Dani Shapiro
October 26, 2009

On Self-Doubt

Sometimes I wish I could feel less uncertainty, less raging self-doubt about my work. Shouldn’t it stop, after a while? The questioning, the internal nagging feeling that I’ll never get it quite right? Seven books into this life, and I still sit down to write with a flutter of dread in my heart. You can’t do this, a little voice whispers. What makes you think you can do this?

I’ve been working on making peace with this voice. After all, it isn’t going away. Colette once wrote: “The writer who loses her self-doubt, who gives way as she grows old to a sudden euphoria, to prolixity, should stop writing immediately: the time has come for her to lay aside her pen.”

Many years ago, when I was at work on my second novel–which to my mind is the least accomplished of all my novels–I loved what I was doing. Oh, how I loved the music of my own words! I carried around pieces of my manuscript. I read passage aloud to friends. I read those pages over and over again, in the backs of taxis, while in cafes, or waiting in line. I wasn’t reading them with a critical eye, but rather, a blind and adoring one.

With each of my successive books, I have loved my work a bit less. And, interestingly enough, the work has grown better. It seems that loving my work wasn’t doing me any good at all. Grace Paley used to say that if she loved a sentence enough that she wanted to get up from her desk and walk into the other room to read it to her husband, she knew she had to cut it. At the time, as a graduate student, I wasn’t sure what she meant. Wasn’t it a good thing, to love one’s own sentences? But as with many of the remarkable bits of wisdom Grace shared, this has bloomed in my mind, over time.

So where, then, is the pleasure? If sitting down to do the work is hard–and it is hard, it should be hard–and if the process of getting that work into shape is hard–and it is, hard, it should be hard–and if bringing that work out into the world is a roller-coaster ride, full of ups and downs, unanticipated curves, elation and disappointment constant bedrellows–then what could possibly be the point?

As best as I can tell, the absorption, the single-minded focus, the hours that pass while most engaged in the work itself is the point. When I am deep into a piece of work, actually doing the writing of it, I am not thinking that it’s lousy, or genius, or anything in between. I’m not thinking about people reading it, or reviewing it, or responding to it in any way. I’m simply in the process–all the way down there in the trenches of the process–with my small, flickering candle, trying to tunnel through the darkness.