a technical writer in the Los Angeles area, where she lives with her husband and many cars. Find out more at


NancyM said...

Nora Roberts used to call this syndrome Author Paranoia. She talked abut using it to your advantage--by writing and revising and revising and revising and checking and double-checking until the work is perfect. That's what I do---polish until I can't polish anymore. And after I turn in a ms, I start thinking, "Well, I'll never be able to do THAT again. At which point, I put my butt in the chair......... But hey, Tammy, don't worry too much! Your books really zoom!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Good blog, Tammy, and welcome to Poe's Deadly Daughters. Husbands do come in handy at these moments. When Carolyn Hart got her Lifetime Achievement award at Malice, the way she told it was that she says, "I can't do it again." Her husband says, "You always say that." She says, "No, this time it's different." And he says, "You always say that too." My own husband, being married to a shrink as well as a mystery writer (no, he's not a bigamist, it's all me), hit the nail on the head when he said, "Your process always begins with 'I can't.'" That's become a mantra for me--a reminder that this too shall pass--but only if I keep going.

Anonymous said...

My self doubt comes after i finish the book and wonder if anyone will read it and whether they'll like it.
Richard Brawer

Joanne Guidoccio said...

Excellent post, Tammy! Right now I'm in the throes of self-doubt as I await the launch of my debut novel. I have started the sequel, but am progressing at a snail's pace. Need to adopt your mantra: Butt in Chair, Butt in Chair...

Hallie Ephron said...

Well said, Tammy - I'm in the hot mess middle-muddle (as you so aptly put it) too right now. Misery loves company... so I was thrilled to read your blog today. One of my favorite quotes is from Ray Bradbury: "Sometimes you just have to jump out the window and grow wings on the way down."

Anonymous said...

Every now and then we meet someone who is more gifted than ourselves.

Tammy said...

Thanks everyone, for having me here with you this weekend!

Nancy, yes, the hardest part is somehow telling yourself to *welcome* the paranoia by putting it to work for you. If that didn't remind me so much of welcoming the hunger when you're on a diet....

Thanks, Liz. I love the reminder of "your process begins with 'I can't.'" I'm going to remember that one.

Richard, that's a other whole set of terrifying doubts. *shudder*

Joanne and Hallie, yes, it's awfully good to know we're not alone either. I like Bradbury's quote ... trust that we'll figure it out. (Joanne, congratulations on the upcoming debut!)

And anonymous, let's hope those people inspire us to achieve more!

Sandra Parshall said...

My husband gives me the same kind of,pep talks Liz's husband delivers. Still, I doubt. (Sigh)

Thanks for being with us this weekend, Tammy.

Tammy said...

I hear you, Sandy. My husband does the same, and yet I don't believe. I don't think we're going to change....

Thanks for having me here!

jacki said...

Thank you. It was exactly what I needed to read today. I was deciding whether to go to the Farmer's Market or actually start the newest revision. Have the butt in chair. LOL
Jacki Delecki