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.


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.

~ by yearzerowriters on November 28, 2009.

30 Responses to “Dealing with the Dark Places”

  1. This made me shiver, despite the amount of boiling coffee i have in my throat. When you’re young you don’t want to acknowledge the devil unless you think you can beat him. All I know now is how to keep him at bay.

    • I think that’s about the most important thing we can learn – you can’t win over the demons. But you can keep them at arm’s length on day at a time.

  2. Self-doubt is doubtlessly something we all face – I have felt its presence doubly because of the language issue I have. But reading this made me better able to stare it down and have it fade away. Thanks Dan, once again!

  3. Interesting.

  4. Also, I wish Sabina would put her book back up.

    • So do I – but I’m in the lucky position of having read the whole thing – it’s incredible

  5. Definitely, Dan. Like I said when I read it before, I totally agree.

    Anne LG

  6. I think if you don’t accept the world at face value, if you are a doubting Thomas or a Thomasina, then you are already at loggerheads with the majority view. The doubt then comes in bashing your head against a brick wall trying to communicate that there are other ways of seeing and conceiving to these others. The setbacks in this quest erode one’s own self-confidence in the robustness of our own vision. Each, both external and internal, feeds and amplifies the other.

    There have been periods of self-doubt, brought about by the deafening silence after launching work out into unperturbed and unresponsive void. Then the doubt strikes not at the core of what I am trying to convey, but more that i have not been able to raise it above a subjective language which inevitably fails to communicate to a wider audience. ie Craft failings rather than vision/idea failings.


    • “ie Craft failings rather than vision/idea failings.” – important distinction, Marc. It’s good you’ve managed to keep some distance between your self and your doubt so it only affects the outer skins of the onion as it were, leaving the kernel (mixing my food metaphors) intact

  7. I would posit that the Devil then commits an act of utter love –“let’s look at what you’re really like, let’s drop the pretense, let’s be honest, I want to know what you’re really feeling. I promise that someone out there will thank you for putting their feelings on paper bravely.”

    After all, the fires of Hades are only there to cleanse. Only the Devil wants to make the pain go away. Trouble is, it hurts like hell.

  8. you closet Neoplatonist, you 🙂

  9. It is so helpful to talk about this, because otherwise the doubt and negativity – self-hate even – is seen as something personal and specific – “it’s about how rubbish my prose is” – rather than something that is shared, springs from deep roots and is linked to creativity. Knowing that people can struggle with these issues yet go on to write work of sublime beauty, as Dan does, is inspirational. Like the alchemist, he transforms the lead of doubt into the gold of art.

    In the West we might see this dark path as the realm of the devil, but in the East it’s the comfortable world of illusion and social consensus that is damned.

    • I think you and Daisy have both hit it in the head that the “dark path” is something we need to learn not to shun but to work with – to fight against but at the same time with, recognising that it itself has a value, somehow, in shaping our work. It is, as you say, a liberating thing to realise that we are not alone – that we share the clouds with others. I don’t think I would ever go so far as to say there is a duty for an artist to go through the wringer for their art – I would never think ill of anyone who pulls back at any stage. But when you don’t pull back, it is very helpful to be able to speak about the pain and teh darkness of doubt without stigma or embarrassment.

  10. I’ll tell you what really sucks on the self-doubt trail here — when other people ACTUALLY really doubt you. And think your work is meaningless. And don’t believe your time and effort art worth shit. People who are close to you and claim to love and care about you. And they just don’t give a shit either way.

    So I can doubt myself until the cows come home, but I don’t waste the energy on doing so because other people do it for me.

    boo hoo.


    • I’ve kind of grown used to people I know thinking my stuff’s useless – so any esteem I’ve ever got from my writing has come from the fact I’ve felt it had some worth – which is why self-doubt matters

  11. We are indeed – that’s brilliantly and eloquently put

  12. I do doubt the purpose of it all. The only thing beyond doubt is mortality which throws into total doubt the ‘point’ of existence. One can interrogate the world through art, maybe even trying to answer that question of purpose, but there is no truth discoverable of any use since 1) You are unlikely to change the world through anything you uncover, at least at this stage of human development in the early 21stCentury with its ideas fatigue 2) Even if your published words prevail and persist in the sump of the human knowledge pool beyond your death, what bloody good redounds to you lying rotting in the worm’s adventure playground?

    So we have to be perverse to embark on this activity. Unless you hit the big time and become a world phenomenon, of which literature may just be the hardest field to do this in (I do not count the Browns & Rowlings as they do not seek to inquire of the world). Our little scratchings on the marble tablet already covered in chisel notches are for what? 100 readers. 1000 readers. 10,000 readers even. We give them pleasure/pain for the duration of their read of the book. Will it stay with them? Will they be able to remember one line to quote 6 years after having read the book? Will they ever reread it, like I used to do with “L’Etranger” but no longer do.

    That enough self-doubt?

    Writing at this level is a masochistic pursuit. I used to fantasise about which crime I’d commit to get me in jail so I could write uninterrupted by the demands of the real/outside world. Not murder, cos that was beyond the pale. Self-murder took over instead…


  13. sigh. humbling indeed.

  14. “But the devil has the best tunes. And the best books.”

    Great last lines. Thanks for alerting me to this.

    • Thanks, kristen – you must let me host something for you on my personal blog about Home Front.

  15. This is a very moving blog post…I, when younger, used to wish I could be someone else; someone who has had it ‘easy’ (if there are such people), someone more ‘content with their lot’, someone who doesn’t anaylyse or doubt themselves. It’s as I’ve grown older (now 32) that I actually am glad for the stuff I’ve been through and what I am because of it. I wouldn’t want it any easier, I wouldn’t want to lose the ‘dark’ times because, as corny as it sounds, they do make me ‘me’ They make me aware of what’s important (even though this does seem magnified in these times), of what is inconsequential (material stuff), and of the sensitivities of others (even again if this can be misguided or magnified).

    Also it is no coincidence that all my best writing has been done at difficult times in my life. In truth things are pretty good now and I am finding it tough to get the same feeling into my writing…I am not wishing for bad times, but it is obvious that my writing suffers when I’m feeling more ‘settled’.

    It is also the self doubt that drives me, that makes me want to create something that is great, of importance, that will have an impact on those reading it. However it is undoubtedly a negative driving force, as in part it’s about seeking the approval of others to quash my own self doubting. Always a pointless cycle…

    So yes I would like to be less self doubting and more confident, but I am aware that, for me, this would probably put pay to my writing altogether…I


    • Hi Kelly – thank you for the comment. Yes, it’s interesting that many peoplen I know with bipolar or depression refuse to take medication and say, provided they can manage to stay alive and maybe hold down some kind of job, they actually don’t want to lose those places – liek you say, they’re part of what make you you.

  16. Hi Dan, I’ve followed your link from Josie’s blog at Sleep is for the weak, your post here is fascinating, I’ve always felt that creativity can come from the darker places – my problem is that if I write anything inspired when I am down, I always think it’s a pile of crap – self indulgent and full of cliche. Other people tell me it is not so but I won’t believe them! I also wanted to flag up our new blog to you called Breaking the Silence, I hope you may find something of interest. It’s at
    All the best to you x

    • Linda, thank you – I noted your link on Jodie’s thread and will go over there now. Gosh, yes, this is a debate that would run and run – yes, in a way, the things we write in our very darkest places are utterly self-indulgent – but (I was talking about this over lunch yesterday), often it is that 100% concentration on a single thing that can enable what we say to reach out universally – there’s a stream of Japanese philosophy that places a very strong emphasis in the universal existing within the absolutely specific. We all have different perspectives here, but there are lots of us who are very strongly biased towards confessional art, towards telling one’s story, or something arising from one’s story, in the most intimate detail, both as something good in itself and as a way of reaching out to others.

  17. If you act it, they’ll sniff you out and kill you <<<Brilliant and true.

  18. […] over a year ago I wrote a piece called Dealing With the Dark Places, about the crippling yet essential nature of creative self-doubt. It rang some kind of bell with a […]

  19. […] the chemical screwed-upness of my head have fed into some serious creative issues for me, which regular readers of mine will know is nothing new . Self doubt is like an old sparring partner, the perpetual Holmes to my […]

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