Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The writing life: dealing with doubt

with 4 comments

Every writer goes through periods of depression and discouragement. Part of this is due to the daily nature of the work itself: it’s solitary, not immediately rewarding, and needs to be pursued without visible result for years on end. It isn’t surprising, then, that alcoholism is the most common occupational hazard of being a novelist, or that so many writers and creative artists end up in therapy, only occasionally with useful artistic results. Even more disheartening are what I might call existential threats to the writer’s life—times when your everyday discouragement seems inseparable from the daunting nature of the novelistic enterprise itself, until it seems that you’d be better off giving up writing entirely. What do you do then?

The first thing to keep in mind is that for a project as massive as a novel, you’re always going to be approaching it in a range of moods. A good novel generally takes at least a year or so of daily effort, and in that time, you’re going to start writing at moments when you feel enthusiastic or exhausted, optimistic or despairing, charged with energy or bored out of your mind. It’s tempting to think that the book itself is causing these reactions, but really, it isn’t the novel that’s changed; you have. And one of the challenges of becoming a writer is to develop habits of mind that allow you to write on all kinds of days, and to separate your reactions to the novel from more incidental emotions. In the end, it’s habit, not talent, that saves you.

A second, perhaps more useful point to remember is that all good writers have an ambivalent relationship toward their early drafts. If you think that the initial version of a chapter is pretty bad, well, it probably is, at least compared to what it will ultimately become—but that doesn’t mean you should stop and fix it now. What you already have is more than enough: a rough sketch, on paper, that covers all of the essential points of the scene at hand. As such, even if it’s badly written, it’s infinitely superior to a perfect but unwritten chapter that exists only in your imagination. After all, a first draft doesn’t need to be good; its only indispensable requirement is that it exist. And every writer you admire has been where you are now. Raymond Carver, in the Paris Review, put it best:

It’s instructive, and heartening both, to look at the early drafts of great writers. I’m thinking of the photographs of galleys belonging to Tolstoy, to name one writer who loved to revise. I mean, I don’t know if he loved it or not, but he did a great deal of it. He was always revising, right down to the time of page proofs. He went through and rewrote War and Peace eight times and was still making corrections on the galleys. Things like this should hearten every writer whose first drafts are dreadful, like mine are.

The third, possibly most important reminder is that all those basic, stupid, elementary habits that you’ve developed as a writer—to write every day, to cut ten percent of every first draft, to wait until the entire book is complete before going back to revise—will eventually, if honestly pursued, work their magic. When I’m reading over a first draft and don’t like what I’m seeing, I ask myself: Can I envision a good version of this chapter? If the answer is yes, I move on, because I know that a better version will emerge after the necessary work of rereading and revision. Sometimes, though, the answer is no, which implies that the chapter itself, or even the entire novel, is misconceived. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about what to do when this happens, and when, if ever, you should scrap a project entirely.

Written by nevalalee

June 23, 2011 at 9:53 am

4 Responses

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  1. Thank you!! Just what I needed to read.


    June 23, 2011 at 10:37 am

  2. Glad you liked it!


    June 23, 2011 at 11:00 am

  3. Hi Alec!

    Thanks for this post. Doubt can be strong for motivation and stong for desctruction… but some good advises in your words.


    J. R. Hermes

    June 23, 2011 at 11:34 am

  4. I agree that doubt can be very useful, especially in the later, more detached stages of the process. The tricky part is separating the constructive kind of doubt from the kind that comes from insecurity or exhaustion.


    June 23, 2011 at 12:42 pm

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