Tag Archives: the howler monkey of doubt

Wordsmithery and Feelings of Inadequacy


Why are writers so insecure? Today I’m going to tell you!

Many, many years ago, back before I even considered myself a writer, when I was just working on a play kind of as a lark, when I was just scribbling odd little nothings to myself in notebooks (which would become the blog posts and morning pages of today), I had an interaction with my sister. I couldn’t tell you what the substance of the interaction was, or what we were talking about, or what I said, exactly, or really any details of the interaction — except for one.

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And this detail, well, it stuck in my consciousness like the rusted-out bicycle that a tree grows around. I shaped myself around this comment, almost certainly to my detriment, in the intervening time. It ate me up from the inside, turning me into a neurotic mess of a writer, shaking my confidence the way earthquakes used to shake buildings before they started putting buildings on wheels.

Here’s the situation. I was home from college — or maybe just visiting my folks after college — or, hell, maybe it was before college, who can tell, that’s how bad my memory is but it’s not the point — and talking to my sister about something. Who knows what. And I said something.

What I said, I could not tell you today under pain of torture, except to say that it was an attempted witticism, a stab at something snarky, a foray into wordplay that went wrong. I felt it going wrong in the moment of saying it, the way a major league batter just feels the home run when it leaves his bat, or more precisely, the way he feels that he hasn’t just missed the pitch, he’s tipped it, at dangerous speed, probably past the protective netting, probably into the face of an unsuspecting fan, or worse, a kid, where it will knock out teeth or shatter cheekbones and necessitate a carefully-worded statement from the front office and probably an apology tour in the media. The words felt like that, coming out of my mouth. (Whatever they were.)

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(Crap.)

I knew, to put it bluntly, that I had botched my attempt at making good words, and botched it badly.

And my sister said to me, in that hurtful way that only your little sister who’s taken a lifetime of your crap can say, “wow, you’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”

You know that scene in every action movie where the building (or the car or the villain’s fortress or whatever) is exploding — just going entirely to pieces, irreparable damage, nothing but fire and pain and devastation filling the frame — and the hero (or heroine, this is the 21st century after all) is totally cool, walking away from it without a care? Or the end of Star Wars (episode IV or VI, reader’s choice) where the fateful shot is away, the heroes are flying off into the dark of deep space, and the villains keep flipping switches and coolly saying things like “fire on my mark” but they don’t know that they’re dead already?

This was like that.

“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you,” would stick in my brain and shape me more than I’d like, and certainly more than I’d care to admit, for years and years and years.

Every now and then, sometimes while writing, sometimes not, I’d hear it again, playing on a loop in my brain, and it would never fail to demoralize.

Wrote a sentence in my novel I’m not too sure about?

You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”

Used a totally inadequate word because I couldn’t think of the perfect one?

“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?

Said something totally idiotic in a everyday conversation?

“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”

Just sitting there watching TV, not even thinking about writing at that particular moment?

“YOU’RE A REAL WORDSMITH, AREN’T YOU?”

Everything I write, I have to contend with that voice in my head: it’s good, sure, but is it wordsmith good? So I second-guess myself to death. Is this creative enough? Is it clever enough? Smart enough? Or could any schlub with a pencil and half a brain come up with something better?

Then, once second-guessed, it’s only natural to third-guess the problem. I could make it better by throwing in MORE words. Better words. ALL THE WORDS. Or maybe get rid of the sentence entirely — the words can’t be dumb if there are NO WORDS AT ALL.

This thinking leads, like a boulder down a mountain path, to overthinking, until the boulder turns into a self-doubt and self-loathing black hole, population: me and everything I have ever written.

Absolute poison.

And while I internalized that comment, like an ingrown toenail, or like the point of that Morghul blade working its way inexorably toward Frodo’s heart, my sister got to walk away and never think about it again for the rest of her life. Probably the most she ever thought about it was in the very next second after she said it, to say to herself “good burn,” and then forget about it forever.

I tell you all this not to shame her, but to shame myself. To purge the poison by first acknowledging the fact that I’ve been poisoned. The fault in this tale is not hers for saying the thing, but mine for taking the thing and wrapping it in silk and tucking it away in the secret place in my mind to take out and fetishize and fixate upon.

It’s hard — nigh impossible, I’d almost say — not to do this. When we identify so closely with what we create (as authors and artists of all stripes must, by necessity), then an assault on that thing becomes an assault on us, in much the same way that, oh, I don’t know, a high-profile sports star saying disparaging things about certain people in positions of power makes people that like the disparaged person come to hate said high-profile sports star, even though they have no personal stake in what was said at all.

AHEM AHEM I DIGRESS.

Our work is a part of ourselves, and that’s not a bad thing — but we also have to be able to see our work as not a part of ourselves. To see that the words we write aren’t themselves who we are, but instead just a reflection of who we are in the moment. And, most importantly, those reflections can always be improved and changed — and we don’t have to beat ourselves up over them.

Go forth and wordsmith.

Imperfectly.

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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.

Still.

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.

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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.

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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.


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