Writers and Self Doubt

To write or not to write, that is the question. I like to think all writers suffer the self-doubt that I do but perhaps the Margaret Atwoods of the world don’t. You know, the ones who know they can actually write! But I suspect even they have their moments. Not for the first time, I am seriously thinking of giving up writing. I really don’t know anymore what I think about myself as a writer – or even if I feel as though I am a writer at all. I guess on my better days (too few and far between) I consider myself a journey(wo)man writer. I slog along in the trenches hoping one day people will actually listen to what I have to say.  I tell myself part of the problem is that I have never been able to turn to the type of writing that I feel I am meant to be doing. I am too busy writing books I have been asked to write or working on a book that was started years ago and recently published. Or, heavens forbid, doing non-writing work that actually paid the bills! But I suspect when I get to that writing, and I am close, that I will feel no more secure in the vision of myself as a writer than I do now.

Is the insecurity around myself and my writing inherent in all writers or is it because I am a woman that my self-doubt gets so strong? I suspect it is a bit of both. After I started writing this post, another writer, Teri Brown, wrote a good blog called That Dumb Thing Even Smart Women Do, Part 1. http://teribrownbooks.com/that-dumb-thing-even-smart-women-do-part-one/ I suspect she will never run out of parts! In it she talks about how many women think they are frauds in spite of all their successes, and are afraid everyone else will find that out. But I am a fraud I want to say. People will eventually figure out I can’t write worth a damn.

So I am trying to look at what criteria I am using to define myself as a writer. Am I any good and who decides that?  Is it based on the number of copies sold of my books, good reviews, awards won, or articles written about me? I have one book, British Columbia Murders that has sold more than 25,000 copies (and still selling reasonably well). It was my first published book but I feel no great sense of achievement when I look at it in spite of the incredible sales. I work hard to make the history accurate in all my books, but proud of the actual books? That is harder because it borders on being proud of myself then. I am very happy with my recently published theatre biography/history, The Opening Act: Canadian Theatre History, 1945-1953, which is very close to my heart for a number of reasons but it will do well to sell a tenth as many copies as my first one. And yet the work on it spanned portions of half my life and it got really good reviews. I am actually very proud of my Jack the Ripper book (currently only available as an e-book) because it is really about the five women he killed and their lives in Victorian England and not just Jack. In spite of a review that could not be any better, I can hardly give it away. Why are the many books published and the good reviews not enough to banish all the self-doubt flooding me at the moment? And if they really aren’t enough does that mean I should just walk away from writing?

To find the answer, I asked myself the following questions:

Why do I write?  Because I don’t know how to not write. If I am not writing I am still thinking about writing almost all of the time. And, besides, if you have read the answer to how I came to be a writer (see my Questions and Answers page http://www.susanmcnicoll.com/when-did-you-first-know-you-wanted-to-become-a-writer) you know I feel it was my destiny, without a doubt. And yet doubt is exactly what has crept in big time and I have to meet it head on.

What do I expect from my writing? Certainly not to feed me, at least not physically! In some ways I think I expect my writing to define me somehow. I did not have a child which makes all my books sort of a substitute, the inheritance I leave behind me. I want my writing to show that my life counted for something.

How would I like to be perceived as a writer?  I would be happy to have my readers perceive me in any way they want, as long as they are responding to one of my books and not to who they think I am as a person. I hope I will be seen as a decent one (writer and person), and ultimately, I guess I will be content if I am perceived at all.

Am I any good? Who decides that and by what criteria? I guess I can choose to listen to the people who tell me I have some talent, (Ok, maybe even that I am a good writer) or I can listen to all those damn tapes from decades ago now that still play over and over again in my head telling me I will never amount to anything, that I am failure and that no one is ever going to care about my writing. I am getting better but I would be lying if I did not say that I still listen to the tapes far too much.

What do I want my legacy as a writer to be? If I am being brutally honest and I really had a choice, it would be for something I have not finished writing yet that keeps screaming to get out of my soul. For some reason that reminds me of a quote by Oscar Levant – It’s not what you are, it’s what you don’t become that hurts.

In the end, I guess my fear of not becoming exactly who I was meant to be, plus my desire to write what I think I was brought here to write, will keep me at the keyboard until I am nothing but ashes in the wind. Even then I wouldn’t count me out.


  1. Keith in St. Louis
    Mar 22, 2013

    “is it because I am a woman that my self-doubt gets so strong?” The answer is “no” but it has crossed my chronic, self-doubting mind that maybe women suffer more than I do in this regard. Thanks for this particular blog post. A 1st time reader.

    • Susan McNicoll
      Mar 22, 2013

      Hi Keith. Thanks for stopping by. I started to type that I was glad you, as a man, suffered from self-doubt too and then I realized I am not glad at all!!! I wish neither one of us suffered from self-doubt. From talking to many people about it I do tend to think women suffer from it more severely than men but I am certainly not arrogant enough to think men don’t suffer from the effects of it too. The hardest thing is to keep moving forward through the self-doubt because if we don’t we are going to miss so many amazing things in life.

  2. Cheryl in Toronto
    Mar 23, 2013

    This resonates with me in so many ways, Susan. Thank you for so eloquently voicing the issues we writers struggle to overcome. (Also, for what it’s worth, your Ripper book is on my ‘to-buy’ list.)

    • Susan McNicoll
      Mar 23, 2013

      It is so wonderful that you stopped by Cheryl. I wish we writers did not have to struggle. I have tried (and I am sure you have too) to banish the self-doubt and the fear that my writing will never really be liked or accepted. And yet in some circles it already has been but it is never enough. The only encouraging thing for me is the knowledge that most writers will not let the self-doubt stop them from writing. As for Jack, I would be honoured if you read it. It is not a long book but I really think you would like it if you like the history of that time at all. It did get an incredible review which you can read on the Jack the Ripper page here if you want to. Regardless whether or not you read it I am glad you read my blog.

  3. Barry Grills
    Mar 23, 2013

    It’s not only writers who suffer from self-doubt. But we work alone and that leaves a great deal of space in a room that can fill up with whether or not we know what we’re doing. To me, the compulsion to write means you can write. If other people read it, enjoy it, pass it on, award it, fine. If I had a bumper sticker on my car, it would quote Buddha: “The key to existence is no fear.” Repeating that mantra every day works for me. And remember, when you enter a room of people, wonder what you will think of them, not what they will think of you.


    • Susan McNicoll
      Mar 23, 2013

      Thank you Barry for coming to my site. I think everything you say is true but I think Writers, indeed most artists, are prone to Self-doubt more than other people because we are constantly taking our work and presenting it to the world. The chance for rejection is huge. A lot of what we offer will not even be acknowledged. Few other professions do this. Erma Bombeck once said “It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else” and we are showing them to the whole world. At least that is how I feel with my writing. And I like your use of the word “compelled” because that is how I feel when I am drawn to write something.

  4. A.K.Andrew
    Apr 3, 2013

    I think we all have self doubts whatever we’re doing, but as artists it hits us hard as it’s so tied in with who we are. Yes we take it personally. But you already have more under your belt than many(me for example) so it’s not based on anything concrete, but it seems a desire for improving on what you’ve already done. My rule of thumb is if you’re enjoying the process, than carry on. If not time to move on to another artistic pursuit. I know from personal experience that dealing with chronic illness sways how we feel, but again I say, why not carry on. Good luck in whatever your choice becomes. The journey is often better than the destination.

    • Susan McNicoll
      Apr 3, 2013

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. It means a lot to me. It would be great if artists could separate their work from their feelings about themselves but it would be a pipe dream to think that could ever happen. In my experience the journey is almost always better than the destination. Perhaps that is because I have not reached as many destinations as I would like and when I get there I usually just turn to look for the next mountain! The process of researching and then actually writing are the only reasons I keep going. There is no greater high than the moment when you realize you have written a sentence that completely hits the mark, like the ball hitting the sweet spot of a tennis racket. The editing and the post publication PR work I do not enjoy except I do LOVE to give readings and share my work with people. And thank you for your comment about chronic illness. Most people don’t get that. It certainly colours most of my days at the moment. However, I have promised myself the blog I am currently writing will be light and not filled with any angst! Writing itself brings enough of those moments as it is but it also gives my life its meaning so I just cannot imagine me being happy if I ever gave it up. Keep up your good work. Your blogs are really good.

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