Just over a year ago I wrote a piece called Dealing With the Dark Places, about the crippling yet essential nature of creative self-doubt. It rang some kind of bell with a lot of people. The last couple of weeks, as 2011 approached, several of my favourite bloggers have written on a particular theme – taking yourself seriously as a writer. Taking my cue, and reflecting on 2010, I thought I would write something about the flip-side to self-doubt: self-belief. And, as my post on self-doubt turned out actually to be about self-belief, I am sure this will have more than a little to say about doubt.
2010 was the year I lost the last shred of belief in my own creative ability. It’s hard to put my finger on why exactly because in these things there are never exactlies. But there are some instructive contributory factors. And, whilst I don’t have a precise answer, I think I have a pretty useful suggestion.
The most obvious thing has been this place. This exuberant, energetic, exhilarating place. Which sounds strange, because it gives me a buzz I can’t remember feeling from anything else, but being surrounded on a daily basis by work so original and so brilliant inevitably leads to comparison, and that has inevitably exacerbated the doubt in my own work. But one of the reasons I set up eight cuts gallery was a feeling that my own work would never, really, reach the levels I wanted it to, and a desire to champion work that did achieve that. So the doubt was already there.
Something that looks like an achievement on paper is the live gigging we did at Year Zero this year. We’ve been to some incredible venues like Rough Trade, and had some truly moving evenings, such as the one at the OVADA Gallery. I even won something, at Literary Death Match, that should make me feel happy. And it does. I love reading to a live audience. But somewhere I think what I love may have changed. Maybe somewhere I stopped connecting directly with the audience, and started making it about my performance. No wonder it feels increasingly empty.
But the doubt precedes all of that. It precedes, too, the general reaction to my work, the sense that people find it cute that I’m outside the mainstream, that it’s a nice hobby for me to have, but never worth a mention when they’re talking about serious.
The doubt is something I imagine everyone has hardwired into them. Only they seem not to. It’s the feeling that if I’ve done it, it’s not worth talking about, that whatever you’re talking about, there’s always someone who deserves it more. That it would be fake, disingenuous to talk about my work, to accept payment for it, to take compliments for it, because there are others whose work is better. Don’t pay for my book if you don’t own The Dead Beat. Don’t tell me my writing’s good when you could use those breaths you’ll never get back to big up Oli.
And yet there are people who do accept payment for their work, who not only take compliments but tell people their work is good. If they’re prepared to do that, given that to do so when there are things more deserving is stupid, disgusting, self-aggrandisement, then the only conclusion is that my work is lesser than theirs.
That’s the real truth of it. I still can’t wrap my head around it. It was the same when I worked in retail. I couldn’t sell a product that I didn’t believe was the perfect one for my customers, and I couldn’t understand people who did. I know, in theory, it has to do with “making a living” and I tell myself that every morning – that’s the only way I can persuade myself to get to work and pretend the papers I push around my desk have any value at all. But art isn’t like that. It’s about the truth. All art that matters at all is about that quotation of Cody’s I come back to again and again “Maybe there is no way to leave the world a better place, and all we can do is tell the truth.”
And that’s where the doubt ends and the speculative answer begins. I don’t want to make a crass art versus trade distinction because, well, it’s crass. But I will say most writers’ motives for taking their place in the sun aren’t really relevant here, and a few disingenuous, but the writers I really admire have another reason.
Like most aphorisms, “if you don’t believe in yourself no one else will” is simultaneously true but tosh. It’s true because, well, it’s true. Except in those one-off cases where someone happens upon a scribbling in a bar and propels it to stardom, in order to get agented, published, sold, you need to sell yourself with conviction – even if it’s only the confidence to present your material to best advantage in your query and then post it off. It’s tosh because it’s beside the point. I’m guessing most people who’ve found their way to this site aren’t writing “to get published” or “to be famous” but because they want to create something that matters. Whatever, to paraphrase Prince Charles, “matters” means. And, to be honest, what we think of our work has pretty much no bearing on that.
I’ve been thinking about the amazing people I am surrounded by at eight cuts gallery and Year Zero, and there is a common thread. One that’s there in everyone I admire most. And it’s this. What counts is not believing in your work but believing in what you have to say. If you have nothing to say, or if you get so tangled up in the clothes it wears, the result will be equally tangled. Or plain shallow.
And that’s what I’d lost. I’d become on the one hand carried away with the performance of my work, and on the other dismayed at its technical inferiority, that I had stopped making the only driving force behind it the conveyance of my own personal truth.
Cody, Sarah, Penny, Elly, Sabina, Oli, Stuart, writers I admire most in the world, all have a complex relation with self-doubt and self-belief. They have the most crushing episodes of doubt about their work, but beneath that, under the clothes, there is a self-belief that is unshakable. It is a belief in the truth they have to tell, and it is so passionate that one of its inevitable consequences is doubt over the ability adequately to convey that truth.
But belief in the truth you have to tell means something else. It is why an artist must take their moment in the sun, accept what comes their way, not do constant deference to others whose truths are different. We owe it not to ourselves to put our work forward and take our slice of the spotlight, and not to our work – to do it for either of those is to render our motivation, our selves, and our art, hollow. No, we owe it to the truth.
And that’s what I lost sight of. I became too much concerned with the clothing, and too little with what mattered. I wrote very little last year, and almost all of that was all surface and no substance. I spent so long talking about the need for writers to tell the truth – which is still what I want to spend much of my time doing, and is the raison d’etre for this place – that I forgot the truth I had to tell.
My challenge to you is to join me in refocusing yourself on why you write. On the truth you have to convey – the thing that gives your work its heart. That’s something genuinely worth believing in. And worth every moment you get in the spotlight.