When to Fight the Doubt… and When to Follow It

Any creative endeavor is doomed to come with a heap of doubts. After all, you’re pulling something raw and untested out of your mind—your unique, imperfect, emotional little mind—and putting it out into the world, saying, “Look at this. Judge this. Judge me.”

It’s only natural that your mind would seek to protect itself from this potentially cruel examination, by throwing out doubt after doubt to convince you not to let them see. And it’s tricky, too; it will simultaneously keep up the idea that someday you might create something worthy for them to see… just not this. Not now.

So a lot of writing advice (including my own) is about pushing past these doubts, opening yourself up to judgment so that you can open yourself up to success… and no matter how hard the doubts fight, you have to just keep creating. Right? Right?

Well… not always.

It is absolutely vital as a wannabe creator to learn how to create through doubt, because for most people, there will never be a creative space without it. And it can be done, I promise you, because I have the strongest and most virulent doubts imaginable and I’ve still managed to finish drafts.

But… there are times when the doubts might be worth listening to—and the trick is separating the two.

The key skillset to develop (to fight doubts as well as to grow as a creator) is self-examination, and its use here is in figuring out where the doubt is coming from. Doubts come on several axes, and the trick is to make sure the doubt is coming from the “right place,” from “truth,” before listening to it.

Internal vs. External

I like to separate my doubts into “internal” and “external.” Internal doubts come from my true feelings, from me—they are based on what I think and like and don’t like without external influence. They can be identified by seeing if you’ve heard this from anyone else; if it’s something you like in your work (or others) even when no one is watching—even when everyone else disagrees—then that is your internal voice.

External doubts come from other people’s voices. Sometimes, they’re specific voices—my teacher wouldn’t like that. Sometimes, they’re generic voices—I can’t imagine anyone making a movie out of this (therefore it must be… bad? I never said doubts make sense). They can be identified by asking yourself if no one would ever see this, would you still have this doubt? (And if you can’t separate your career ambitions enough to contemplate no one ever seeing your current project, imagine yourself being handed enough money to live on forever, or imagine a separate hypothetical project that everyone loves while this is your secret lovechild… just to answer this question.)

When you’re creating for an audience, those external voices can start to have more power, because in a sense you’re creating for them. But a creator, even one with commercial intentions, will do best if they listen to themselves first and foremost, and let everyone else follow (or not; hence the risk). Especially in a first draft.

Sometimes, the external voices suggest things, and it’s the internal voice which doubts it. These are the moments when you think you need to include X because you’ve seen how people love it, but you don’t really love it yourself. And this is a doubt you can listen to, if it’s strong enough, because your internal doubt is trying to connect you with your inner creative truth.

Fight the external doubts and write anyway; give the internal doubts some thought, though try to search for ways to still create, maybe with just a few adjustments.

Surface vs. Fundamental

This distinction has less to do with the source of the doubt and more to do with how you’d go about addressing it.

Surface doubts are about the upper layers of a project, the easier-to-fix surface level that can be reshaped while retaining the project beneath. These are doubts about the writing, the dialogue, even some of the characters. They can be identified by asking: if I followed this doubt and changed this factor, how much of the project would stay the same? If enough of it would change, then it isn’t surface level. But a surprising amount of writing is surface level.

Surface doubts are strong because they’re in your face constantly when you’re creating; they’re what you see on a day-to-day basis, and they’re easy to judge as “good” or “bad” (although you can’t always trust that judgment). But they’re also a lot easier to push through—you just have to keep revision in mind, and tell yourself that you can fix this later. When you give yourself that permission to fail, to be bad, then you can make it through the project on the strength of what drew you to the idea in the first place.

But fundamental doubts are harder to fix. These are the core of the project, the foundation layers that everything else builds off of. Setting and character can sometimes be fundamental, if they play a huge role in the plot and in your investment in the project; but they can also be surface level, if details and personalities can be changed without changing too much of the story. Plot can also go either way, depending on which factors you’re doubting—that the bad guy has this plan over that plan, surface; that there is a bad guy and a mystery plot instead of a loosely flowing road trip with an ambiguous antagonist, fundamental.

The problem with fundamental doubts is that once identified, they are extremely difficult to overcome—they feel insurmountable. Once you’ve decided that you don’t want to write the underlying layer of the story, no amount of surface revision can fix that. However, the additional problem is that fundamental doubts can be false… they can be external, rather than internal, and they can be random “rules” your mind sets for itself as a form of self-sabotage. For example, if you convince yourself that you absolutely cannot write a story with a comedic tone, that’s going to sabotage any idea with a comedic premise… even if you think of a story that sounds kind of fun and interesting, that fundamental doubt will squash it. But should you listen?

First, identify if the fundamental doubt is internal or external—is it because you always imagined your career as a serious literary writer, and not a fun comedic jokester? Are your true favorite books and movies goofy comedies, but you tell your friends they’re serious Oscar winners?

Or is it true that, even alone, you just don’t like comedies? That your favorite stories are dark and serious—even when you see pop culture loving lighter popcorn fare?

Answering this question alone isn’t enough, unfortunately; you can write something even through fundamental doubts, so does that mean you should? Sometimes, you identify a fundamental doubt after you’ve written it, which actually makes more sense than you’d think, because once you can look at it as a reader you find it’s not what you wanted. Does that mean you should walk away?

…Maybe. I don’t have a clearcut answer for this one, since I’m struggling with it myself. For now, my suggestion is to try pushing through, but when the doubts get too strong (and are coming from the “right” place), take a step back and listen for a moment. Work on other things (that align with the “right” fundamentals) and see how they feel in contrast—better? Worse? The same? That might give you some idea of whether this doubt is just self-sabotage, or something honest in yourself as you grow as a creator. Separate out the factors that drew you to the story originally, and try them with different fundamentals (different tone, different plot, different world)—a lot of work, yes. But you might be able to tell pretty quick if it was just self-sabotage (in which case, the new version will feel just as “wrong”) or if it was something true (in which case, the new version should feel better… not perfect, because doubt is scrappy and eternal, but better).

I think the biggest help with dealing with doubt is to understand creativity as a long game—hard to do when you’ve got career goals breathing down your neck (don’t I know it), but vital for balancing hard-won determination with a healthy distance, the ability to say maybe not this project, not now. And sometimes the only way to tell whether that “not this, not now” is a doubt worth fighting or worth following is just… time. Patience. Understanding of your process as a creator being not just the course of a single project but the evolution of multiple projects over an amount of time you can’t force.

Sometimes the only way to fight is to follow… and come back to fight another day.

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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