Lose the writing doubts


A writer friend asked me if I would be her accountability partner. She has nearly completed her “autobiographical novel,” a beautifully crafted, honest and moving story of love, belonging and tragedy. She now rings me every Friday, and for half an hour she tells me what she has achieved for that week and what she plans to do for the next.

The first week she was beset by doubts about whether what she was doing was worthwhile. She was very contrite because she hadn’t done any actual writing. But she had achieved huge breakthroughs in her thinking, made inspired connections and links in her material, and gained a greater understanding of what her latest draft meant. I couldn’t believe she was even questioning the value of this week’s work, or her ability to do something with it.

And in listening to her I suddenly realised it’s been over a year since I felt that crippling doubt about whether what I was writing was any good, if I was wasting my time, if my writing was self-indulgent, or worthwhile. After we hung up I wondered why I didn’t feel like this anymore.

One night, nearly 2 years ago, I was reading a “tips from writers” article and I came across a writer – I think it was Neil Gaimon – who only had three words of advice, “JUST DO IT.” Now I’d seen that advice many times before but I think this time I was so frustrated and annoyed with my continually crippling state of anguish that the message finally hit me.

About the same time, I heard a conversation between Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg. Cameron said that writing is like wearing loose pyjamas.


Billie Dove

I’ve written about this elsewhere on the blog so I won’t go into details now. You can look it up here. What it offered was a way of writing that was casual and carefree, without the crippling expectation of producing something of value and worthiness.

So I JUST DID IT. I wrote for fun, pushed away the doubts, and had no aim to produce anything worth publishing. I just wrote. And I loved it!

And the funny thing was my stories started to finish themselves instead of lying in folders waiting for the final revision. And when I sent them off – filing them in competition and publishers’ piles instead of my drawers – some of them won awards, and others found publishers. And of course, that’s a huge motivator.

But so was learning that the most prolific writers, the ones who produce the largest quantity of good writing, are also the ones who produce the largest amount of poor writing.

Perhaps I had to go through that self-doubt stage to reach this next one. It’s not that I don’t have doubts anymore, it’s more that they don’t get in the way. I can now ignore the crippling personal doubts and concentrate on the doubts about my work. They’re usually pointers to the problems in my story, and are invaluable.

So that’s what I told my friend: wear loose pyjamas and JUST DO IT.

I hope she still rings me next week…

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17 Responses to Lose the writing doubts

  1. margaret jackson says:

    Wonderful advice Karen. How real it is that sometimes there opens a space where advice just hits home and gives us that breakthrough and we don’t really know why. But you went with the flow and broke through. Thanks for sharing that really personal and precious experience. It shares hope around. Keep on enjoying your writing and your success.

  2. Great advice! If you enjoy what you’re working on, it definitely comes across positively in the writing, which is great for the reader too.

  3. Ghilly Sullivan says:

    Very warming advice. Makes me feel like I’m not hopeless for never ‘just doing it’ x Ghilly

    • Ha ha, Ghilly, I don’t think there is anyone on this planet who has always ‘just done it!’ We’re all a combination of both. I can think of many times you’ve been in the ‘just do it’ phase!

  4. Phil Murray says:

    Just do it – spot on. The same concept I’ve heard expressed in several ways:
    ‘How do you climb Everest? One step at a time.’
    ‘How do you eat an elephant? One mouthful at a time.’
    ‘What’s the hardest exercise at the gym? Walking through the front door.’
    If you have a personal objective, a project to achieve, just do something – anything – each day to move you along that pathway towards that goal.
    So true. And in June/July this year it is likely that I’ll have my father’s biography, ‘Gelignite’ Jack Murray – Give It a Go’ published by New Holland Publishing and sitting on my coffee table.
    Who’d have thunk? Never ever give up.

    • ‘How do you get to the Opera House?’ ‘Practice, practice, practice!’
      Congratulations, Phil!!! (and you know how excited I must be if I have 3 exclamations!)
      I’m thrilled to hear New Holland has taken your biography. I can’t wait to read it. ‘Never ever give up’ is great advice. Keep in touch about the adventure. And congratulations again!!!

  5. Hanlie Kruger says:

    Thanks, Karen, for the very inspiring blog post. I’ve printed it and placed it near my PC as a reminder.

  6. Fantastic 🙂

    It’s hard to believe anyone with your talent ever creates anything ‘poor’ but I do understand what you’re saying! As I’ve written little over the last 3 months – due to the health ‘stuff’ getting in the way – I’ve had to be careful I don’t start doubting what I *do* manage to write. Thankfully the guys and gals at Writers’ Circle are pretty clear that the shorter works are ‘doing just fine’ – which helps. 🙂 And with Ron as co-autho,r I always have his input, which is pretty special. 🙂

    Thanks for the reminder not to give up!

    • Hi Joanna. Your writing friends sound like they’re a great group of people. I know I’d be lost without mine. They’re invaluable for giving me the confidence when I need it, and sometimes to tell me the hard facts about my writing. To have people who are genuinely excited for us when things go well and to mourn with us when they don’t is invaluable. You’re so right: it is special. All the best, Karen

  7. Way back in 1965, when my wise old grandmother had adopted me, she gave me chores to do around the house… hang the clothes to dry, wash the dishes, dry the dishes, clear the table, mow the lawn, take out the trash….. typical things. Whenever I would complain, she would say with a stern voice, “Just do it!” Sadly, she never trademarked that phrase. I’m sure Nike stole it from her………. LOL

    • Sadly I think it’s too late to claim it for your family. But with your wit I’m positive you could come up with some wise saying that will take off! There’s your challenge! “Just do it!” Ha ha, love your humour, both here and on your blog.

  8. Lovely to hear your personal story Karen. So glad to hear you’ve got that writing fire started again!

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