Dealing with the Dark Places
This is an article that first appeared on my personal blog a month ago. It got such an extraordinary reaction I wanted to give it a wider platform. It’s on a topic that faces all of us writers: self-doubt.
This post is a culmination of several things that have happened in the last couple of days. First, I read an amazing post by my friend Eric Robertson over at The Indie Handbook about his battle for his identity. Then Larry put me onto a thought-provoking piece by Jeanette Winterson on how creative people take the wounded substance of their souls and try and remake it into something alive. Finally, yesterday Sabina England, whom many of you will remember from my interview with her, removed her coruscating masterpiece Brown Trash from Authonomy again. All that, and I’ve just uploaded the first two portions of SKIN BOOK, a piece of writing that’s left me almost hollow.
A year or so ago I made a comment on a writing forum that every author at some point, if not all the time, believes, deep down, their work is worthless. I was told by a writer I still respect a huge amount not to be so ridiculous. No real writers thought like that. This post is about why he’s both utterly wrong, yet somehow right. It’s about the dark places. It’s about Self-doubt with a capital “S”, the kind of dount that penetrates us in the night, latches itself to every part of our soul we ever values, and sucks the colour and the worth from us until all that’s left is the dank, grey nothing of shame – shame that we could ever have considered ourselves anything but worthless; shame that we could have imagined someone would have wanted to read our work; shame that we stuck our head so stupidly above the parapet; shame, and embarrassment, and fear at hat the world will say when the darkness recedes and dawn brings into sight the chorus of laughing, mocking faces that surround our bed.
Being bipolar, I am aware I have a strange relationship with doubt. Some of the time, in my hypomanic highs, I am convinced within a week I will be feted the world over. Some of the time, in the black dog lows, I know the whole world sees my worthlessness.
It’s that second feeling that stays with me in the “well” phases, when the rest of my life is balanced. Like many in the arts, I am great at hiding it, even from myself. I guess I could teach others to do the same, call it NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and charge a fortune for the privilege.
But I don’t want to. When I’m blogging, and when I’m mingling, or networking or whatever you want to call it, that kind of learned self-deception is actually rather useful. But when I’m writing – even when I’m speaking, or reading, things I genuinely love doing, it’s not. Winterson made a wonderful point, about the way art doesn’t come from the surface. It wells up out of our wounds (her phrase), it’s a pressure that bursts through our fragile surface like magma (mine).
And that’s the point with writing. It HAS to come from the dark places of doubt. It has to come from hurt and pain and unconfidence. Because writing for readers is like being with a wild animal – if you act it, they’ll sniff you out and kill you.
[A philosophical aside – why am I equating pain, hurt, and self-doubt? Because, at a fundamental level, they are the same. Existential pain is the consequence of recognising that one is not self-sufficient. It’s about coming face to face with your brokenness – and THAT means acknowledging how far short of perfection we fall. And how can we meet that recognition with anything but the most crippling self-doubt?]
So, all real writers experience self-doubt in a base, tautological sense (because if they don’t their writing is of little value). I tend to think they also FEEL it, much of the time. And it is, like I said, crippling. Literally.
The key moment comes when we realise that our imperfection is the result of nothing other than being human. It is our common bond with every other person. And what’s more, it is our acknowledgement of that imperfection – it is the fact of self-doubt – that means we, more than the 90% of “I’m all right Jack”s out there, have the possibility, however remote, of creating something of value.
IT IS THE SELF-DOUBT WE EXPERIENCE AS CRIPLPING US WITH SHAME AND FEAR THAT ACTUALLY, WHEN WE ACKNOWLEDGE IT, IS THE IMPETUS THAT DRIVES FORWARD OUR CREATIVITY. And if we can bring ourselves to make that result public, then we MAY, just, create art.
So my good friend the well-respected writer was, in a way, correct. Real writers don’t – at a level deeper than the existential – at the level, Heidegger would say, of being itself – have doubt. But only because real writers know that it is only their doubt that gives their writing value.
Rita Hayworth famously said that she could always failed at relationships because they went to bed with Gilda, and woke up with Rita Hayworth. What she failed to realise, of course, was that it was only Rita Hayworth who made Gilda Gilda. And failing to realise it destroyed her.
And that’s the trouble with being an artist or a writer or a musician, or anyone in the arts. The very thing that has the potential to set your work above the mass is something that could, literally, kill you. It did for Rita Hayworth; it did for Kurt Cobain; it has the potential to do for any of us who take that step and admit we want to be more than average. Because the one thing that keeps 90% of people safe is that practised self-deception. And when you’re an artist, you make a pact to practice that as little as possible. It’s why many creative people with mental health problems refuse to take medication to take the edge off their lows. It’s a pact with the devil.
But the devil has the best tunes. And the best books. That’s why.