Saturday, 24 October 2009

Dealing with the Dark Places: Writing and Self-Doubt

This post is a culmination of several things that have happened in the last couple of days. First, I read an amazing post by my friend Eric Robertson over at The Indie Handbook about his battle for his identity. Then Larry put me onto a thought-provoking piece by Jeanette Winterson on how creative people take the wounded substance of their souls and try and remake it into something alive. Finally, yesterday Sabina England, whom many of you will remember from my interview with her, removed her coruscating masterpiece Brown Trash from Authonomy again. All that, and I've just uploaded the first two portions of SKIN BOOK, a piece of writing that's left me almost hollow.

A year or so ago I made a comment on a writing forum that every author at some point, if not all the time, believes, deep down, their work is worthless. I was told by a writer I still respect a huge amount not to be so ridiculous. No real writers thought like that. This post is about why he's both utterly wrong, yet somehow right. It's about the dark places. It's about Self-doubt with a capital "S", the kind of dount that penetrates us in the night, latches itself to every part of our soul we ever values, and sucks the colour and the worth from us until all that's left is the dank, grey nothing of shame - shame that we could ever have considered ourselves anything but worthless; shame that we could have imagined someone would have wanted to read our work; shame that we stuck our head so stupidly above the parapet; shame, and embarrassment, and fear at hat the world will say when the darkness recedes and dawn brings into sight the chorus of laughing, mocking faces that surround our bed.

Being bipolar, I am aware I have a strange relationship with doubt. Some of the time, in my hypomanic highs, I am convinced within a week I will be feted the world over. Some of the time, in the black dog lows, I know the whole world sees my worthlessness.

It's that second feeling that stays with me in the "well" phases, when the rest of my life is balanced. Like many in the arts, I am great at hiding it, even from myself. I guess I could teach others to do the same, call it NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and charge a fortune for the privilege.

But I don't want to. When I'm blogging, and when I'm mingling, or networking or whatever you want to call it, that kind of learned self-deception is actually rather useful. But when I'm writing - even when I'm speaking, or reading, things I genuinely love doing, it's not. Winterson made a wonderful point, about the way art doesn't come from the surface. It wells up out of our wounds (her phrase), it's a pressure that bursts through our fragile surface like magma (mine).

And that's the point with writing. It HAS to come from the dark places of doubt. It has to come from hurt and pain and unconfidence. Because writing for readers is like being with a wild animal - if you act it, they'll sniff you out and kill you.

[A philosophical aside - why am I equating pain, hurt, and self-doubt? Because, at a fundamental level, they are the same. Existential pain is the consequence of recognising that one is not self-sufficient. It's about coming face to face with your brokenness - and THAT means acknowledging how far short of perfection we fall. And how can we meet that recognition with anything but the most crippling self-doubt?]

So, all real writers experience self-doubt in a base, tautological sense (because if they don't their writing is of little value). I tend to think they also FEEL it, much of the time. And it is, like I said, crippling. Literally.

The key moment comes when we realise that our imperfection is the result of nothing other than being human. It is our common bond with every other person. And what's more, it is our acknowledgement of that imperfection - it is the fact of self-doubt - that means we, more than the 90% of "I'm all right Jack"s out there, have the possibility, however remote, of creating something of value.


So my good friend the well-respected writer was, in a way, correct. Real writers don't - at a level deeper than the existential - at the level, Heidegger would say, of being itself - have doubt. But only because real writers know that it is only their doubt that gives their writing value.

Rita Hayworth famously said that she could always failed at relationships because they went to bed with Gilda, and woke up with Rita Hayworth. What she failed to realise, of course, was that it was only Rita Hayworth who made Gilda Gilda. And failing to realise it destroyed her.

And that's the trouble with being an artist or a writer or a musician, or anyone in the arts. The very thing that has the potential to set your work above the mass is something that could, literally, kill you. It did for Rita Hayworth; it did for Kurt Cobain; it has the potential to do for any of us who take that step and admit we want to be more than average. Because the one thing that keeps 90% of people safe is that practised self-deception. And when you're an artist, you make a pact to practice that as little as possible. It's why many creative people with mental health problems refuse to take medication to take the edge off their lows. It's a pact with the devil.

But the devil has the best tunes. And the best books. That's why.


  1. I think every artist confronts self doubt. It's what keeps one grounded, it's a gift that propels us to do better, to strive for perfection, even though perfection is always out of reach.

    Wonderful post, very thought provoking!

  2. When Hemingway read Tender is the Night, he wrote a letter to Fitzgerald saying,

    "Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously, But when you get the damned hurt use it--don't cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist--but don't think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you."

    That letter hit me like a punch in the throat the first time I read it. It does come from the dark, the hurt, and the pain. And with those, comes the self-doubt and self-flagellation. I think the trick is to be able to stand back from it even as you embody it. And above all, honesty. Motherfucking honesty.

  3. Your best post ever. I'll comment tomorrow - but you nailed it!

  4. Mr & Mrs Average with their 2.3 children would posit they lead happy, unthreatened lives. They are unlikely to be reading Dostoevsky or Faulkner. They care not for the anguished soul of an artist, though they may like a Cezanne in the art gallery for the colour...

    Only in the UK, there are fewer and fewer Mr & Mrs Averages who have never faced upheaval in their emotional life. For we are living in an increasingly broken society, where Mr & Mrs Average probably will divorce (retaining bitterness and or disdain), at least one of their 2.3 will be a drug addict or stabbed (I exaggerate slightly). And yet Ms Average and Mr Average are still unlikely to turn to the soul of literature to compare notes with the author against their own experience. Instead they will probably read some nice escapist romance or vampire novel...

    Me, I'll content myself with writing about our broken society in the first place. Self-doubt? Not really. I'm fairly reconciled to the fact that right now people don't really want to face up to the darkness that lies just beyond their front doors and possibly within their own psyches. Doubt that I'm wasting my time even trying? Not especially, I'm enjoying it too much. But then my dark side is perverse...

  5. @Sulci - I'm certainly not suggesting existential angst creates genius (I think there's something to the vice versa, though, although even that's simplistic - don't you think it's a terrible fault of our society to oversimplify? Odd thing to say, because when I was teaching I was always encouraging students to make connections, categorise, simplify, but the truth is, things are complex). I'm fascinated by the question of how we experience self-doubt (the "qualia") - would love your Modernist take.

    @Lick (great name) @Larry, thanks @Lizzy

    @Daisy "I think the trick is to be able to stand back from it even as you embody it." That's it in a nutshell for 2 reasons:
    1. if you don't stand back there's a danger your doubt just comes across as whingeing
    2. distance is the only way to survive - but to retain the art it has to be distance whilst embodying.

  6. Doubt may be still tied into religion and since that is on the decline in the West, maybe there is less room for doubt within people. I think most people reckon life is a one shot deal, so there's no point in getting all of a pother about it, but just dance and drink one's way through and have a good time (not my preferred option, which is to try and point up the shortcomings of their analysis and conclusions).

    All art and I don't care who tries to argue the contrary I will never be dissuaded, all art emerges from awareness/fear of one's mortality. Since for most folk, mortality remains a remote thought, they are able to push it from their mind on a daily basis and get on enjoying life, because they don't have to make any bargains with themself in order to be able to do so. Artists are people not so blessed, as they cannot keep thoughts of mortality at bay and it permeates their being which means 1) they have to examine the world and why they have been put on this earth if only to be forcibly removed from it once again and this examination forms the drive of their artistic investigations 2) it equates to doubt because there can never be an answer to such questions of why are we here, so any tentative artistic treatment we give to the subject, is riddled with the bedrock of doubt that bottom line we just don't know.

    Is this modernist? I don't know, cos I don't really know what modernism is.

    Just artists are restless souls, unable to make cheap bargains with themselves, unable to delude themselves to their inevitable fate. Hence they try and interrogate these things in themselves and the lack of it in others. We are the near sighted perhaps, the ones who cannot push things away from consciousness.

    Love 'n' despair


  7. I read a great quote by Sylvester Stallone today. He just announced that he's gonna write and direct Rocky 7, despite his family pleading him not "embarrass" himself again.

    This is what he said:

    When I was 21 years old and at drama school. My teacher said to me, ‘If you ever put your head out there, thousands of people will try to cut it off, but that’s exactly what you need to do as an artist.’ “I know it’s ludicrous and everyone would laugh. I would laugh about it. But I also know that I’d be successful if I can make this a film about becoming older, not about boxing but about myself.

    and then he went on to say:

    Even my wife says, ‘Don’t do it. You’re embarrassing the kids’. But I told her, ‘If I don’t try I’ll be a really unhappy man.’ You have to do it. Artists like me have to go through the dark over and over again.

    Amazing. The quotes are from here:

    It's true for writers, artists, actors, filmmakers, and anybody else who's brave enough to put their creative works out there.

  8. "Just artists are restless souls, unable to make cheap bargains with themselves, unable to delude themselves to their inevitable fate."

    What he said

  9. @DIMA I'm a huge fan of Sly. He thinks and he cares, so what he's saying here makes a lot of sense. Part of the reason it's so hard for people who do care is that many of the critics don't - not at that level, anyway, and they don't get that you do. I'm happy for critics to say what they want with impunity about my stuff - but if hey really want to get under the skin of art and not just make a quick quip for some cheap laughs, they need to understand that artists do care - very deeply - and that means they're vulnerable.

  10. Writing is supposed to hurt. That's how you know you're doing it right.

  11. Anybody who creates anything faces enormous self-doubt. The only people who don't... well, you really have to ask yourself, why not?

    If there's no margin for error, it's not creation, it's paperwork ;)

  12. This is how I deal with it.

    I share how I'm feeling and I explore it in other ways.

    I attended a creative writing course a couple of years ago and was knocked sideways by it. The guy running the course basically said he didn't think my poetry was any good because he didn't think "I'd found my voice"

    The fact was I'd found my voice all right but he didn't like it. He wanted ALL my poetry to be expressions of deepest angst and as anyone who knows me will attest I am an UP and down person who likes expressing myself in the up periods as much as the down times.

    My 'funny' stuff has underlying themes and usually a sting in the tail - but they are still 'my voice'.

    But at that point I had very little confidence and he smashed it even further.

    So I kept on keeping on and I let my blog readers know how I was feeling and eventually I got through it.

    I posted some 'old' stuff while I was going through my blocked stage and grew a thicker skin.

    The first link below is to a song I wrote during one of the happiest times of my life - the 8 days between starting a relationship with my husband and marrying him. Yes, 8 days.

    This second link is to the post I made on my blog sharing my loss of confidence with -at that time - the few blog readers I had. They were very supportive and it was largely their kindness and continued reading of my 'stuff' that helped me get through and out the other side. You'll see some of the comments they made which helped.

    I had other more private messages of support too on various forums where I was as usual fairly verbal about my temporary difficulty.

    I'm having a lowish day today actually - but it will pass. It always does.

  13. It's why I write comedy, it holds me back from the dark places

  14. Thank you Bren, Tony, penny. Tony "it's not creation, it's paperwork ;)" - well put.

    Penny, the point is that the tears are necessary, but after tears there's hope. That sounds like the old Tia Maria ad, doesn't it?

  15. Michele, I think you've hit on something very important about how writers' support networks work (and that's one really good thing about the web - for all the trolls and idiots out there, if you live in the wilds, for the first time you needn't feel alone if you have access to the web - that can be an immense help in the darkest tims). And yes, I wasn't meaning to say humour or writing thatcomes from our "up"s was any less important/meaningful/artistic - i think it comes from the same place though - that recognition of incomlpeteness, which can be a stimulus to joy as well as sadness.

  16. The thing in Jeanette Winterton's article that made me sit up was when she said “Creativity takes the heavy mass of our lives and transforms it back into available energy”. She is suggesting that art is part of a drive towards wholeness, a way of dealing with the madness or confusion that we all experience. The problem with research on psychiatric disorders is that, until recently, it focussed on help-seekers. When you study populations, rather than case studies or clinical populations, a different picture of "psychiatric disorders" emerges. Understanding resilience becomes as important as vulnerability - how many people cope and function and even thrive despite their problems. The problem itself changes shape.

  17. BTW I'm not implying we're not functioning if we seek help with a problem - far from it. But there are differences between the picture of a drinking problem, say, seen in clinical practice, and those seen in community based research. The picture based on the first will be much more hopeless and resistant to treatment. We will overlook the way many find their way back to health, and how they do it.

  18. First off, thank you for this post; it's refreshing to read something so personal and unaffected.

    I think the kind of self-doubt you are describing isn't necessarily unique to artists; I think pretty much everyone feels that kind of crushing, immobilizing doubt at some point in their lives. Some people are just better at hiding it than others, and some people are able to take that doubt and channel it into something creative and beautiful.

    I think this is what allows others (readers, audience, etc) to connect with what the artist creates, the fact that this doubt is tapping into something universal. Whether we confront it head on (drama), try to make light of it (comedy), or just try to escape it for a brief moment (fantasy/sci-fi), it's all an attempt to understand and deal with the basic human condition: we have traded instinct for free will, meaning we have to make our own choices and have no one to blame for the consequences but ourselves.

    On the other hand, I do believe that artists are by necessity egoists; they need to believe in the validity and value of their art. If you didn't believe your work was valid, you wouldn't pour so much time and emotional/physical energy into it. If you didn't believe it had value, you wouldn't put it out for the world to see. Sure, you have moments of doubt, but the very fact that you manage to create means that those moments are outweighed by your belief in yourself.

  19. nothing to say really other than I recognise the self-doubt monster. My work was recently featured on one of the many "things that are crap on etsy" websites...fortunately I didn't find out about it until the sales had started rolling in - I *know* I would have removed the particular item from my shops and sat around moping. On this occasion my monster's teeth were blunt.

  20. - And you ask me why I don't realize the truth about my writing :)

    - How do I deal with dark days? I write. But there are days when I can't. Too much work, or too emotionally and physically exhausted. I just hold on and wait. Sometimes, if work & responsibilities don't come in the way, I sleep it off.

    - The worst times of my life, the emotional upheavals, they are what have contributed the most to my creative process. Even this year, had I not gone through a crisis, I would not have been compelled to start writing seriously. I sometimes wish that things could have been different, sometimes (rarely) I wish I was more normal, like the people around me. But I can't give up on who I am either. It is tough.

    - Thank you for this post. I enjoyed reading it and the comments are truly insightful and inspiring. :)

    - I never knew you're bipolar. No wonder you are so kind.

  21. That's an incredibly astute sentence of hers. And I think you're absolutely right about the attempt to strive for wholeness - that's what I was trying to say in response to Michele - it's the acknowledgement of our brokenness that allows us to move on to strive for wholeness - and it's only that which connects us to other broken human beings, and allows us to try and build something less broken in their stead. Each individual recognition of imperfection is a step towards potentially building something better in its place - and that is something that causes sadness, fear, despair, joy, hope, and every other meaningful emotion.

  22. sorry, that previous comment was addressed to Larry, about the winterson remark.

    @moxie - no, I don't think it's unique to "artists" but I DO think it's something that can transform any activity it generates into "art" as I've understood it (hmm, I AM aware that's a little tautolgical). I probably wasn't being very clear, but one of my point was that the acknowledgement of doubt can actually be the beginning of the acknowledgement of the value of one's work (in a deep rather than a "look at me" sense - though I wouldn't pretend for a moment that I don't also have a showman side - I know I love standing on stage and in front of cameras and audiences, and I know I love to be the one who gives the presentations on behalf of a group and so on - but I at least try always to make that part of my make up serve a useful rather than a purely self-serving aim - almost certianly with less success than I'd like)

  23. @Larry - it's interesting that what you say about the individual and the community is yet another specific instance of the so called "dual aspect" approach to life that seems to be true everywhere - from quantum-gravity and mind-body to the behaviour of turbulent systems (from crowds to water passing through a mountain stream to traffic on a motorway - I don't know if you ever watch programmes on this thing but, as an aside, Eddie Wilson, who is the country's leading expert on the non-linear behaviour of traffic on motorways used to play cricket as a ringer for the same team of Catholic priests as me in Oxford - and he had a very good line in suncream-assisted swing bowling)

  24. Dan - there'a a way in which rather than covering it up, or distracting ourself with entertainment, we experience our brokenness, and realise, as you say, that it connects us to other broken human beings - and that is the foundation of compassion. We realise that others suffer as we suffer. From a Christian point of view, I suppose, this is linked to the mystery of the Incarnation? (Sorry, folks, I only pose as a rationalist. Secretly, I'm a vajrayana Buddhist.)

  25. @nifty - as the proud owner of one of your pieces (well, my wife is) I must say I think your things are some of the best gems on esty, but I know that we all take the bad things people say to heart more than the good things - I know very few creative people who are actually good at taking compliments - usually the better they are the more embarrassed they get by praise - I don't know if you read my article on Sabina, but I think I described in there the delightful shade of red her face went when I asked her to sign a flyer for her play.

    @cafe nirvana "sometimes (rarely) I wish I was more normal, like the people around me. But I can't give up on who I am either. It is tough." That's such an important point. I want to say two things. First, i get angry very rarely, but one of about three times I have in the last twenty years it was with someone who was talking about an artist (someone I know well and admire hugely) who was talking about packing in her art because it was taking too much out of her. A well-wisher started saying she had a duty to carry on and not waste her talent. I can see his point, but it's the kind of "helpful" remark that actually shows a complete misunderstanding of what it's actually like to experience that kind of doubt. Yes, you can use it to produce great things, but it CAN destroy people. I said that on my interview with Sabina, at the end, when I was talking about Kurt Cobain. Some people just can't cope, and in those cases it has to be up to them whether they choose their art of their health (although I know it's not that simple, as I'll say in my second point) - NO ONE has a right to demand an artist create art. I know the value art can contribute to the world but we have to respect the person).

    My second point is based on the fact that it's not as simple as that. You have put your finger absolutely on it - much of the time we would love to be normal, but actually, many of us - like Stephen Fry - choose not to take medication if we can possibly avoid it because we wouldn't actually get rid of the illness and swap it for the terrible greyness that we get instead.

    Thank you so much for your comment

  26. @Larry - yes, that's exactly one of the aspects of the incarnation and atonement in Christianity (certainly when I studied theology, there was a lot of very deep wrk being done by theologians like Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannanberg trying to reconcile Christian doctrine with an utterly broken world that showed no signs of healing, and this interconnectedness through brokenness was one of the things that came out of it - I have to say I feel, as I intimated in my response to Cafe Nirvana, very uneasy about "glorifying" brokenness in the face of cataclysmic tragedy - those who exhort others to identify with God's suffering whilst they undergo systematic genocide I find patronising and distasteful in the extreme, but as someone who's experienced it on an individual I nonetheless realise it's something I have to deal with in some way in order to survive)

  27. Wait a minute Dan, you played in a Catholic Priests' cricket team? - Also as a ringer or a fully qualified theologian?

    I think I may be in a slightly different position to some of the views expressed above. I grew up as the child of a very broken person, to the point where I cleaned up their blood after a serious suicide attempt. Now I'm not claiming to be fully or well adjusted for one moment, but I was given an insight into that dark side and it's something I feel I have fairly robustly built up my psychic defences against. Of course that doesn't stop me investigating such dark places, but more as a war correspondent to a war rather than a combatant in it.

  28. The Grandpont Irregulars are not only Catholic priests, but Opus Dei Catholic priests. I was a friend of a friend. That's all. Honest.

    Be careful with the analogy - war correspondents are about as damaged as it's possible for human beings to get :-) I understand what you're saying, though - and maybe your experience has enabled you to have the insight without having lived it from the inside. I can only profess envy at your lack of dark night's of the writing soul - I would love to say "well, that just means your work is shallow". Unfortunately, having read your work, I know that not to be the case.

  29. Doubt, writer's block et al have never really presented themselves as options, since the exigencies of a life in the external world mean I am always trying to play catch up with the amount of material I have yet to commit to paper.

    Rather than doubt, I am persecuted by time.

  30. There is definitely no reason for self doubt in you, Dan. Having read some of your work, I'm certain of that. This is a haunting piece. I'm going to stumble it because I think it should be read by a lot more people.

    I do have those moments you spoke about, but the high ones are a lot more than the lows. And you're right, potentially, our craft which makes us feel above average, is the very thing that makes us feel worthless when we think we've failed.

    If we stop measuring ourselves by the standards of others, we'll be less likely to feel low, and more likely to admire what we've done. We're all individuals - with individual talents.

  31. @Sulci - interestingly, I've never really had block. The doubt comes after I've written, and it comes in the middle of the night when I wonder why on earth I bother. But when I'm writing, it's almost automatic, like it gives em what I believe psychiatrists call "flow"

    @Anne - yes, I didn't mean to imply there are no highs to counterbalance the lows - but I think the "real" rather than the imaginary highs come from the same place.
    I agree we should stop judging ourselves in comparison to others - though often we are our own harshest critics, eager to spot our faults and never seeing our strengths

  32. @Agnieszkas Shoes, I have so much to say on this topic that I am positively bursting. I might comment more later once I have sorted out my thoughts. But I want to point out something in your reply to me, Dan.

    I face quite the opposite of the situation you described about your artist friend and it is equally frustrating, if not more. Most 'normal' people around me don't understand that I NEED to write. Many consider it a joke or a past time, and very few have realized that my writing and my creativity is what sustains me. It is what keeps me sane. It took me a long time to understand that when I am not able to write, I become very morose, so to speak. The longer I am kept away, the more numb I get. (I call that my writer's block. Numbness and apathy is the worst thing, I feel, for creativity. Art is blase and worthless, if the passion/fire is absent.)

    As Stephen Kings rightly says, "Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around."

  33. I don't think there is a 'normal' person who exists on this planet or ever did.

    What I think distinguishes the artist from the non-artist is the ability to recognize and perceive art within the context of their life experience.

    The struggle then comes from the disconnect and mismatching between the intellectual creative intention and the ability of the individual to realise the concept to their own personal standards.

    It is a painful moment when one produces a piece of work that 'everyone' likes but fails to reach the places that it was intended to go; only to find nobody 'gets' it.

    Other times we can subconsciously produce something that clarifies a concept even further than we had consciously expected/intended.

    But as I said before - I have never met a 'normal' person in my life and I do not believe one exists, everyone has something uniquely bonkers about themselves even if they don't share it up front with everyone.

    I once decided that poetry was not an art but a symptom - I have changed my mind since then; art is a symptom but it is not the only symptom.

  34. ; only to find nobody 'gets' it.

    was supposed to be appended to this paragraph - Other times we can subconsciously produce something that clarifies a concept even further than we had consciously expected/intended; only to find nobody 'gets' it.

    Makes a bit more sense that way ;) sorry for the slapdash posting.

  35. @banana I see your point. And I also concur to some extent about there being no totally normal people in the world. Hence the in quotes "normal".

    When I say normal (here, in the context of this discussion), I broadly include non artistic people who have decided, for whatever reason, to go with the majority. Regular folk. No rocking the boat, no questioning, just existing when they have the potential to be so much more.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with these things. In fact, these people are content where they are. On deeper levels, they may be unique, talented, unhappy or bonkers, but that does not stop some of them from labeling themselves as normal and the ones unlike themselves as "not normal".

    I also feel, at least for me, part of the dissatisfaction or angst is not belonging there, with that majority. Trying to understand why I stand out like a sore thumb, with my beliefs, is part of the conflict. Another part of the conflict, is, really, I don't wanna be 'them'. I just want the freedom to be me, without being judged.

    P.S. I think my comments might be terribly offtopic. My sincere apologies. :P I think I will stop here.

  36. Dan, this is exactly exactly exactly what I feel like 100% of the time. I've been in the rut of self-doubt for, oh, at least three years now. Everything I write is either trite or boring or just crap -- the sad thing is I don't really know anyone (in real life) that says otherwise. So my suspicions are validated, which makes you and my other online fan completely bat-shit crazy. Why the hell am I in Year Zero? I have no idea. I have absolutely no place beside you and the other amazing people that have actually written something good.

    All I've done is worked for eight years on four crappy novels and poetry no one understands and created a huge creative mess for myself. I don't have anything I'm proud of.

    I don't like the result of my writing anymore, and I don't like talking about it because it just hurts. These days I feel like an impostor, but for some reason I keep on writing, trying to make something good (which I can't). It's terrible and I hate it. These days I can't bear to think about my writing.

    And in regards to writing "support" networks, they make me feel even worse. I write the minority of the minority of the minority (literary historical fiction that's NOT about wars or politics, and isn't fantasy and isn't a thriller and isn't about boring old men and isn't a quasi-biography and isn't about royalty and 'sticky situations' that end up in marriage) And no one gets it. I get no attention whatsoever with my work. It's more like -- hey, put your work up here for everyone to ignore!

    As a funny note, I thought you said "bursts through our fragile surface like manga" Holy CRAAAAAAAAP.

  37. I think normal is merely those who both follow and also construct the consensus upon which society is based. Most artists query part or all of the values of this consensus and the so called 'truths' claimed for it, when it is only an agreed/ swallowed set of values. I think this consensus (in the UK) is breaking down as people are becoming more atomised - Mrs Thatcher's assault on 'Society' and collective activities, in favour of individualism; the meltdown of marriage and family; technology & perceptions of security that drive people further and further back into the sanctuary of their own homes, living lives through home entertainment of computers, TV etc and also having only virtual relationships rather than real ones.

  38. @ S.Melville -"I write the minority of the minority of the minority " I can entirely relate to this and I suppose there is a certain cussedness in pursuing a lonely furrow without external validation. But I have to say, my marmite work (you'll either love it or hate it, but you won't be indifferent) has provoked responses within broad church peer writing groups I have been delighted by. For every 5 of those who express exactly why they don't like/get it, (which are all perfectly legitimate and illuminating responses in terms of me discovering how to frame my work in terms of its putative audience), but there is a 6th one that may concede me the point of what I'm doing. It's those gnostics I seek to engage with, because like floating voters they could tip either way.

    For what it's worth, I did the first part of my degree in history, so am happy to offer a reading eye over your work if you are willing. I do hold some strong opinions on historical fiction, just from thinking about all writing, rather than being a reader of the form itself. So I might make a slightly different outside eye for you if you want. Sort of informed, but still outside the particular form you write.

    Please don't put down your own writing. I understand a crisis of faith, and the self-doubt this thread addresses, but you yourself say that even though you're not sure why you're writing, you also supply the answer, because it will just not leave you alone. It is a part of who you are in that words sometimes take over your psyche and demand to be bled. That alone makes you a writer.

    Validation by a public may merely transform the writer you into the author you, but I wouldn't know about that metamorphosis as I am still in the pupal stage, awaiting emergence from the Microsoft Word chrysalis into a fully fledged butterfly winged folio.


  39. What an incredible post! Very well put! I had a moment last year when something HORRIBLE happened, and I went to to bag for a notpad. I wrote down the EXACT feeling my body had at the moment, and described the mental cloudiness. Moments late, it was gone, and I couldn't have described that feeling without being inside of it and ripping apart for it. I think it's possible to write well without experience, but it's better when(I can't remember who said this)-"Open a vein and bleed onto the paper!"

    Words of wisdom!! :)

  40. @ Sulci
    I guess writing the 'minority of the minority &c. &c.' could be seen as a good thing -- like, something new and exciting, but it's really just obscure. Not in a good way, but in an unpublishible-no-market-for-it-anymore way (not that my desires are to be officially published and all that -- my aspirations are, at best, to be indie published and sell maybe three copies that don't end up in the trash)

    And I'd take you up on your offer to read something, but . . . everything's so icky. I don't have drafts of anything that are up to date with my views of the novel -- it would be lots of me saying, well, half of these chapters are completely irrelevant to the budding version in my mind, and it would be a mess. Plus, my novels don't take place in our Europe. It's not some magical, fantasy, hobbit-thing -- if you're familiar with Stephen King, you can think of it as a thinny sort of world -- one that slips in and out of ours, and is the same but completely different. There's no reason for it except a strange flavour.

    I find that people are generally apathetic about my writing. They're majorally indifferent; some people like it, but I don't think it's in a "I wish this were a real book so I could buy it" way. It's more like, it's not bad, so . . .

    I could be wrong, but that's how I interpret the silence.

    Well, I guess you could read something if you're DYING to. You can click through to my blog and my email's under the tabs "Art" and "Tattoo Design". Pick whichever one you like, theyr'e the same address.

  41. Wowsers smowsers. What an incredible discussion. Some of it calls for individual e-mails rather than a public response, but in brife:

    @sarah @sulci - yes, you both write like the minority of the minority of the minority - and you refuse to write any other way and THAT is why you're in Year Zero. That's what "uncut prose" means doing it your way WHATEVER.

    @cafe nirvana - I know exactly what you mean by "normal people". For me they come in two groups - the guys I work with, almost all of whom are senior to me who see me as a thick admin clerk who couldn't possibly have anything to say; and my family and "real friends" who just want to know why I'm wasting my time without a publisher. Both of them react exactly the same when I say I've got a book - "that's sweet", and think it's "rather nice". Like you say, it's not "rather nice" - it's what keeps me sane (most of the time).

    @Sarah I know the whole point of this post is how self-doubt can't be assuaged by patronising people saying platitudinous things, but in all seriousness if Beautiful Things were a book, people would buy it. And if you finish it, I'll prove it. I agree, very few people "get" your writing. But that's true of the rest of us on the weird wing of the literary world. And very few is different from none.

    @michele - I often say "I like this piece so it's probably rubbish" or the opposite - it's one of writing's frustrations that people's reactions to our pieces are almost always based on misunderstandings.

    @ Pen Pen - thank you. That quote is fixed to the side of the forum at Youwriteon :-) It's from Red Smith

  42. "Uncut words"? I'll have you know Sir, that mine are either hewn, wrenched from the deepest part of my soul, or cut with ketamine. Just can't decide which of the two right now.

  43. Thought provoking. true and inspirational. It helps knowing that there are others out there who are going through the same things. Makes you want to keep pressing through the darkness so your fellow writers can celebrate with you once you get to the light. Great post!

  44. Late the party, as usual, tripping in, knocking over drinks, and falling over the couch.

    When we define ourselves by our art, it'll kill us. Wait, when we define ourselves by anything, it'll kill us. Maybe the problem is in defining ourselves, period. Ok, now we're on to something. Let's stop defining ourselves as artists, writers, fuckers, farters. Attaching a category inherently leaves exposure to judgment and performance metrics, from which we will be forever lost in pontification.

    So, if we stop defining who we are by what we do, we can get on with thinking more clearly and without the distraction of self-measurement?

    To the point about artists/writers being unique in self-torment, I believe it is correct that we may be the ones who engage in more self-confrontation. As a result of our unhappiness we tend to numb it with drugs, more self-torment, and whatever else the history of brilliant artists is littered with. But remember that Mr & Mrs Average (or, in the US, Joe Sixpack) numb themselves also--they are probably just as aware of their messed up shit as we are, but they choose to drown themselves in polyunsaturated fats and reality TV.

    Hobbesian? Probably.


  45. @jenn - I love it when people cite Hobbes - one of the most underrated futurologists around - but his vision of our society of competing me-me-mes was pretty much spot on. Not bad for a long dead bloke.

    Interesting point about defining ourselves - i think I agree with cafe nirvana that I HAVE to write. One thing I know I've found - and it may be true for CN, too, is that when you have a full-time dead-end job and everyone around you defines themselves by work, one of the few ways to cope with life is to kick out and define yourself as an artist. I do think you have a great point, though, about not putting ourselves in boxes. I wrote a paper about it that's in the appendices to Songs (the paperback edition).

    @kt, thank you - one of teh wonderful things about the internet is the knowledge we're not the only ones going through it, and that we can speak to others in the same poition.

  46. Give me Thom Hobbes over John Locke any day. Didn't the Americans found a country on a misreading of Locke? And now we Brits are finally living the nightmarish dream as foretold by Hobbes. Philo-sophers, not filo pastry puffs.

  47. ha ha -- "Didn't the americans found a country on a misreading of Locke?"
    Probably. We are freaking NUTS.

  48. @Dan - for many years I measured the worth of anything I created thus;
    I would sing it, recite it, read it to a member of my family and then ask,

    "Does it sound like somebody real wrote it?"

    In other words was it 'proper' and not some typical old Michele crap LOL

    Now I am happy with typical old Michele crap - not sure if I'm wiser or just have lower standards ;) But there will be no suicidal self destruction going on in my life story thanks very much. I read too much Enid Blyton in my formative years for that :)

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  50. Hi Dan, great post!

    I too believe that artists in general have some degree, or moments, of self-doubt. And also, that it can propel their (our?) production, in some cases, or be destructive in others.

    I feel it's very important to doubt our ego, our tendencies, and habits; but this questioning should never prevent us from working, from accepting both praise and criticism with an open mind, and to be happy about ourselves and what we do.

    Cheers to self-doubt, and cheers to self-confidence! heh