“We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
Creativity is my passion. I wrote a post last month in which I explain creativity as a two-sided process: the trick to getting ideas is both hard work and taking a break.
But how should we deal with self-doubt? How to get over that silent battle of mistrusting ourselves, to the point where we simply can’t work anymore?
The struggle is real
Ever since I can remember, storytelling was my thing. As a child, I would often sit by myself with my toys, and start muttering stories beginning with “Once upon a time…”. I would lose all track of time. It was borderline obsessive, how the plot had to be perfect.
As I grew older, I fell in love with books. They became a substitute for the toys that I eventually gave up. First, it was Barbie books, then horse books, Nancy Drew and horror stories. In my mid-teens I read books in English more and more; soon it was all about the classics as well as Harry Potter and teenage vampires.
As an avid reader does, I started dreaming about writing texts of my own one day. Now, as an adult, that’s what I’m trying to do. I get stuck all the time: “Is it good enough? Am I good enough?” It makes me feel silly to say it out loud, but doubt can have a powerful grip on me. It’s the number one reason I fail to get work done.
Rationally, I know that everyone doubts themselves, even the best and sometimes, especially the best. It’s so common. Sylvia Plath is one of my favorite authors and reading her published journals, that narrate the anxiety and depression behind her work, is frustrating.
How could someone with such talent be so unaware of it? And yet, I understand that even she must have practiced and revised and forced herself to work – a novel like The Bell Jar could only be the product of struggle.
“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Even as I know that everyone struggles with doubt, I’m also a creature of a tendency to feel I’m the only one suffering from a specific kind of nameless fear that makes me both miserable and special at the same time. That’s the nature of self-doubt: it’s isolation. It doesn’t have anything to do with logic.
Then, of course, there are the light bulb moments I wish I had more often. They come to me in the dead of night, when I’m in nature, or when I meet a special person. It’s when my inside world flashes before my eyes, all the ideas and potential I have, the scars, memories and fantasies I could write about.
Soon, it’s the return to my normal state of mind of skepticism. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m impaired with self-doubt, but most of the time, I have a fair share of it.
The truth about creative work
So many people seem to think that creativity is something we’re born with. They think that if we have it in us, it’ll just happen by itself. One day, they’ll get an idea for the bestselling novel of the year.
So, because of this naive belief, they wait, time passes and they do nothing to achieve their dreams. Occasionally, maybe once a year, they’ll half-ass an attempt to create something, one that is abandoned as soon as it gets hard.
A little bit of self-doubt is a healthy thing. I think that without it, most people would be insufferable because, in spite of it, we all manage to be so egoistic anyway. But it’s not healthy to hang on to it and to let ourselves be stopped by it.
The belief that writing a book is impossibly hard, is just as silly as the belief that books write themselves if we just are talented enough.
The truth is, most successful artists are normal people that loved something so much that they never gave up on it.
When faced with the question: “would I rather create something that might not be perfect or never create anything at all?” they chose the latter. And even though it might not get easier, they continue to make that choice.
So what should we do when we find ourselves stuck in a creative block? How do we make that decision and get going?
Learning to cure creative block
The cure is to find your favorite things and immerse yourself in what others have created, marvel at the brilliance, feel the envy, and then, think about how much they, too, struggled. Remind yourself of that often.
The cure is to change up your life. Go new places, travel, meet people, try a new café, wake up an hour earlier to go for a run and the next day, have a long sleep in. Be a sponge; absorb your surroundings.
Above all, the cure is work. The cure is sitting down at your desk, taking a deep breath and just starting. The cure is creating something, anything, for just 5 minutes. The likelihood of those 5 minutes turning into something more is very high.
When I force myself to start writing, the self-doubt fades away and more often than not, the flow starts. When I’m in flow I forget to check my phone, I forget everything. That’s worth struggling for.
Yes, sometimes it will suck. That’s okay.
Sometimes it will be boring, unoriginal and done to death by others.
Sometimes it won’t be anything close to the vision you had. So what? Keep grinding anyway, learn more, get feedback, try again, and it will get better and better.
At the end, it comes down to a choice: if you want to create, then create.