A Writer’s Less Than Supportive Subconscious

I was wondering what to post today. Meghan is still recovering from the heatwave and doesn’t feel very poetic. She’ll be back soon. But Sunday night, my subconscious decided to help. Well, I hope it was help. But I can’t rule out taunting. . . .

I thought I’d be dreaming about spiders this weekend thanks to Susaartandfood’s recent post. If you haven’t checked out Susie’s blog yet, you should. She tells great stories and shares fantastic recipes. But no such luck. Honestly, spiders might have been better than the dream I had Sunday night.

In that dream I found myself at one of my undergraduate colleges (there were two—I transferred). I walked past a classroom and saw my old freshman English professor. Of course, he hadn’t aged a day, but I recognized him by the copy of The Little, Brown Reader by his desk. (Yes, strange. Remember, this was a dream.)

I happily walked in and introduced myself as one of his former students. This, after all, was the professor who in the real world told me my writing had a great sense of style. And I was one of only two students to get an A for the course. The dream world students sat there as if this was an ordinary occurrence.

He politely asked what I was doing. Did I tell him I was an archaeologist as I do in real life? No, I told him I was writing two novels. And I started telling him about Summer at the Crossroads. I tried an off-the-cuff elevator pitch.

It was horrible. I kept saying things like, “Oh, I should have mentioned,” or, “I know it sounds strange, but trust me, it works.” I apologized for not having a pitch perfected yet. And my happiness deflated with every word as he shook his head and his interest waned.

He did perk up when I tried to explain Catherine’s idea that vivid dreams and déjà vu, for example, are glimpses of our lives in other universes. But what caught his attention wasn’t those two examples. No. It was “favorite fantasies of an alternate life.” I had to explain I didn’t mean those kinds of fantasies. He was disappointed. (And, guys, I apologize for my subconscious stereotyping your reactions.)

As I lamely finished, he said,” I thought I remembered you, but I was mistaken.”

Mercifully, I woke up.

But you can imagine how I felt Monday morning. If this was my subconscious trying to help with an idea for a blog post, it could have given me something more encouraging.

After all, writers are an insecure lot. Okay, maybe not all. Some have a healthy dose of self-confidences and others could share their overabundance with the rest of us. But most of us question our writing, if not every day, then maybe once a week or a few times a month.

I’m certainly in a questioning state of mind these days. That may be what triggered the dream. I know the Muse gave me two good stories. But even as I work on the revisions, I ask myself—can I turn them into good, well-written books? That’s where my self-doubt comes into play. I know it will pass. At some point I’ll read a section that I like and will think, “This is good.” And my confidence in my writing will return. But that could happen any paragraph now. . . .

Does self-doubt grab you often? How do you subdue it?

51 thoughts on “A Writer’s Less Than Supportive Subconscious

  1. Yes, often. Lately I have been batting it away by sticking to my schedule and yoga. After I come home from a good yoga session I’m really do beat on the keyboards. So far so good. I read what I had written yesterday and felt that voice creeping in with it’s doubts this morning but I reminded myself that first drafts are not perfect and pushed on. The only way I will find out of the revisions will turn into gold is to make it that far.

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    • That’s the best attitude to take toward the first draft—sh*tty first drafts as Anne Lamott so perfectly calls them. It’s those revisions that are gnawing at me right now. I keep reminding myself that the new scenes I’m writing to replace ones that didn’t work are also first drafts now. I can’t get them right the first time. That’s when I need to remind my self-confidence it doesn’t need to run and hide.

      If I didn’t stick to my workout routines, my mental outlook would suffer as much as my body. Fortunately, I enjoy doing them. The brain needs that physical activity, too. I’ve been missing my evening walk because of the excessive heat, but it’s cooled down some. Getting back to that should help. Stick with the yoga!

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  2. As horrible as that dream must have been to endure, it gave me a good chuckle. I don’t know if you recognize the humor you wrote with the post, but it is there, and I know you’ll be leaping with confidence in no time.

    As I’m sure you’re aware, I’m brimming with lack of confidence. Hmm. Can we actually brim with nothing??? Anyway, you know what I mean.

    I just spent the past three days rewriting my opening page to Spark. Now, what the heck am I doing rewriting an entire page when I’m about ready to query the thing? This is what I do. I am infamous for this, because I get cold feet with querying. I decide something in the book isn’t good enough, or strong enough, or vibrant enough, and I change it–right in the midst of querying.

    To be fair to myself, I have been questioning the opening page (not the chapter, just that first page before Ally goes to check on her mother) for a while. But I haven’t been consciously questioning it. My doubt has been hovering in the back of my mind, waiting in the wings for the right moment to strike me when I am the most vulnerable. Hence, right before I’m ready to query.

    I think our subconscious tells us a lot more than we realize (or want to realize, in some cases). I think we do need to pay attention to the little fellow, but not necessarily act. Our subconscious could simply be warning us that we’re overtired or that we need a break or that we need to do something completely different than what it is actively telling us.

    I think you’ve said that Crossroads hollered 🙂 to you while you were struggling with revisions with Death. I know that I cannot split my attention between writing projects, but that when I’m struggling over something in my WIP, another project suddenly looks much more tantalizing. Do you suppose you’re simply not ready to work with Crossroads yet, and that you might be using it to avoid Death Out of Time? I hope I’m not overstepping here, because I don’t want to make an assumption at all. But I know that you have two major projects in your court, both of which are important to you and perhaps you need to reevaluate the circumstances?

    Again, I don’t want to sound like I know what I’m talking about because obviously I have my own subconscious issues to contend with! In any case, I know that everything will sort out for you and you’ll be well on your way to moving forward! Good luck.

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    • Hey, Kate, no worries. The humor was intentional and you didn’t overstep any bounds. 🙂 Even if I’m posting on a more personal subject like this, I can’t be too serious. And I don’t want to sound whiny or wimpy. I’m great at being the supportive cheerleader and shoulder to cry on. I’m not so good at letting on when I’m not as optimistic as I want to be. So this was a hard post to do in some ways.

      I think my subconscious was reminding me not to rush things—to be sure I take the time to do my best. It’s easy to think, “This is better than lots of books I’ve read.” There are two major problems with this view. One—that’s not necessarily saying a lot if we’re comparing our work to really bad books. Two—why should we settle for “good enough” when we know we can do better?

      I think I needed a break from the revisions to “Death Out of Time,” and it was good to refamiliarize myself with Crossroads. This morning, though, I finally decided two more minor characters from Death must go, much as I like them. But with the changes I’ve made to Udana’s role, they aren’t needed anymore. You might not even remember them if I said who they are. 🙂 One existing character can take over their roles in helping Jack. So this evening I’ll start revising those scenes. I’ve also got ideas for Crossroads revisions that have been jotted down on its “to do” list. But I’ll be focusing again on Death.

      I’d bet most writers keep tweaking, even as they start querying. How many times have you seen an interview with a published author, and s/he says they would change some things if they could? So I wouldn’t worry that you’re still polishing that first page. It is the first one an agent will read! And I will get you my comments in the next couple of days. They are not major. 🙂

      As a number of folks have commented below, it’s better that we’re not brimming with overconfidence. So maybe we should take a minute to thank those internal critics and editors who keep us honest. If we do that, maybe they’ll ease up on us now and again. I think that’s a fair trade. 😉

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  3. Your dream sounds eerily like a real-life pitch I gave on my novel last year at my fave writing conference. Yikes. Only later, after talking to a good writing friend who is MUCH more experienced than I, did I realize that (if you are not a paid speaker as a profession) you should always, always have a typed-up pitch that you have memorized like it’s your Miranda rights. ; ) I will never, ever do that again. It was painful. I totally went off-script and mentioned ridiculous, side details that weren’t important. Sigh.

    So anyway, I feel your pain. I think any artist has moments of self-doubt. It has to be part of the process… totally believing that your work has an audience, is amazing and will touch someone one minute and believing it’s a sack of *%(% the next.

    I am a big believer in intuition and listening to what the universe is sending you out to do (this makes me sound very hippy-like, and maybe in this way, I am ; ). I believe in getting this novel finished. I also finally realized that my first one needs to sit in a drawer.

    One of the ways I quiet self-doubt is by reading… a lot. When I see that there are so many different writers and writing styles that get published, it makes me realize that there is room out there for all of us. My writing has a (future) audience somewhere. I have to keep believing that and keep working towards it, despite small set-backs of self-doubt.

    Best wishes as you silence your fears. All of your fellow bloggers are behind you! ; )

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    • The elevator pitch terrifies me! Even if I’ve memorized it, I know I’ll draw a blank if I ever knowingly use it on an agent. I’d be fine with someone I just met at a party. Maybe I’d better hope they turn out to be an agent looking for something like my books. 🙂

      I hope the dream doesn’t mean this book should sit in a drawer…. The earlier version did get positive feedback from readers. Time will tell…. I hope it’s as I told Kate above—that it’s a reminder not to rush things.

      Reading other works is a must. You’re absolutely right. There are so many different writing styles and story ideas out there that find audiences. And sometimes it doesn’t hurt to run across a book that leaves us thinking, “I know I can do better than this.” As long as we don’t let ourselves “finish” too soon as a result. Better than bad isn’t necessarily good.

      Thanks for the encouragement! I’m feeling better already as I read these comments. Sometimes it helps to be reminded we’re not the only ones who feel the way we do. 🙂

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  4. JM, EVERY writer goes through this. Self-doubt and that dream, well like you said, it did give you a blog post. Don’t let the self-doubt thing kill your writing (I don’t always practice what I preach), but I’m wayyy good at giving advice to other people. I think that no matter how established a writer is, even if she/he has written best-sellers, they still have those doubts, maybe not like ours, but I bet they do.

    I question my writing all the time! Good luck to you and this too shall pass! :).

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    • Thanks for the support, Brigitte—I’ve got some fantastic blogging buddies. 🙂

      Oh, yes. I’m a great cheerleader for others, but for myself? Oh, no. Self-doubt loves to settle in. Luckily, it hasn’t gotten me to stop writing. Maybe I spin my wheels for a while, but I eventually move forward again.

      Now if my subconscious could plant a funny dream that I can use as a blog post, I’d be ever so grateful! 🙂

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  5. Hey, thank you for the nod. I’m my own worst critic, as they say. I’m trying to get passed that but it is a difficult bump in the road. Perhaps it’s the people who assume everybody is impatiently waiting their next piece of writing who do not suffer such an affliction. Those who cannot entertain the thought that others might not find them interesting. I’m always sincerely touched and somewhat amazed when someone does.

    When I had my art business, in the beginning only greeting cards, I hired a telemarketer to set up “cold calls” because I couldn’t manage the whole enchilada (always back to food) myself. My first full day of appointments, I dressed, filled my tote bag, collected the addresses on my list from my assistant, got in the car, stopped by the side of the road and lost my breakfast.

    At my first call, when the buyer purchased a number of items for her store, I stood up and did the pee pee dance in the middle of the office because I was so amazed anyone would buy my art. Insecurity in it’s purest form. 🙂

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    • Your comment is a perfect example of why people should check out your blog. You tell a great story in one paragraph! 🙂

      There are some massive superegos out there, aren’t there? While I wouldn’t mind a bit more self-confidence, I wouldn’t ever want to be obnoxious about it. I’d rather be the way I am now than full of myself.

      It’s reassuring to hear others’ experiences with self-doubt and insecurity. Some days, we all need that reminder that we’re not alone. So many thanks for sharing your experiences with me. I’m feeling better now. 🙂

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  6. Oy vey, your subconscious is as sneaky as mine. I agree with the other commenters here, everyone has doubts. Writing really puts it all out there, it makes you feel very vulnerable. And frankly, I think that if you had no doubts, if you didn’t second-guess yourself on occasion, you wouldn’t be as good a writer as you clearly are.

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    • Thanks for the support and encouragement Mme Weebs. 🙂 I debated whether I should post this, but I decided I should be honest. It can be too easy for me to hide behind the blog and always present a positive, optimistic, professional front. But I don’t always feel that way. Sometimes, I need to let that show. 🙂

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  7. Oh the joy when you read something you wrote and think, “Damn, that is good!” Oh the despair when you read the next few lines and think, “Who the hell wrote that!?!?” Why it is that self-confidence comes in polar extremes. I guess that is what keeps us at the process. Polishing, tightening, and enriching, in search of the “oh the joy” moments.

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  8. Oh, man, that was a bummer dream. My Mr. Nasty Pants has visited me during dream time, too. It stinks, doesn’t it? But I agree when you say most writers are insecure. There is not a day that goes by when I don’t question my writing, my choices, my ability. I’m beginning to think confidence as a writer is never fully achieved. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s what keeps us reading about technique, writing every day to improve, editing and re-editing until our keyboard letters have faded, and so on. Perhaps if one reached the point of, “Hey, I’m actually a super writer,” then one would stop trying to improve, and that would be sad, indeed. But still, a little less self-doubt would be welcomed…

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    • I would much rather have been making salad dressing and giving a writing seminar than talking to my old professor. 🙂 But the subconscious will have its way.

      I’m glad to hear someone else is in the daily doubt category. Well, not happy that you are, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only one in that camp. I’ve heard interviews with an-author-who-shall-remain-nameless who strikes me as thinking he is Super Writer. And those interviews are enough to keep me from ever reading his work. Not that his genre appeals to me, but even if it did, I think I would pass because of that attitude. I don’t believe anyone is ever that good.

      You may be right that self-doubt is one of the things that pushes us to keep improving our writing. And as I mentioned above, I’d like to think the dream was a reminder to do that—to not rush to publish before I’m ready. That’s a heck of a lot better than my subconscious taunting me…. 😉

      If you find a way to reduce the self-doubt, maybe you could share the secret with your blogging cohort? 🙂

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      • I imagine that once one’s book is out there, and positive reviews trickle in, then that should help with one’s self-doubt a bit. On the other hand, negative reviews are also a strong possibility, and I’m sure it only takes one negative–even if there are ten positives–to spike that self-doubt right back up.

        I’m not sure which famous author you’re referring to, but in my experience, someone that confident still has a thing or two to learn. Sometimes even more. 🙂 It’s like I often tell people: “Never trust a doctor who thinks they know everything. The one who says, ‘Hmm, let me research that and get back to you,’ is probably a better bet.” 🙂

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        • Oh, man. Negative reviews. Those will be a bubble burster for sure. It might take me 100 positive reviews to get back to normal after one negative….

          Let’s just say he’s a successful author who has seen several of his successful novels become successful movies. He should take your advice about the doctors. He’s probably getting to an age where he might see more of them. And we’re never too old to improve our writing (or behavior).

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  9. Self-doubt is not limited to writers. You cannot possibly suck as much as you think you do because you wouldn’t be where you are. And in the short time I’ve been following your blog, I’ve always been delighted…especially today! Just keep going! 8)

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  10. Ouch that dream sounds tough. Glad you woke up. Though the icky feeling lingers into awakeness even when it’s just a dream. Self doubt pops up on a regular basis especially when I’m querying. My crit partner props me up all the time. 🙂

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    • Don’t you hate those dreams that affect you through the next day? Why don’t the good ones ever have that kind of carry over?! It’s always the dark and disturbing ones for me. I bet 4amwriter can relate to your query self-doubts. 😉 Actually, I’m sure most of us can. It’s such a stressful process. Make sure you treat your crit partner to a nice meal. 🙂

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      • I had a dream one week before the Amazon contest finals that I didn’t make it. It was so real for the first hour of that morning I was certain it happened. And then I couldn’t shake it. I knew I didn’t make it. I’d be curious to know when they made the final decision and if it was so weird premonition. 😉

        LOL. We live in separate time zones but we’re meeting up a conference in LA. I’ll make sure to treat one night. 🙂

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  11. Oh. ::( I know my dreams usually effect me pretty deeply, so I can imagine how that must have been. Such a mean mind!

    I have crippling self doubt, in nearly ever area of my life. I just.. try to ignore it mostly, when it comes to real world interactions. Then I go home and it eats me alive. I’m still trying to deal with it. Trying, and not doing to great.

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    • Self-doubt is nasty because it works itself into so many parts of our lives. It’s hard to know where to start to try to conquer it. Baby steps may be the best approach. Choose one area of life and start there, a little at a time. Remember, you’ve got a lot of friends here who know you’re smart and talented. 🙂

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  12. Of course, self-doubt grabs me. We wrestle a lot! However, less now than before the stroke. I still have my moments; do not doubt that. But, I think that I feel better as I realize that I am much more of a stable, fun person than I was before (at least, in my mind).
    Keep up your confidence. From the bits and pieces of your work I have gotten to see and from your posts in general, you are a fine writer.
    Scott

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    • Thanks, Scott. 🙂 Most days I’ve got enough confidence to get me through life’s regular twists and turns. Trying to write books that will find a public audience is such a different undertaking for me. I’ve always been sensitive to criticism and rejection, so I’m not sure what possessed me to start writing fiction and take it public! But how dull would life be if we didn’t surprise ourselves from time to time?

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  13. Hey, snap, lol!
    That little voice at the back of my head managed to stop me writing yesterday. I didn’t even do my daily 750 words.
    At this stage I think going over some writing I do like will remind me of why I do what I do and why I keep going.

    Tough break, having such a rough dream. Usually dreams are places for plot ideas but I think its great that you used it as inspiration to post, rather than curling up in a ball. I know folk who would have done that instead!

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    • It’s funny because I don’t normally remember too many of my dreams. Even if I wake up from one at 2 in the morning and think, “Wow, that was something!” I’ll have forgotten it when I get up at 6. But this one stuck with me. As you say, I did turn it into a blog post rather than hiding in bed all day. And that’s something. 🙂

      I hope you got back to writing today and beat back that nasty little voice. I think we have to let it speak now and again. But we can’t let it get the upper hand. From what I’ve seen of your writing, that little voice is full of you-know-what!

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  14. When I get those sort of dreams I am usually a bit late for a test or completing some coursework. It needs doing now but I’ve just realised I’ve done nothing. Usually I wake up and for a few seconds think I better get on with it. Then I realise I’m not doing a course or anything (well most of the time anyway), and go back to sleep.

    I always think I’m not moving quickly enough on writing projects so occasionally it pops up there.

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    • I think those dreams of being late are classic anxiety dreams. I’ll get those sometimes, often if there’s a deadline approaching for something. This, though, was so out of the blue, it really knocked me for a loop. Good blog fodder, but couldn’t I have had one of Carrie’s fun blogger dreams instead?!

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  15. Oh yes, self-doubt is very prevalent here! When I first start a writing project, I’m very optimistic and confident that I am more than capable of doing it well, then gradually, as I carry on with it, a little voice starts to say “What on earth made you think you would be able to do a good job of this? What were you thinking?!”. Luckily I have a partner whose judgment I trust completely and I know he will always be honest if I ask him to read over what I’ve written, kind, but honest.

    My worst self-doubt ever though wasn’t with writing, it was earlier this year when I did some stand-up comedy, twice, having never done it before. The gripping fear that maybe I wasn’t funny was awful. When I wrote it I felt it was funny, but after having practised it so many times, I didn’t find it funny myself anymore because, well, I had heard all the jokes before. The feedback is so instant as well with something like that!

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    • The thought of being on stage is petrifying to me. I never did anything more than a few tiny roles in grade school plays. And we didn’t have a choice on participating. 🙂 I can handle presenting papers at conferences, but only because I have the printed paper to read from! But to stand in front of an audience and performing? Yikes!

      Kudos to you for getting past that self-doubt and trying something so new! And I’ll bet you did a fine job of it. Despite this dream, I’m pressing on with the writing and will publish these books one way or another. I don’t know if people will ultimately enjoy them, but I’m going to try. And I will be sure to have a polished pitch before talking to any agents about the books. 😉

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  16. Strange how dreams seem perfectly normal and lucid at the time, strange details don’t raise a hair. Then things go wrong, we wake and a strange sense of disquiet or dislocation can follow us for days.

    Who knows really what is going on in there? Not even ourselves.

    Jim

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    • That’s a perfect way to describe dreams likes this—a strange sense of disquiet or dislocation. It’s such a strange feeling to wake up and think for a few moments—where am I again? Premonition-type dreams are the hardest for me that way. Sometimes they’ve turned out to be true, so when I have another one, I’ll wonder if it will be, too.

      Catherine in this book would say we might just be catching glimpses of our other selves….

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  17. Hoo boy, that dream stuck a chord with me. Thank you so much for having the courage and honesty to share it with us. I often forget that my self-doubt is typical of writers and of artists in general. You have two fabulous ideas for novels and you are a very talented writer. You will bring them to fruition in their own time. Genius cannot be rushed!

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    • Thanks, kiddo! 🙂 Genius isn’t exactly the word I’d use to describe my writing, but I hope some people will say the books are good once they’re published. I do love the ideas behind them. Letting others see them that way is the challenge. As I mentioned above, I have to look at the new scenes as sh*tty first drafts. It’s okay for them to be rough compared to others I’ve revised several times. But sometimes the brain is stubborn and wants perfection from day one, even thought such a thing isn’t possible. 🙂

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    • I could understand the dream being a good warning if I already had that pitch done, and in reality it was bad. But I don’t have one done yet, so it can’t be bad, at least not yet! But I will keep the dream in mind when it’s time to prepare the pitch. And I’ve got a blog post to help keep it fresh in my mind….

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