The Writer's Enemy No. 1

I have a new collection of poems coming out next week and I’m torn, as usual, between elation and fear.  One part of me wants to pop the champagne cork (or rather, prosecco, since poets rarely earn enough for champagne!) – the other part wants to hide in a dark cupboard until it’s all over. Like most writers, I dread the moment the poor little creative thing I’ve cherished for so long, has to go out stark naked and face a critical audience.  Just at this moment, I don’t want to put pen to paper ever again.

It's been a rough ride with this book.  The first publisher went bust and it's taken me almost two years to find another.  There were a lot of rejections - not because of the quality of the work, they all stressed, but because they didn't have the resources.  Many little poetry presses are committed a couple of years ahead.  Some get no financial support from arts agencies.  For other publishers it was down to the editor's personal preferences.  It was very depressing.  Some nice words from Bloodaxe's Neil Astley helped a lot, and two or three poet friends kept me going. Before I struck lucky with Indigo Dreams, I so very nearly gave up.

So what is a writer’s No.1 Enemy?  Not Procrastination (though it may be a symptom).  No.  What kills your ability to write successfully is Self-Doubt.  It's corrosive and eats away at your confidence from the inside out.

I’ve recently been contacted by a friend, the author of a number of books for both children and adults who also writes for TV, who is currently having a bit of a creative wobble.  Her last book was ruthlessly carved up by her publishers and marketed as something that didn’t resemble what she’d written and she’s still unhappy with the result.  Now she’s struggling with her latest project.  She has taken extra care to hit what she thought was the button her publishers wanted her to press, but the book came back from her agent with ruthless requests for cuts, which she gritted her teeth and made. Then there was the email asking for ‘just a few tweaks’.  Then the ‘we’re nearly there, but .....’ and ‘there are a few issues we’d still like you to address’.  And so it goes on.  My friend has begun to doubt whether the book is any good at all (it is) and she wonders whether she can still write, or has she lost the magic gift?  I don’t think so.

Pic by Teela 'Battling self-doubt as a designer'.
My friend is having an acute attack of Self-Doubt - a kind of inner torture that wakes you at 3am with a little voice at the back of your mind that tells you you’re no good; you’ll never get anywhere; give up now - it’s just not worth the pain and the effort; and did you really want to be a writer anyway? Surely there must be easier ways of not making a living?  I know - I’ve been there.  You fear being humiliated.  You fear putting work in front of professional editors who will sneer at it behind your back, and - most of all - you fear being found out as a fake.  Think you could be a writer did you?

No matter how many books you’ve written successfully, the demon is always there, because - really - weren’t they all just massive strokes of luck?  And it’s this one, the one you’re writing now, that is going to expose you for what you really are.

There’s only one way to deal with demons.  Look them squarely in the eye and tell them to ‘Vaffanculo!’  - as Salvo Montalbano would say.

Love yourself a little.  See what you’ve achieved?  You’ve written a whole book.  Share your work with kind friends as well as editorial critics.  Believe in yourself.

We’re so easy to take down.  A few comments from an agent or editor, a bad review, a couple of rejections and our creative souls are burning in the fires of publishing hell, with self-doubt turning up the heat.

Don’t immediately impale yourself on your pen.  Your agent/editor/critics aren’t necessarily right. Drink wine, eat cake.  Buy a new notebook. Some flowers. Believe the memes.  Don’t let the B******s get you down!


  1. But surely this kind of self-doubt is no more than worry about what others will think of you when they read your work - a kind of ego-mania (to be more than a little unkind). Is that why you write? I don't think so. Besides, that kind of 'self' is an illusion that needs shattering from time to time; so we simply carry on writing, because that's what we do.

    An interesting post.


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