Doubt is Torture

A while back, Rands gave a recommended book shout out on Twitter. Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. I ordered a used copy on Amazon for about $4 and have been reading a chapter or two every night for the past few weeks.

Reading Natalie’s book is a lot like sitting in on a question and answer time where people ask all the right questions and she gives all the right answers.

You don’t have to read the book front to back either. The chapters are short and can be read in any order you like; each one is its own little nugget of advice or food for thought. After a short time of reading her book, Natalie already feels like a trusted friend; someone who’s not afraid to shoot it straight; someone who has nothing to hide.

So far I have been reading the book straight through, because I’m systematic like that. But last night I decided to skip to a random chapter. I landed on page 108, “Doubt is Torture”.

This chapter is so good I wanted to share it here:

A friend of mine was planning to move to Los Angeles with the hope of connecting with the music industry. He was a musician and songwriter, and it was time for him to follow his aspirations. Katagiri Roshi said to him, “Well, if you’ve really decided to go, let’s see what your attitude is.”

“Well, I’ll try my best. I figure I have to give it a shot, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I’ll just accept it.”

Roshi responded, “That’s the wrong attitude. If they knock you down, you get up. If they knock you down again, get up. No matter how many times they knock you down, get up again. That is how you should go.”

The same is true in writing. For every book that makes it, there are probably thousands that don’t even get published. We must continue anyway. If you want to write, write. If one book doesn’t get published, write another one. Each one will get better because you have all the more practice behind you.

Every other month I am ready to quit writing. The inner dialogue goes something like this: “This is stupid. I am making no money, there’s no career in poetry, no one cares about it, it’s lonely, I hate it, it’s dumb, I want a regular life.” These thoughts are torture. Doubt is torture. If we give ourselves fully to something, it will be clearer when it might be appropriate to quit. It is a constant test of perseverance. Sometimes I listen to the doubting voice and get sidetracked for a while. “I think I’ll go into sales, open up a cafe so other writers can go there, sip cappuccino and write, or get married, have babies, be a homemaker and make wonderful chicken dinners.”

Don’t listen to doubt. It leads no place but to pain and negativity. It is the same with your critic who picks at you while you are trying to write: “That’s stupid. Don’t say that. Who do you think you are anyway, trying to be a writer?” Don’t pay attention to those voices. There is nothing helpful there. Instead, have a tenderness and determination toward your writing, a sense of humor and a deep patience that you are doing the right thing. Avoid getting caught by that small gnawing mouse of doubt. See beyond it to the vastness of life and the belief in time and practice.

What Natalie says here is incredibly relevant to the “self publishing revolution”. Yet she wrote this back in 1986 — way before weblogs were around.

I try to encourage people to start a weblog. I am amazed at how many people consider themselves a writer, or who hope to become one, and weblogs have done something that journals never did. They’ve given an extra push of motivation to those people who always wanted to write, but never did.

Unfortunately, it seems the same motivation which encourages us to publish, also feeds those voice of self-doubt that Natalie talks about. I don’t know how many posts I’ve started and deleted because I thought they weren’t relevant or exciting or interesting enough. Which is why I love this sentence so much: “Instead, have a tenderness and determination toward your writing, a sense of humor and a deep patience that you are doing the right thing. Avoid getting caught by that small gnawing mouse of doubt.”

I’ve been publishing online since the beginning of 2006. It is a medium that works for me, and I am confident without it I would not be writing as well or as often. But the difficulty and the doubt of writing never seem to go away. I either learn to press through or quit.

I’m digging Writing Down the Bones because it’s helping me become a better writer, not just to write better. And yes, there is a difference.

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