Dear Dr. Sue,
I've been pretty fortunate as a writer. Very soon after I really started writing seriously (late in life, after several different careers and many disappointments), I got an agent and got published. Then I got published again. Then I moved into a different genre and have one book published, another on the way, and am about to sign a contract for two more.
Sounds like a pretty good affirmation of my ability, yes? Well, nonetheless, every time I sit in front of my computer, or even think about writing--which I do every day, and am pretty disciplined about--I get a panic-stricken feeling that I don't know what I'm doing. It doesn't go quite as far as making me feel as if I've lost the ability to string words into a sentence, but nearly. I feel as though the books I have written and am writing are strange creatures that came from another planet, and I don't understand them or how they came to be.
I'm a very intellectual person with advanced degrees and the ability to think critically about writing and other subjects, but I can't seem to wrap my brain around applying any of that to my own work. At least, that's how it feels. I suddenly find myself asking myself what constitutes a good novel? Will I be able to pace it so that it works? Are my characters shallow and formulaic? How on earth do I fix them? What is voice?
In short, I feel as if everything I thought I knew has vanished into the mist or is hiding out of sight, eluding me the more I try to find it. And yet, I keep writing, sure that I'm probably polluting the literary world with worthless drivel no one will want to read.
Why are reality and perception so many miles apart for me?
Without knowing more about you, it’s impossible to discern your general level of self-esteem. However, your assessment of your intellect, your depiction of the gap between reality and perception, and your ability to keep writing despite your doubts suggest that your overall confidence level is high, so I’ll address only the specific concern about your writing.
First, most writers don’t believe they know what they’re doing. This is natural, because none of us actually do know what we’re doing. As you know, writing a novel is different from building a cabinet or knitting a sweater, as challenging as those activities may be. There is no pattern for a novel; no way of doing it “right” or even, often, knowing when we’ve succeeded. Each new work presents its own challenges, and in that sense we are all beginners every time we sit down with a new idea. Most writers find it necessary to fight through those feelings of inadequacy and incompetence repeatedly—it’s just part of the process.
Second, though, very few of us are as skillful or knowledgeable as we could be, and in that sense our insecurity is also reality-based. Writing novels that sell is a fine accomplishment, but not necessarily an indication that you are working up to your full potential. Consider taking a class or joining a critique group. You may find that you benefit from others’ wisdom and critical evaluation of your work. At the very least, you can share your feeling of insecurity and discover for yourself that you are far from alone.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. She is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity (Seal, 2007). Her Career Coach column appears every Monday on Inside Higher Ed's Mama, Ph.D. blog , and she is a regular monthly panelist on Litopia After Dark. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.