Every writer thinks they’re a hack. Only I know that I actually am. I’m talking the truth here. I’m a big, stinking stain of an I-can’t-write-his-way-out-of-a-paper-sack hack.
Yeah. I’m scribbling this piece about that ugly, but oh so prevalent, subject called Self Doubt. I have it in spades, not to mention all the hearts, diamonds and clubs. My writer’s melon is filled with the whole deck of cards plus extra jokers. And it can be so crowded in there it's sometimes a wonder I can compose a competent sentence.
Over the top? Maybe. But there’s a serious point to my hyperbole.
Fact. I’ve been a pro writer for nearly forty years. I’ve written movies and novels and copious articles, experienced both massive success and crushing failure. I’ve had critics rip me for wasting their time and praise me for being both brilliant and devilishly clever.
To paraphrase a sports metaphor, if a player has been around long enough, there are very few outcomes they haven’t experienced.
Based on the aforementioned statements, you might think that having covered so many miles of road in my dubious career I’d be brimming with confidence. To that I reply, hell yeah. I know exactly what I’m doing. Get out of my way and let me do what I do because I am worth your reading attention.
So, why pen that opening paragraph? That cryptic appetizer filled with what reads like crippling self-doubt.
Answer: because two things not only can be true at the same time, but should always be. And if this doesn’t ring a bell within you, you probably suck as a writer. Please believe I mean that statement in the best way possible.
In other words, show me a writer without big, fat servings of self-confidence and self-doubt, and I’ll show you somebody who hasn’t been around or seen much success.
It’s part of the package. The process. It’s what separates the pros from the rest of the field.
Ever hear of The Dream Police? Here’s a brief story. For dramatic effect, you might want to spin up your Spotify app to the Cheap Trick cut with the same title.
It was my first payday as a writer. A producer with funds optioned an early screenplay of mine for $2,500.00—a veritable fortune for a wannabe scribe driving on bald tires and eating ramen. Before I’d even cashed the check I was fist pumping my success. That heady mix of ambition, discomfort, and hard work had finally turned into pay dirt.
Talk about your positive reinforcement.
Then came the Dream Police. Only it was a different agency with the same function. Sometimes it’s called the Fraud Police. Other nights, it’s the door getting kicked in by the Failure Force. No matter what is embossed on their badge, they creep up from your subconscious and attempt to throw the cuffs on your progress.
In my case, it was sometime in the wee hours of the following day where’d I’d at last struck gold. I woke from a fevered dream and somehow was stuck with the worry that they’d pay-checked the wrong writer—or that they’d somehow were grappling over their own buyer’s remorse.
I stabbed for my original copy of the screenplay (yes, back then it was still typewriters and copy shops) and read word for word my own written work wondering what in the world had these morons just paid me for.
You want to know something else? I had the same exact reaction when I eventually sold a screenplay for a million dollars. Wake. Read every single word. Wonder what on earth they’d paid me for.
Now you know my first experience with this taste of self-doubt was hardly my last. In fact, it’s been stuck to me throughout every solitary step of my professional life.
Yes. If you’ve studied a bit of psychology or have had experience with what might seem like some form of paranoia, the clinical term for this unreasonable second-guessing of oneself is called cognitive distortion. We all have it. It comes pre-installed in our gray matter. Taken to extremes it can be a sign of mental illness. So beware. But in small unconscious and conscious doses, especially in regard to work as a writer, it’s a Godsend.
Here’s a bold statement.
There’s not a single writer I know worth their professional bona fides who doesn’t get regular visits from The Dream Police. And no. It’s not because we’re snowflake whack-jobs wrecked in a constant state of low self-esteem.
Self-doubt is a tool. A friend. It’s part of our success package. It’s an asset—a veritable wingman. It gets me up some days, on others it makes me stay at work late. It affords me reasons to rewrite when I think I’m finally finished. It whispers to me that perhaps I need to seek further and more in-depth critiques. It makes me want to always better my craft.
I know. This particular it sounds like a slave driver, a master with a stinging whip. And perhaps, at times, it is. Yet there’s absolutely no actual or concrete way I can define it other than to say what it is not.
It is not a perfectionist.
That’s because—and maybe here’s where you get to be the writer of this article.
Please finish this sentence. “Perfection is the enemy of …”
There’s lots of potential periods you can put on it. Just Google the phrase and you might come to a similar summation. None of the answers are wrong. Other than this: Perfection is the enemy … and self-doubt is my friend.
I figure by now you’re getting my drift. But if you need an illustration, imagine you’re a publisher or a movie studio. Which writer would you rather cut a hefty check to?:
Writer A: Knows they’re awesome, brimming with self-confidence and craft, thinks every thought or turn of phrases is a guaranteed treat for the reader and can’t wait for critical praise.
Writer B: Equal measures of confidence and craft but knows writing for an audience is a process choc full of pitfalls, stumbles, blind alleys, dead ends, and most of all, days and days of rewriting until it’s not perfect, but good enough to risk being read.
There it is. My embraceable inner hack. I love it. I hate it. More importantly, I treat it like my writer’s life depends on it. Because it surely does.
Don’t leave home without it.
*Feature Image: Jorm S (Adobe)