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Question of the Week: Self-Doubt

by Susan Henderson on September 25, 2006

Rejection is a large part of the business for writers and other artists, but what about those of you who crumple up your efforts, judge yourself harsher than any editor, or are so afraid of failure you freeze up? Talk to me about self-doubt.

*

Wednesday I’ll share with you the interview that made me cry. For those of you who watch TV or read glossy magazines, you have probably seen Tommy Kane‘s work in advertising.

commercials

Sometimes there are heavy costs to losing creative control over your art. On Wednesday, Tommy and I talk about self-doubt, art driven by the soul, and the need to create even when the process is not at all enjoyable.

I adore this man, and I hope you’ll be back to get to know him.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

mikel k September 25, 2006 at 8:50 am

I doubt that I can talk about my self doubt, right now. I’m just too insecure to open up like that at 4:48am. Let me get some more sleep and see if that helps any. If I do answer, I’m going to blame my father for my self doubt.

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Julie Ann Shapiro September 25, 2006 at 11:44 am

Self Doubt – What a nerve you struck. I’m up here at 4:30 Am. I I just woke because of my novel in process. I was tossing and turning over my decision to cut out two chapters that I loved, but which caused confusion in the current plot. The chapters were part of the mad scientist’s diary, but which seemed irrelevant as the story of the two step sisters and their intersecting lives took greater precident.

Because I cut these two chapters I now wonder if the whole novel is too complex an idea for the readers. If readers will get the two story lines. If what I’ve been working on that nearly makes me cry sometimes as I read or write it will be a story that anyone cares about.

I have nights like this every few weeks in the novel. I’ve found I get myself more in trouble by thinking about the novel in process like this than when I write it. Still, the anxiety is strong over the work in process.

At moments like this I think I should just write more flash stories and not bother with the novel, but then I’ve spent months and months working on this story. There’s a line I’ll paraphrase from The World of Garp, that I’m reading, which I think is very appropriate for times like this.

“True artists know that they learn the most by sticking with a the story to the end.” I’ll add my part…it’s in the beginnings, the agonizing middles and the ends that we learn the most about the story and about ourselves.”

Julie

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Frank Daniels September 25, 2006 at 1:34 pm

The craziest fucking thing about self-doubt is that it takes the “one bad apple spoiling the bunch” approach to ruining my day. I can have ten people tell me how psotively affected they’ve been by my words, ten more tell me how exciting this time is, how they know that what we are doing is going to change things in the lit world, and then one asshole just trying to “knock me down a notch” will completely destory all of that good will in my head. I’ve always read about artists ignoring their reviews and disregarding any naysayers and I’ve always thought that that was total bullshit, but now I’m seeing the need to do that. Because one seed of self-doubt is all that is needed to really put everything else in jeopardy. Self-doubt is totally illogical, especially when you consider that one person’s seemingly well-supported criticisms hold more psychological weight than ten others’ wishes of good will and support. But then it comes down to getting angry, and using that negativity as fuel, the same way an abused step-child might turn all his/her step-parents’ criticisms as a way to make themselves more invincible. It’s a trial by fire, a forging through hell that makes one stronger. And shit, I haven’t even addressed the whole “sitting at your desk and staring at a page of your terrible prose and wondering if someday soon everyone else is going to wake up and realize how shitty your abilities really are” yet. I’ll wait on that until later.

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Kasper September 25, 2006 at 2:12 pm

I have learned through painful trial-and-error that failure or success in my art, so far as those depend on the viewer or reader, are almost completely unpredictable.

Sometimes I may have made a “crowd-pleaser” which seems to bring a smile to every face. Paintings of flowers often fall in this category.

Yet some of the most grotesque and seemingly unappealing work of mine often finds a partisan. At this stage in my productive life I measure “success” by the ability to go on– to make more work that feels significant to me.

One thing I have learned is that, Nabokov aside ( and I have learned a very great deal from him), most viewers/readers have a deep need to “identify” with a main character, or even a bowl of blossoms.

A painting of mine hangs in the dining room of an affluent architect’s house. Its subject is a pair of agapanthus flowers arching over a green fringe of leaves and fallen garden fluff.

” I just love to imagine I’m in that garden when we’re dining”, the person who bought it told me. Should I comfort myself, relieve my self-doubt ( which to some extent is always present after I finish a picture) by finding in her comment a measure of my success?

Another picture of mine hangs in a bedroom of the same house. It’s a garden too, only here a small, empty wooden chair is visible with a tangle of vines and flowers around it.

“That’s so beautiful a place, ” the same woman said, ” I just want to walk into that picture and sit down in that chair . . .”

Should I feel successful or appalled by her comments? I don’t know. The need to erase self-doubt says: you brought her pleasure and she’s an intelligent, complex person of considerable taste and deep feeling. What else do you want, you jerk? Cinnamon in your glass of sherry?

But the “self-doubt” voice, like Jiminy Cricket, whispers– You damned hack. This is commercial art, meant to go with a room color and match the furniture. Why aren’t you Francis Bacon, asshole?

Self doubt, for me, becomes most excruciating when I examine the time I’ve “lost” puddling around with useless experiments. But as one of my best teachers told me, if you haven’t got the staying power and the guts to be interested in the least exciting thing in the picture, then you won’t make it as an artist.

He was full of Zen-like pronouncements that comfort me in my self-doubt:

“Don’t make it too interesting . . .” was one I cherish
( He has been gone many, many years and was a kind of substitute father. I mention this because he saw me through many periods of self-doubt).

Another favorite of mine was his rejoinder to Ingres’ famous dictum:

“Big forms first!”

( Tom added, very quickly)

“And last!”

Before I enlarge this to the Complete Lexicon of Self-Doubt or write a self-doubter’s autobiography, I’ll end by saying that, since I don’t work for large sums of money, I have to find other measurements of my worth as an artist.

When Rothko’s work was displayed in VOGUE magazine, his prices shot up to half a million from fifty thousand overnight. That must be hard to deal with, unless one simply ignores prices, or almost ignores them.

Self-doubt, or something like it, seemed to persist for Rothko, in spite of his magnificent successes. But maybe it’s presumptuous of me to interpret suicide as a sign of self-doubt. Maybe he really was “Yahweh’s Stenographer”, as he was sometimes called.

I think I take dictation from a puny, minor demon in making my pictures. But I get down in a dark hole and doubt even his advice .

Self doubt? I think I can get closer to R. Crumb’s “self-loathing” at times. Too many times.

Great, and painful question, Susan

Your friend,

–K

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Greg September 25, 2006 at 2:31 pm

Frank – I hear you. I once wrote this fake Sloth (from The Goonies) diary for a paper that I thought was pretty funny… other people told me it was funny… and then I see some kid linked to it from his Web site and said how horrible it was. I immediately thought my work was shit and wanted to take it off the Web.

And I’ve stopped submitting fiction because I went 0 for 40 with five stories last year. Again, I now think these stories stink when once I was really proud of them.

Something that always gets me down is when I send out e-mails to friends and family about a new article being published, and nobody responds with a “I read it. Good job.”

I feel like a lot of my self-doubt will subside if I could just get one good break… a play produced, a script accepted, a story published in a respectable magazine.

-Greg

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PD Smith September 25, 2006 at 2:38 pm

There are some great comments here already that reflect many of my own experiences of self-doubt.

When I worked as a photographer and now as a writer, self-doubt has always been there, gnawing away at any success or achievement. But although it’s horrid and it makes your creative life hell, in a sense self-doubt is necessary to keep your critical faculties sharp.

You need a lively dialogue with yourself to be creative at all. Self-doubt is part of that. I guess the difficult thing is knowing when to ignore it…

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Sarah Roundell September 25, 2006 at 3:06 pm

As mentioned by Frank and some of the others on here, the biggest slice of self-doubt in my work comes from outside criticism. I was in the habit of not letting people read my stuff because I never really feel it’s finished and selfishly if I’m doing the writing I don’t think another person can tell me what should happen next(not true in bios of course). The one time I caved and let someone read a short story I had written they blasted it pretty hard, so I actually stopped writing. It took almost a year to sit down and pick up a pen again. I had a co-writer on that project so I couldn’t just keep it to myself and she really helped me to take criticism with a grain of salt, especially since the people who say the most negative stuff couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag, so that took care of the 80% of my self-doubt that was inflicted by outsiders. I can listen to opinions and if I agree, make the necessary changes, and if I don’t I won’t sacrifice the way I’m telling the story just to satisfy one person. I think the 20% that belongs to me is healthy in any writer’s work. It causes us to do rewrites and sometimes those rewrites are just how we pictured the tale we’re telling, other times it’s the reassurance we needed that our first take is the right one.

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mikel k September 25, 2006 at 3:08 pm

“I was there when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain…”–Mick Stagger

I would like to tell you that I have the self confidence of Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” or a Hemingway or Thom Jones short story, but I don’t. I bet that, on occaison, Ru Pual is not sure which lipstick to put on. I am more like that or an Anne Sexton poem. I told my father, when it was time for me to head off to college that I wanted to be a writer. He looked at me and said, “that’s a tough game, one in a million make it, i don’t think you have what it takes.” So, I doubted that I could write and, instead, I studied business(how boring) budweiser and sorority gals.

It wasn’t until I was 27 and sitting in a punk rock music club, throwing crumpled beer cans at the lead singer in a band called The Restraints, in Atlanta, Georgia, one near blacked out evening, that I started scribbling words on new and used napkins. Then I bought a notebook or two and I was off to the races. I was writing. I was a writer, despite what Dad had said.

I don’t much doubt the writing itself. The writing feels good. I like the writing and I like the act of doing the writing and I think that I am good at it, no matter what you or the “editor” of the poetry magazine thinks, no matter what the 52 agents, who have so far rejected it, think about my book, “The Delivery Guy.”

I’ve learned to not much present the work to those close to me, because they don’t much care and they can say things that cripple my tender little writer’s heart. The people close to me care about me cooking them dinner. They care about me getting them to Little League games and birthday parties. They care about me being present at family Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings. They don’t care about reading every poem that I create or every page that I write to every book that I am working on.

I think that we writer’s have great gifts with the internet. We have spaces like Lit Park and My Space and Lulu to express ourselves and reach readers. We can set up our own websites, create our own worlds and not wait around to be “discovered.” Each writer can now be like the band Black Flag and get in the van and get out there and spread their own word,if that is what they want to do.

There was never any guarantee that we writers would or we will pay our rent or our mortgage with our words. Agents and publishers only sign you if they think that your book will sell. They are not God. Their decisions are not infallible. If they don’t want you, the game is not over, it is just beginning. A writer is limited only by his or her own imagination, zeal and work ethic, cuz baby the times they have a changed.

In this piece, I think I have expressed both great self-doubt and a cocky swagger about the words that work their way from my brain, into my laptop and onto my website and my my space blog. For me, that’s just the way it goes. Some days up. Some days down. But one thing is consistent: every day I sit down and do it baby.

If you are a writer, you should do it too, baby, whether you feel up, wether you feel down, whether you feel like a rockstar in front of a packed house or a made up clown with no audience in town.

(You can check out out a nice portion of Mikel K’s book, “The Delivery Guy,” under “word of…” at http://www.185cool.com/mikelkpoet/ and you can read his poetry on a daily basis there at “The Daily K” or you can tune in and turn onto K Poems at http://blog.myspace.com/mikelkpoet)

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Grant Bailie September 25, 2006 at 3:13 pm

What could I possibly say about self-doubt that has not or will not be said better by other people, smarter, funnier, taller and better looking than myself?

I know this: were my self doubt not interspersed with periods where I think quite highly of myself and my abilities then I would have dissolved into nothingness a long time ago.

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Gail Siegel September 25, 2006 at 3:37 pm

Ditto to what Grant said.

But Greg, the truth for me has been, publication only temporarily alleviates self-doubt. It rolls back around, sure as sun-up.

And, welcome to Chicago.

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Lori Oliva September 25, 2006 at 4:19 pm

Thank you for asking and addressing this topic. For me, self-doubt is always present. Some days it’s an annoyance other days it’s a monster. I think it goes hand-in-hand with the creative process because writing is by a large part, a solo effort. Yes, you have your support system, your readers, your editors, your cheerleaders and critics, but in the end, it’s your work, and you stand by it alone.

How frightening is that?

A writer’s mind is a perfect place to harbor self doubt. Overcoming it is the challenge. But with supportive friends, anything is possible.

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Jordan September 25, 2006 at 4:53 pm

Rejection doesn’t make me doubt my writing, it simply makes me doubt my ability to get published, and that makes me really dark and moody. What I hate about the publishing model is that it leaves succuess up to matters of subjective opinion, and for a control freak, this is bad news. As a freelance writer, i can handle the rejections because I can turn around and make another pitch; as a novelist, the odds are quite a lot higher.

J

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Susan Henderson September 25, 2006 at 5:03 pm

Count me in as one who remembers the bad and quickly forgets the good. When I’m confident, my writing’s on fire. When I lose my confidence, I don’t just doubt my ability to write or my ability to get published, I doubt my whole reason for existence.

Mikel K, Julie, Frank, Kasper, Greg, Peter, Sarah, Grant, Gail, Lori, and Jordan – I’m so moved by your responses. I’m going to hold my individual responses til Friday so as not to interrupt this conversation. I feel I need to listen more than talk right now.

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Ric Marion September 25, 2006 at 5:35 pm

Self doubt can cripple. Going long periods without positive feedback, no one, not even your closest friends saying, “Hey, this is good.” A string of form rejections. Hard to stay optomistic – easy to blame it on thirty-something agents selling to twenty-something editors who didn’t read Vonnegut or Pynchon before it was cool or required.

Self doubt can be erased, I’ve discovered, sitting in a coffee shop, smoking too many cigarettes, and penning the perfect line, the excellent phrase, the germ of a great idea that expands quickly into your next novel.

Opening the door to all things possible. Yet again, even after the last novel was rejected by everyone, including the Borzoi at Knopfs.

Yet again.
Because, even with the doubt, the staggering odds against finding your name between King and Grafton on the list, all things are possible.

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Ric Marion September 25, 2006 at 5:37 pm

Just noticed that my website is too long for the little box – the link won’t go through.

http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/members/RicMarion/

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Greg September 25, 2006 at 5:44 pm

Gail – thanks for pushing in the Welcome Wagon. I’m loving Chicago, but the unemployment is really getting to me.

And, yeah, when I’ve gotten something accepted I’m temporarily god-like. Two days later I forget what that feeling is even like.

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Joe September 26, 2006 at 4:19 am

An unpublished nobody like me has no business in this discussion. Angry letters to the editor don’t count, do they? But why should I let lack of knowledge and experience stopped me.

I’ve done the cyber equivalent of crumpling up my efforts – deleting entire websites containing my writing. I’m not sure if it was self-doubt or loneliness. The stories got lonely, not me. They were hanging out there in the ether unread. Not even a drunken fratboy comment. So I euthanized ’em. I couldn’t bear the thought that someone might come across them years down the road with that pathetic (0) comments tag at the bottom. Whether they were good or bad, I’ll never know. They’re gone forever. No back up. Burning bridges for fun and no profit, that’s me.

No one read them because no one knew they were there. That is the self-doubt. I could have promoted them somehow but I didn’t. Thus I can maintain the fiction that I could be a writer if only I would apply myself a bit more. Getting my writing out there to be rejected risks deflating my little inflatable horsey of hope. (I’ve been waiting to use that metaphor for a month. I could stop writing now but what the heck…)

What if I was destined for mediocrity? What if I have the job I deserve? Oh, how cruel! Drama. Clutch heart.

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool…

Uh oh.

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Dennis Mahagin September 26, 2006 at 4:57 am

Hi Susan,

On Saturday, I went to this used book store and stumbled upon a copy of Raymond Carver’s poetry collection entitled “Ultramarine.” My only other copy was stolen from me, years ago. When I re-read a book by Carver, or the collections of poets such as Dobyns, Simic, Addonizio, Corso, Laux, Levine, Larkin or Lux, I invariably get hammered with a wicked cocktail of Inspiration cut at least 2 to 1 by hefty dollops of Self Doubt.

A part of me whines:

“you will never, ever in this lifetime produce art even close to this fine–so what is the point here, really? What could possibly compel you to even try?”

Answering these voices is a hassle, but after awhile one gets the hang of “pulling the utility, from futility.” Excising the big ol’ F.

Not easy.

I sometimes find it helps to think about this fact:

that each and every one of those aforementioned writers had the same voices to contend with– the bi-polar Thrust and Parry unique to each individual within his/her creative process. Each, at one time or another, had to keenly feel that gulf– between perceptions of one’s own work vis a vis that of an idol, or mentor, or master.

Thinking in these terms–that All In The Same Boat ethos– often helps me distill inspiration from frustration. Or, failing that, at the very least a determined lurch–back on an even keel.

If writing wasn’t such a struggle, it wouldn’t be as fun. I’m sure of that. I can’t skateboard, or climb mountains. So I write.

Anyway,

Excellent discussion topic!

Best,

DM

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amy September 26, 2006 at 9:41 am

What if I was destined for mediocrity? What if I have the job I deserve? Oh, how cruel! Drama. Clutch heart.

Joe, I know this feeling intimately. Thank you for phrasing it so elegantly.

For me, self-doubt surfaces when there is a disjoint between my intentions in my writing, and the perceptions of others. Which is… always.

Of course it’s most crushing when someone tells me to cut or revise a section I thought was perfectly beautiful. But I can also be thrown by a compliment, when it relates to something I thought was hackneyed, derivative, or dull.

Such disconnects make me wonder if I’m speaking to anyone at all, or if I’m just a madman babbling in the darkness.

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Myfanwy Collins September 26, 2006 at 12:01 pm

We are wired to remember the bad–it’s part of how we, as a species, survive–or have survived. For me, rejection, doubt by others, doubt by self–all of it motivates.

“I’ll show you. I’ll prove you wrong.”

I say these things even, especially, to myself.

The sad thing is that even when someone says YES, it may be difficult at times to believe that they mean it.

Who among us has not worried that the acceptance was a mistake or a cruel joke and that even though we signed the contract it will somehow be taken away, proved false? Who has not worried that even after something is published someone won’t come along and tell you what a fraud you are?

Eventually, though, this worry becomes annoying and tiresome. So I ask myself questions like: What is it I really want? Is such and such more important than the love of my family? My health? No. Okay then. So move on. Keep moving on to the next thing. Keep pushing forward and squashing down doubt.

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LaurenBaratz-Logsted September 26, 2006 at 2:02 pm

When I finished my first novel in January 1995 – a lifelong dream – I went for my then-daily hourlong walk. For the first 30 minutes I was elated – “I did it! I finally did it!” – then, as I turned for home at the halfway point, and 30 minutes ticked over into 31, that little voice in my head sneaked in, sneering, “Sure, you did it once…but can you do it again?” And so it’s gone on ever since. My new novel VERTIGO pubs today and I’m seesawing between elation and self-doubt.

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Susan Henderson September 26, 2006 at 3:50 pm

Ric, Joe, Dennis, Amy, Myfanwy, and Lauren – Tremendous. I’ll respond to everyone on Friday. I just want to say to all of you that I’m glad you’re here and please come back tomorrow because Tommy Kane has a beautiful, hurting heart, and I want you to know him better and hear what he has to say about art and doubt.

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Betsy September 26, 2006 at 4:45 pm

Myfanwy, your comments really resonated for me today – especially the last paragraph. I tend to make everything SO important in my mind when it comes to my work life, but you reminded me of the things that matter most – many thanks.

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Julie Ann Shapiro September 26, 2006 at 7:16 pm

When self doubt is really strong sometimes there’s nothing better than exercising and recommuning with nature, or spending time with friends and reading a good book. The answers to doubt plotwise often come from the outside. I find as a writer it’s important to get out of the way of one’s head sometimes and go out into the world to bring things back in and then release them back into the world with new energy.

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Patry September 26, 2006 at 8:39 pm

What’s really bad is when you even experience self-doubt over a blog post. What, no comments? No one likes me anymore? And yeah, I do it.

Over the years I have become pretty impervious to rejections though. Why? Maybe because I’ve had enough nastily rejected stories go on to be placed and enjoyed and sometimes even nominated for prizes. After a while, you realize that the only truth on a rejection slip is the part that says “I’m sure others may feel differently.”

Great discussion, Susan.

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Lance Reynald September 28, 2006 at 1:28 am

self doubt?
hmmm.

my doubts tend to swing a bit more extreme than all of that. I get more the self loathing thing. I go through spells where I don’t doubt so much I just can’t stand.

I hate when the story isn’t going where I want it and that must be because of some detestable quality I possess…. I’m not smart enough to tell it, I’m too short, I’ve gained too much weight, I have bad habits, I’m lazy, I don’t know the right words, I’ve the wrong feelings, I’ve supressed the right feelings, just general not good enough type stuff. But, I never think of it in terms of doubt; it is certainly loathing.

and all of that is during the actual writing; by the time I venture to the rejection it’s as though the rejection is actually a validation, a “yeah, I do suck…..yipee! at least I was right about that”.

and I tend to write as compulsion to begin with. If people see something I’ve written and connect or feel anything. That’s great! Lovely! If not, well….maybe there are times I should be alone with certain thoughts….but, I write….through good and bad, cause I have to. There have been years I didn’t, I was afraid or whatever……those years were harder and darker than any idea of Doubt or Rejection…..Those years, silent ones…..I wanted to die almost every day. I don’t feel that way these days.
so doubt, rejection…..bring ’em, they are after all interaction.

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Susan Henderson September 28, 2006 at 2:48 am

You will all be on my Friday blog.

I can’t believe not one person commented on the Mean Joe Greene picture!

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Thea September 28, 2006 at 2:32 pm

Self doubt creeps in like a cockroach in the dark and then whacks me in the head when I turn on the lights. So in this very fragile period of my writing career, I maintain a very simple philosophy – keep the lights on.

I’ve always been a writer but it’s always been on the proverbial back burner. Career, (as a linguist, I’ve always thought it ironic that I made my living in a language other than my native tongue), and motherhood forever altered by widowhood, kept me, well busy.

When did I write? Alone, in the doctor’s office, at a school recital (between acts of course), and never so much as a peek at that creeping cockroach. I didn’t even know it was there.

But now I have time, which translates into a life; and I can maybe, perhaps, I think, write and actually share with others. But the roach crawled across my foot and I wonder, more often than is needed, or necessary, or desired; can I write? will anyone actually want to read my stuff? Is it worth it?

Of course it is. I simply keep the lights on.

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Kathy September 28, 2006 at 5:16 pm

“An unpublished nobody like me has no business in this discussion.”

Hi. I am an unpublished nobody, also.

This discussion is kind of depressing (and making me feel a little self-conscious even posting. You all articulating your frustration so much better than I do.)

I, too, have deleted entire websites (my first website)because it wasn’t being read (it was, but whatever your hit total is, it’s not enough), or even though it was being read, everyone thought it (I) was a joke. I am also a photographer and it’s far easier to take criticism for a bad photo (there are more variables/excuses: poor lighting, cheap film, misbehaving subject…) than for bad writing. I don’t even know what bad writing is anymore–if I ever did.

Most of the time I simply don’t write enough. I rest on “well, I’m smart, right? It’ll come when I need it” rather than actaully putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). When do write, I know all my bad habits by heart (like, er, excessive use of parentheses) and hyperfocus on them to the point that I’m over-editing.

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Susan Henderson September 28, 2006 at 5:42 pm

Thea and Kathy, welcome!

And please don’t ever worry about being articulate here. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, stumbling in drunk, typing when you’re in a bad mood. This message is to everybody: Come as you are. I’m happy you’re here.

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Lance Reynald September 29, 2006 at 5:20 am

I was not drunk when I stumbled in; that entry way is uneven. warped, loose carpet, slippery…..

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