Tag Archives: the howler monkey of doubt

Glimpses of Non-Suckitude

I was beginning to get a little fatigued with this latest edit. Cleaning up the junk language, tightening up all the moments, trimming out the unnecessary. It felt like most of what I had written was crap; that it all needed serious work before it could be “ready”.

But I reached a few passages today that absolutely crackle with life and energy. Passages that had me laughing to myself while I sat in my darkened room reading jokes I myself had written, even though I already knew all the punchlines. Passages possessed of a sort of self-evident, unconcerned eloquent beauty, the like of which I would not attribute to myself. Passages that make me think maybe I’m not so bad at this writing thing after all.

This novel (and this blog for that matter) is keenly interested in the question of inspiration: where it comes from, how useful it is, what it can do for you when you have it. And by and large, I have come to believe that inspiration is just a bunch of baloney sandwiches. You either work or you don’t, but some days are better than others.


As I read my own work of the last year and a half, it’s encouraging — and kind of awesome — to see those flashes of inspiration peeking out through the cracks.

I like to liken (like to liken, tee hee) writing to a long, arduous slog through vine-darkened jungle, or to a hopeless trek in a desert. And it damn sure feels that way a lot of days. But every now and then, light penetrates the canopy and wakes up the critters on the jungle floor, and the rare flowers open their petals to the light. Here and there, water bubbles up to shape an oasis amid the scorching sands.

For now, though, it’s back into the caves.


Flawed Instrumentation: First Thoughts on a Late Edit

I’m starting another round of edits on my novel, and the pain just comes washing in.

With early edits, that pain was the raw, gnarly hurt of recognizing that I’d written a broken thing; a creature whose own limbs would pull it off balance if ever it tried to walk. The narrative was fragmented. Timelines didn’t add up. Characters would vanish for no apparent reason and reappear just as suddenly with no explanation. Look, no writer sits down and creates a perfect story out of nothingness in an afternoon. (Though, somehow, that’s certainly a misconception I’ve held, and I imagine others do too — that the greats just sit down and pour unicorns and fairy dust out of their heads and onto the page, and send it off for immediate publication.) But it’s a hard pill to swallow when you look at your own work and it’s so … let’s not say bad, let’s say, in need of improvement, the way a trauma victim with a sucking chest wound is in need of improvement.

With the latest edit, though, I’m feeling a different kind of pain. Not so much anymore the pain of oh god, what is this monstrosity I’ve created, but more the sharp sting of disappointment. That feeling you get when your kid tells you they did fingerpainting in kindergarten: you expect to see a painting that’s a little blotchy but still a reasonable facsimile of a house or a fish or a dog or a person, but in actuality all you get is a sad, mottled smear. It’s like, yes, you created something and that’s fantastic and adorable and isn’t it wonderful but at the same time, wow, I mean WOW, it’s obvious that you have no talent whatsoever. (Don’t lie and say you haven’t had that thought about your kid’s artwork. The only shining light is that he’s never done anything before, so he was basically guaranteed to suck … you were just holding out hope that maybe your kid was special but surprise, he isn’t!)

I’m about twenty pages in, and my fingers are aching from squeezing the pliers on all the rotted teeth; the blowtorch is sputtering, running out of fuel from searing off all the calamitous verbosity. (Calamitous Verbosity is totally the name of my new band.) I’m reading along and … man, I think the story’s good, but it’s just so cumbersome. So much junk language. So many rambling, do-nothing sentences. So much that’s vague or obvious filler or even worse, a ham-fisted attempt to sound poetic or clever or profound, like an NFL linebacker trying to dance in Swan Lake. It’s like, I can see what you’re going for there, but … no.

What freaks me out is that I already did a polishing pass at the end of my last edit. I read all this over several months back, thought, yep, that sounds like I want it to sound, and stamped it for approval. So now, I’m faced not with the regular, looming specter of self doubt that goes along with all writing, but with the deeper, insidious doubt of wondering whether I ever doubted myself enough in the first place. I once thought this thing was good, and I can now see it was not.


That’s a harsh pill to swallow. I feel like I’m flying in an airplane, and I can look out the window and clearly see the ground a few hundred feet below, but all the instrumentation is telling me I’m thousands of feet up.

Two ways, then, to look at this situation, I think:

  1. My instrumentation is flawed and not to be trusted, ever.
  2. My instrumentation is flawed but improving.

Maybe I got a bad reading before, but I’ve got a better reading now. Maybe when I did those first edits, I hadn’t allowed enough time to pass to get a real, solid, objective look at the thing.

Or, maybe (how dare I even dare to think it) I’ve gotten better in the interim, and I legitimately am looking back at the admittedly inferior work of a fledgling writer, having learned a few things, having a little bit stronger sensibility.

Or, further maybe still, maybe the thing really is just a steaming pile of sharknado.

Difficult to say at this point.

The Actor’s Nightmare

Why, nearly ten years removed from the stage, do I still get the Actor’s Nightmare?

If you’re not familiar, the Actor’s Nightmare is a simple but prevalent one among denizens of the stage, in which a performer finds himself thrust into a performance for which he is woefully unprepared.

Common tropes of the dream:

  • You learned all your lines, but have forgotten them and everybody stares dumbly at you as you “um” and “uh” your way through.
  • You never learned all your lines, but somehow made it to performance night anyway, and everybody stares dumbly at you.
  • You know your lines, but are unable to speak, and everybody stares dumbly at you.
  • Your costume is ridiculous or unfinished or ludicrously fails to fit you, and you must go onstage in street clothes, naked, or in the idiotic costume anyway.
  • The set is unfinished or worse, still in active construction, and your performance takes you through a minefield of sharply upturned tools, unsteady platforms, and other threats to life and limb.
  • Your performance is brilliant, but the audience is completely empty.
  • Your performance is an utter travesty, and the audience is completely full.
  • Your performance doesn’t matter, because the audience is full of T-Rexes who fall upon you and your fellow actors in a bloodbath of Shakespearean epithets.

Every actor in every performance ever has played out all the ways a show could go wrong in his mind multiple times throughout rehearsal for said show, and in the Actor’s Nightmare they all parade across the screen of our minds with the saucy abandon of a dog rolling in roadkill.

I’ve had the Nightmare ever since I started with theater. I will probably have the Nightmare my whole life, seeing as the theater was such an enormous formative element of my salad days. It’s just too much a part of who I am, I think, for me to ever be rid of it.

Still, why does it persist?

I don’t buy very much into dream interpretation, except in the broadest sense. If somebody tells you that because you dreamed you were falling from the 37th floor of an office building into a dumpster full of unicycles, you will soon find a new job at the office of Forestry under a supervisor named Shwampa or something… that’s garbage.

But the Nightmare, I think, is just another manifestation of doubt, of anxiety, of the rampant feelings of inadequacy that so many of us have. Notice in the list that a common thread is “everybody stares dumbly at you,” as if you’re out of place or you’ve wasted their time. Well, that’s a very real and present fear in the life of this particular writer. Also recurrent is that idea of things being “unfinished” or “unprepared,” which, well, yeah. I never feel particularly ready even to get out of bed in the morning, let alone to ply my trade as a wordslinger (though I did optimistically and automatically call what I do a “trade”, so maybe there’s something there).

Point is, there’s an undercurrent of doubt behind everything I do, no matter how brashly or confidently I brag about it. I don’t know, for all that I love my kids and my wife, how good I am at being a father or husband. I’m maybe a decent teacher, though I am regularly in class thrust up against the reminder that I don’t really know what I’m doing up there. I fancy myself a decent recreational runner, but I’m definitely not winning any trophies these days, and I’m always afraid I’m going to injure or re-injure myself. And as for my writing, well, I talk a good game, but no matter how many words I write, the Howler Monkey of Doubt is right there, with his empty eyes and his judgmental grin.


Of course, the upshot is that the Nightmare fills me not with the abject howling terror of being devoured by an audience of T-Rexes (okay, sometimes). Rather, I wake with the slightly bemused SOMETHING of watching a couple of cats wrestle for a moment and then lick each other’s butts. For a moment, it was scary, but now it’s just a weird thing that happened. The Nightmare is a reminder that, while that doubt can be crippling in the moment, it’s one hundred percent a creation of the mind.

The truth is, I’ve never gone on stage unprepared.

Or naked.

Or in front of a bunch of T-Rexes.

But maybe the thought that I may one day have to will help keep me sharp.

The Itch, or Why It’s Better To Just Go Ahead and Write Something, ANYTHING

Work was a beast today. Finals time, students are panicking, banging down my door, shoving papers in my face, “HERE GRADE THIS HASTILY SCRIBBLED TWO-MONTHS-LATE ASSIGNMENT SO I CAN PASS THE CLASS.” I debated a hundred times giving the lecture: “Had you done all your work at the appropriate time instead of, perhaps, staring gobsmacked into your cell phone when you should have been paying attention in class, then maybe you would have the grade you wanted and wouldn’t feel like the ant looking at the descending boot right now.” But that’s in vain, at this point. I’ve only been saying it for months. If they haven’t learned it from me by now, it ain’t gonna sink in today. Still, I don’t have to put the grades in until Monday. So maybe I’ll let those failing grades hang over their heads for the weekend, each of them enduring their own personal Sword of Damocles.

Anyway, I didn’t meet my writing goal today. This is not the end of the world (#writerproblems are not #realproblems) but it irked. It settled into my shoe like a microscopic bit of gravel and yanked at my mind throughout the afternoon and the evening, chewing on my thoughts like a voracious little psychic were-rabbit. Wrapped up my school day. Didn’t get your writing done. Went for another delightful trail run. There’s still writing to do. Got home, made dinner. You only wrote 500 words today. There’s still time. Made the final arrangements for tomorrow night’s soccer banquet. Only 100 more to make your bare minimum goal. You can cough up 100 words sitting on the toilet if you have to. Skyped with the wife and kids. They’d love you more if you would finish your writing. Watched a bit of TV, because goldfinger it, I deserve that. Slacker. How dare you consume media when you could be CREATING media. Shut everything down and headed for bed.

Oh, that’s cute. You think I’m going to let you sleep, knowing you only have to write 100 words to shut me up?

I could be joking, but I’m not. I feel like a total and abject failure as a writer if I have the opportunity to get it done and I don’t get it done. I feel no comparable sense of shortcoming for virtually anything else in my life. Didn’t get that stack of papers graded? They’ll keep til tomorrow. Yard didn’t get mowed today? Grass’ll still be there in the morning. Pets haven’t been fed lately? They could stand to lose a few pounds. (Let’s sidebar and establish that I don’t actually starve my pets, okay? THIS IS FACETIERY, PEOPLE. And, yeah, okay, fine, facetiery isn’t a word, but dag derg it, it should be.)

So I lay in bed for twenty minutes, eyes shut, focusing on the soothing sounds of the rumbling thunderstorm simulated by the white noise machine on the bedside table (how I ever slept in my life without one of these I will never know), completely failing to fall asleep, because the voice wouldn’t shut up. 100 words. Just 100 words. 100 words and you’d be done. If you weren’t a failure, you’d write the 100 words. Come on. You’ll feel better if you write a little bit. Just a little bit. Just 100 words. Come on. COME ON. GET UP AND WRITE. DON’T BE A B–“

So I got up. But I can’t write just 100 words, so I ended up writing 300. Then I had a good idea for something that should really happen earlier in the story, so I wrote another hundred words or so of notes to myself about what I need to go back and establish at a prior juncture. Then I remembered another couple of things I wanted to have happen at this leg of the narrative, so I doubled back and added them in as well. All told, I ended up writing about 600 words in the story, to add to the 500 I wrote before, so not only did I make my goal, I took a victory lap as well.

And what’s a victory lap deserve? Another victory lap on the blarg, because now my mind is racing and won’t shut up, and I have to spin off this mental energy somewhere. So there’s another 700 words of blarg drivel before I fall asleep.

If writing is my new addiction, I think I can live with it.

The Speed of Write

Everything is relative. Right?

It’s so easy to look at the body of work being produced by, oh, let’s just say anybody who has a body of work to speak of, and be intimidated. It’s so easy, as a writer, to think, “my writing is horrible. I’m horrible. Who would read this? Why should I bother? Why does it even matter?” And, from there, it’s a small hop, skip, and jump (maybe more like a trip, lurch, and fall) to quitting altogether.

And it’s not just writing, right? It could be exercising: “It’s too hard. Look at how much weight that guy is lifting / how far that girl is running / how much more flexible she is. I’ll never get there. I might as well give up.” Or knitting: “I’m awful. Look at this awful tea cozy / dog sweater / who-the-hell-knows-I’ll-just-call-it-a-scarf that I made. Who would ever want this? I’ll just buy one at the store and be less embarrassed.” Giving up is easy. Practicing, getting better, learning how to do the thing you wanted to do back on January 1st or whenever you decided to do the thing… it’s HARD. And those people who are doing it — and being successful — are just so DonDraper’ed visible, and so successful, and GOD they make it look so easy. They make it look so easy, that as hard as it is for me, I might as well quit. Right?

No. Fargo that. That’s the Howler Monkey of Doubt screeching in your ear and throwing its feces at your eyes. The monkey wants you to quit, because if you quit, then he gets to watch reruns of The Bachelor through your eyes and eat a tub of chocolate chips through your mouth and sleep the day away through your backside on your bed.

But that way madness lies. The Howler Monkey doesn’t know sharknado about hard work because it’s only concerned with taking the easy way out. The truth is, it’s pointless to compare yourself to the people writing bestselling novels, or bench-pressing small imported cars, or running marathons, or knitting afghans for the Queen. Because the person doing that incredible thing has been practicing his or her craft for countless hours to make it look that easy. You don’t see the failures. You don’t see the miles and miles of smoldering wreckage of his crashed and awful manuscripts leading up to the good ones, you don’t see the painful mornings and hours and hours of training she put in to work up to running that marathon, you don’t see the hundreds of horrible golf-club covers she made to practice up for Queen afghan-making.

The point is, we are all points on a continuum. Yes, you may suck now. I may suck now. I probably do. But if I go back and compare myself to the poor schlub who started this journey almost a year ago, I’m pretty confident that I’m at least a little better off. A little more comfortable with the virtual pen in my virtual hands. So a bestselling novel is maybe not in my immediate future; doesn’t matter a whole lot, it’s closer now than it was a year ago. So you’re not going to run a marathon next month — but last month, you couldn’t even run a mile, and now look at you. Last month you nearly put the dog’s eye out with your knitting needles, and now you almost know which end makes the scarf.

The only person worth comparing yourself to is other versions of yourself. Compare your current self to a past version of yourself and make sure you’re moving in the right direction, and if not, FIX IT. Compare your current self to a potential self and see if you like where you’re headed. If not? FIX IT.

Even the slowest marathoner is miles ahead of the guy who never gets off the couch. Even the worst writer in the world is pages and pages ahead of the girl who dreams of writing a novel but never quite gets around to it. Even the most unfortunate knitter… you get the idea.

Somehow we got the idea that if we’re going to do something, that it has to be perfect. That there’s some absolute standard out there for any given endeavor, and if we can’t reach that standard, we might as well not bother. Bollocks. The standard for personal success should be relative success. Am I writing as much, or better, or more creatively, or more comfortably, than I was a year ago? Then I’m doing all right. Am I running farther, or faster, or with less injury, than I was when I started? Then it’s all good. Am I… okay, I’ll be honest, I don’t know anything about knitting, let’s just assume I had something clever to say about the relative improvement and progression of a career in knitting, and call it a day, yeah?

Focus not on that faraway, nigh-unreachable goal that feels so intimidating. Focus on small victories, tiny relative leaps, and just keep pushing the needle.

Now it’s time to get some sleep so that I can go back to work on my slightly-less-than-awful novel.

This post is part of SoCS.

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