In my last blogpost, I touched on the inevitability of doubt in the creative process. It’s such an important issue, I thought I’d speak about strategies I’ve found for profiting from it.
Getting in your own way
In fiction, the first thing we do is give our characters obstacles. Both external and internal. The external obstacles bring everyone to the party by generating plot, but it’s the internal ones that determine how our characters navigate the action.
Given my temperament, my personal obstacles are almost always internal. The main one: self-doubt. In the past, I’d succumb to it entirely—take to my couch, staring at the ceiling, while listening to negative self-talk. This is still sometimes true around my work, where one moment I’m elated about what I’m writing, in the next completely down in the dumps.
Work and love, the antidotes to self-doubt
I never have the luxury of inaction for long. With my writing, inevitably the solution to a word problem pops up, a bit of dialog. I jump off the couch and happily get to work. I’m not alone in this. Listen to the short story god and Noble laureate, Alice Munro:
…I reach a point somewhere, fairly early on, when I think I’m going to abandon this story. I get myself through a day or two of bad depression, grouching around…. Then, I will suddenly come up with something about the story that I abandoned; I will see how to do it. But that only seems to happen after I’ve said, No, this isn’t going to work, forget it.—The Art of Fiction No. 137, The Paris Review
I don’t know what brings Alice back to the page, but—as sappy as this sounds—I can’t give up on my characters. I want them to complete their journeys. Love for them trumps negativity. Eventually, doubt rears its ugly head again and I’m back to the couch. The cycle repeats.
So, if work and love are key to hanging on during this inevitable rollercoaster ride, what are some strategies for properly managing them?
Juggling multiple projects and reframing rejection
Before I started turning my stories into novels such as Dreaming Home, I submitted them to literary journals. I published a lot, rather quickly. To do this, I worked on several at once in a process Andromeda Romano-Lax calls stacking.
A rule of thumb when submitting to literary journals: it takes 99 no thank-yous for each yes-please. 99! By now, I’ve racked up well over 1,000 rejections. They turned out to be a blessing. I submitted stories in batches of 15 to 20 journals. After all were rejected, before sending the story out in another batch I’d revise it—this time from the vantage point of a more experienced writer. Rinse and repeat, four or five times.
The payoff? Last November, I published “Napoli,” a piece begun in 2014 that received 104 rejections. Was working for eight years on a single short story a waste of time? Hardly. I completed many writing projects during that time and the rounds of rejection/revision radically improved the story. It’s a joy to me now; the most mature thing I’ve ever written.
For an excellent take on reframing failure, check out On Writing and Failure: Or, On the Peculiar Perseverance Required to Endure the Life of a Writer by Stephen Marche.
Wall off a place and time for work
I once heard Ernestine Hayes brilliantly paraphrase Picasso: “The Muse will come, but she has to find us at work.” We don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. For this reason, it’s useful to surrender to a schedule. As for myself, if it’s Monday through Friday at 8:30 a.m., I’m laying down sentences for four to five hours.
Where you write is just as important. Find a place you feel most comfortable working. For me, it has to be absolutely quiet, without distractions, but others like the hubbub of a busy café. I suggest you return to it for each writing session at the same time of the day. That’s first thing in the morning for me, before the stressors of the day intervene, but you might be a night owl. The trick is to develop embodied habits that will support you during the difficult process of writing.
Don’t listen to your demons; get off the couch. Start another creative project, enroll in a workshop, submit to contests. Or sign up for an open mic. Reading your work in front of people is a sure way to face fear straight on.
Use deadlines to your advantage. Whether it’s daily word or page count targets, hard submission dates, whether they are external or self-imposed, deadlines can be powerful allies, leaving you little time to indulge in self-doubt.
I’m not suggesting you use achievement as a crutch against feelings of a lack of self-worth. Take the tools we have as writers to fall in love with the world, to connect with community and to impact people’s lives.
Strategies for self-healing
Sometimes, this is all too much. During the writing day, I find I need distance. I wall off 15 to 20 minutes to meditate. I count my inhalations up to ten or follow mantras I make up on the spot.
On other occasions, I step away from the writing desk altogether. I make time to spend with friends or exercise. When I lived in Anchorage, I’d run on the Tony Knowles, hike up Bird Ridge or Powerline Pass.
Reflection and epiphany
Every few years, I wall myself off from distraction at residencies for a concentrated period of writing. I’ve recently applied to a couple of prestigious ones (fingers crossed), but any space will do. I heard of one writer, who—to make deadline—would periodically secret herself in a cheap motel room in Palmer! What’s important is showing up for the struggle, riding the inevitable rollercoaster of depression and elation over our work.
For in that literary tussle, we create a narrative for ourselves as well. Though writing isn’t therapy, we can’t help but be personally affected. Through wrangling with the obstacles we give our characters, I believe we welcome our own difficulties into our lives and help to manifest their solutions.
Lucian Childs is a fiction writer whose debut work, Dreaming Home (2023), was published by Biblioasis. In October, he is teaching the 49 Writers course, Beginnings and the Narrative Arc: Crafting Openings that provide Map and Meaning. He was a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Project Grant awardee, a Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and an artist-in-residence at Byrdcliffe Art Colony and Artscape Gibraltar Point. He was a contributing editor of Lambda Literary finalist, Building Fires in the Snow: A Collection of Alaska LGBTQ Short Fiction and Poetry. His stories and reviews have appeared in the literary journals Grain, The Puritan, Cirque and Prairie Fire, among others. A twenty-five-year resident of Anchorage, he now lives in Toronto, Ontario. For more information, please visit www.lucianchilds.com.