A trough of self-doubt and what I did about it
They say fifty is the new forty; the age when we reap the benefits of previous experiences and efforts at a time when the all-absorbing child-rearing days are largely behind us and we’re still in our prime. It’s a time for taking stock of achievements while casting excited eyes towards new horizons across unchartered waters. In short, it’s an opportunity to plot a course in a new direction.
Or sink. Sink under the oppression of personal doubt or the sometimes rabid ambition possessed by members of the upcoming generation who, as we grow older and advance in our careers, impatiently wait to fill our shoes and walk taller than we did.
This latter phenomenon is healthy and all part and parcel of life.
Personal doubt, on the other hand, is a trickier beast; a mental prey that stealthily circles the outer reaches of our consciousness until it swoops and plucks the heart out of contentment — a basic ingredient for happiness. On a bad day, it may also ravage self-esteem and induce a sense of unfulfillment and gloomier state of mind.
For over twenty years, I sailed through my career with my self-esteem ultimately unscathed. As a creative commercial copywriter, affirmation was forthcoming on a regular basis via satisfied clients and colleagues. I knew I could write copy; ‘everyone’ told me so. I could, they said, sell sand to The Sahara.
But I was bored. Unfulfilled. Depressed. And had a novel within me that was clamouring to get out. So I bailed on copywriting and embarked on a new career as a writer.
For two years I researched and wrote. Started this blog and set up a Facebook author page. Attended a writers’ conference in LA and made some wonderful writer friends. Two agents have asked for the manuscript when it’s finally completed. I was on a new roll.
Book enthusiastically received by a trusty team of beta readers, I sent it to my editor and began channelling fresh ideas and energy into Book Two.
And then I hit a trough. Not writer’s block. A confidence trough that was probably exacerbated by the frustration of a ruptured shoulder ligament, flu, and then a broken wrist. It all gave me too much time to ponder.
Who was I trying to fool? Me? An Author? Let’s get real. Creative writing and copywriting are two entirely different animals. Being good at one is no guarantee for being great at the other. Because success in publishing requires great. Besides, in a world teeming with great books, why would anyone waste their precious time reading mine? Let alone their hard earned cash. Who do I think I am? Because JK Rowling, I know I ain’t.
Such was the repeat conversation playing in my head and may have continued to play had middle-age common sense not kicked in, kicked ass and told me to get a grip.
So I gave myself a talking to and this is what I said:
There is only one person who can dig you out of this negative health and thought spiral, and that’s You. Nobody else. Your future is in the lap of the Gods and your own hands. And you know what you need to do. Eat properly. Sleep properly. Start taking vitamin supplements to build up resistance to bugs and calcium to build up your bones. Walk and exercise to become the strongest you possible. Get a haircut, a manicure, pedicure, and facial. Get out of those sweats and check out what the summer sales have on offer.
You love novel writing and have invested umpteen hours, days and months in beginning to hone your new craft. Feedback from beta readers has been overwhelmingly positive. Believe in being good today while working towards becoming awesome tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year. Progress systematically, through reading and listening and learning. And organically, through writing and writing and writing. Prioritise rather than procrastinate. JK Rowling is the best Harry Potter+ author, and even she was rejected at the beginning of her career, but only you can write your book the way you think it should be written.
Now, I’m not advocating that anyone can think themselves out of genuine depression. Depression is a physical, chemical imbalance in the brain that may require medication to combat. Medication that is as necessary as a cast on a broken limb.
No, I’m talking about a trough of personal self-doubt. That 3 a.m. fear that we will be finally exposed as professional imposters who are far less capable than people believe us to be. The angst that makes us hesitate, doubt and question our skills. And the sneaky belief that everyone else does it better.
Because I believe most of us are prone to these doubts and troughs sooner or later. And the winners are the ones who manage to dig themselves out before they sink further in. Sportsmen and women have always championed the importance of positive thinking and mental strength, and the importance of being able to refocus on the next point or match in the face of a defeat. A setback. They acknowledge that they lost, analyse and learn from it. They don’t tell themselves that they are lousy players.
Which is my intended strategy for the rest of my career. I’m going to face rejection, that’s a given. My first rejections will be in the concrete form of rejection slips. Then in mediocre or, heaven forbid, bad reviews. No one is liked by everyone.
Years ago, when my children were being taught to ride, one little girl suddenly fell off. “Good,” said the riding instructor briskly, as she picked up the teary, unhurt child. “Every good rider falls off at least 100 times. Now you only have 99 to go!” The mini-rider sniffed and grinned. Then remounted the pony.
I’m off to pack for the Romance Writers of America conference in NYC next week.
I’m excited and thrilled to be part of such a large writing community.
And when I return, I shall plan a new work schedule for the autumn and stick to it.
Because when I’m inevitably thrown off my course by doubt and rejection, I’m going to be that kid who remounted and trotted on.
Wishing everyone a wonderful and fulfilling summer.