When I was in high school back in the late 90’s, I had so much confidence and ambition that I got myself a copy of Writer’s Market, studied it from cover-to-cover, and started pitching a manuscript of poetry to big-name publishers. It was a silly, naïve thing to do. Who would publish some teenager’s drivel unless she’s the daughter of someone famous? Even that’s probably not enough to get one of the big five publishing houses to select a book of poetry. But my parents thought it was a great idea and promptly bought me lots of stamps. They didn’t know anything about publishing. Plus, I had attended summer writing workshops where kindly and experienced teachers encouraged me. I was a finalist at a youth poetry competition in my home state of Connecticut. (To attend the try-outs, I skipped the SAT’s, with Mom and Dad’s approval.) I was the first junior high school student at my grade 6-12 school to publish a piece in the high school literary magazine. An admissions counselor at Bennington thought my 50-page stream of consciousness “novel in progress” was brilliant. Regarding the reflection of the moon from the little puddle in which I swam, that big white rock seemed entirely within my reach.

Then I got to college. After my first poetry workshop at Sarah Lawrence, I realized two things: 1) I did not know how to pronounce “dilapidated” and 2) my poems were terrible. I promptly switched to writing solely fiction. My ambitious scribbling continued and I applied to MFA programs my senior year, once again motivated by a belief in my own talent. I ended up at Brooklyn College in a program run by Michael Cunningham. He himself left a message on my voicemail congratulating me on my acceptance. That phone call was the single greatest moment in my literary career thus far.

I’m now in my thirties. Those of you reading this have probably never heard of me, unless you’re my friend or family member, in which case I’d like to say Hi! and Thanks for your support! I have yet to publish a book. The reason for that is, in part, life gets in the way. There’s work and love and art and art usually comes last, (especially for we women writers). But for me, part of what weighs art down and keeps it in last place is overwhelming self-doubt.

I remember the precise moment when I first realized I was not The Shit. It was my first semester of grad school and I was reading for my MFA program’s literary magazine. Staff readers were allowed to submit, as long as they did so anonymously. Among the submissions was a story of my own, one a beloved college professor had praised. Not realizing it was mine, my classmates tore it to shreds right in front of me. The story I had thought would blow everyone away did not even make it through the first round. I had always known I was going to have to work hard at this writing thing, that I would face a lot of rejection, but I hadn’t quite realized how untalented I would feel, how much rejection from my peers would push me to question myself.

The more involved I became in the literary world, the more my self-doubt grew. Though teachers in my MFA program recommended submitting to magazines like Tin House, The Paris Review and Glimmer Train, I quickly learned to aim much lower. To say I believed I wasn’t “good enough” is only a partial truth. My college professor Brooke Stevens told my class it was not the best writers who succeeded, but the most persistent ones, and I have reminded myself of that advice again and again. What he left out is that in addition to trying really, really hard, you also need the chutzpah to promote yourself and make the right connections. But that becomes challenging, if not impossible, when you’re constantly questioning your value as a writer.

Over time, my self-doubt has morphed into a kind of self-pity. I’ve watched people who were next to me at the starting line cross over into Multiple-Books-Published and Award-Winning territory while I lag behind, sweating and panting. When they are nice people, I am truly happy for them. When they are not, I hate their guts. But their success or failure has nothing to do with me personally. It’s not like there is a finite amount of books humanity can ever produce and every time one is published, my chances diminish. If anything, other people’s success should only encourage me: if they did it, so can I. But that’s where the self-doubt steps in and says, They can do it BUT YOU NEVER WILL BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT A REAL WRITER. It’s the same voice that tells me submitting to writing contests is a waste of money. (It really is, though). It’s the same voice that says, You will never be anything other than what you are at this very moment. Which is probably true, the truest thing a voice in my head could ever tell me. No matter what accolades or publishing credentials I accumulate, I will be myself and the work will be the work. It will be great or garbage regardless of whether or not other people want to publish and honor it.

After I got my MFA in 2006, I took a teaching job in South America. That first year, I didn’t write at all. Sometimes the most important work you can do as a writer is just living. Though I lacked a literary community, I eventually returned to short stories and continued submitting. Since then, my resume has steadily grown to include publication in fifteen or so journals, as well as a Pushcart Prize nomination and other near-misses. Sometimes when I’m asked to write an author bio for a magazine and feeling especially punchy, I add in “Lindsay Merbaum has been nominated for numerous awards she didn’t win.” Zing.

During my fourth and last year in Ecuador, I wrote a novel, which, after going through several drafts and the hands of multiple readers, is now entombed in my computer’s hard drive. Though I could’ve wrestled with that book till it took on a shape the reading public could swallow, I ultimately concluded that was not the story I wanted to be my first novel. I decided being book-less was better than publishing for the wrong reasons and I feel confident that my next manuscript, which has been in the works for the past couple years, will be a stronger, more mature story that will benefit from the mistakes I made the last time around.

There have been moments where I have considered giving up on writing altogether, but those moments are fleeting and usually born of exhaustion and the frustration that comes with never feeling like there’s enough time for writing, that no matter how many pages I produce, I could’ve written more. Deep down, I know I’ll never quit because I feel a compulsion to write. It can be a torturous, thankless process, but the act of storytelling is so essential to my identity that I’m not sure who I would be without it.

I’ve come to accept that my writer’s doubt is something I will probably never get over. Friends of mine have described the letdown they’ve experienced after publishing their first book. Each accomplishment is supposed to be IT, and yet there’s always another rung to climb, accompanied by the worry you’ll slip, or that you just can’t climb any higher. What I struggle to do now is to put writing first, which can be hard when you don’t already have a celebrated book or major award under your belt. How do you justify the time devoted to writing when it doesn’t put food on the table, when you don’t receive much recognition for your efforts? It’s easier to just binge-watch Netflix and not think about it. I’m fortunate that my husband, who is also an artist, understands and supports my creative endeavors and pushes me to keep at it.

Sometimes I marvel at that girl who thought she could publish a book at sixteen and was undeterred when that didn’t happen. I’ve seen that kind of ego drive some young writers towards success. But in my case, I wasn’t fueled so much by hubris as naïveté, which set me up for a rude awakening. The adults who coached me meant well. It was their job to encourage privileged kids, but they did me a disservice when they led me to believe I was far more special than I really was, that success would come easily to me.

Still, I think my high school self deserves some credit. She had her flaws, but she was hopeful. When you have a better chance of getting into Harvard than a top-tier literary magazine, hope is no small thing. Hence my writing mantra I stole from Cabaret and revive for small victories, near-misses and milestones. Feel free to borrow it:

All the odds are in my favor

Something’s bound to begin

It’s got to happen, happen sometime

Maybe this time I’ll win

45 Responses

  1. Jacob (Goby) Russell

    The ambition to ‘be a writer’ not only has nothing to do with wanting to write, it’s terribly counter-productive. You read. You have ideas, the itch to say something. So you write. If it’s a failure or success, no one on this planet can, or has the right to make that judgment. Giving them that right is like giving them a gun and telling them to shoot you. Even if you learn to do what ‘they’ like, and you become ‘a writer,’ you will be their writer, not your own. Bought and paid for. For some–that’s enough.
    But if what you want is to write, and write well, and write what comes from your own life and mind and imagination–well then, failure is how you learn. If it’s poetry. You toss the failure aside, and write another, and another, and another. And you read poetry. And you go to readings. No one can sit down at the piano and play Chopin the first time they touch the keys–let alone compose a great piece of music. You gain skills by doing. You learn to see and hear and recognize what gives YOU satisfaction, and what drives you on to the next poem or story or novel, and the next, and the next.
    A great teacher will know how to read the work of a beginner and point to what is strong, to what is waiting to happen, to what is there to be developed, without making a fuss about what doesn’t work. Giving a class the power to do what they did to you–is the worst thing anyone could do. If Michael Cunningham did that, he may be a passable writer–but he’s a lousy teacher.
    There is a creative power in everyone. It gets crushed early on. You’ve described one of ways that happens. But it doesn’t die. It’s there. And the struggle to find it and nourish it will become part of what what you make, part of what you have to say… your witness to the world. Just as it found itself in what you wrote here.
    You see… you wrote that. It wasn’t meant to be artful, but it engaged me enough that I’m sitting here writing back to you before I’ve had my morning cup of coffee. So it’s there. Work on it. Keep it close to your heart. See what happens.

    Reply
    • Jacob (Goby) Russell

      My apologies… I had read that as it appeared in my email notice, without reading anything else–or paying needed attention to your blog. Essentially, I was caught in my response to that young woman whose work was torn to shreds in that awful workshop, and writing as though nothing had happened since. I should have had that cup of coffee first!

      Reply
  2. Becky

    I wrote a blog entry about this a couple weeks ago: why does writing cause so much more anxiety than other artistic pursuits? (I linked to that entry in the “website” section of this commenting form.)

    Reply
  3. Michael Mayo

    Stop bitching and self-publish. The whole point of writing is to get your work in the hands of readers. Everything else is just egoboo. The ultimate judges of your work are readers, so self-publish, get it to them, and they’ll tell you how good you are. Good luck.

    Reply
    • Jacob (Goby) Russell

      Well that was kinda nasty and unnecessary. And the only judge of your own writing, is you. Unless you’re writing commercials… which is pretty much what most establishment literary fiction is. Commercials for the illusion that our capitalist empire of money and death is the only possible reality.

      Reply
      • Priyanka

        Where can I follow you?
        You give some really good advices. Also, I would like to add…we know that every article reminds us of the harsh reality out there and none would soften the blow. I am still in my teens and when I read her intro, I laughed at my utter failure at not finding a workshop or winning a single competition my entire school life (Mostly because it didn’t hosted anything but science quizzes). But I think reality in the end, is what you choose to believe. You live what excites you the most no matter it excites others or not. You wrote. You lived. And you will continue to do so until you are tired of that excitement because it does not excites others. The commercial writers too live in economy and are successful and truthful in that particular cunning.

        Tell me if that makes any sense?

        P.S. I am the so called ’emerging’ poet with exciting imagination.

    • ace

      No. What a foolish piece of advice that is invariably given by those with sour grapes/bitter resentment of The Gatekeepers. Had the author had the opportunity to self-publish that writing she naively believed was ready at 16, don’t you think she’d regret doing so today? SO many “not ready” writers, blindly convinced that “big publishing” has failed to recognize their genius, are flinging dreck upon the world which will haunt them later.

      Reply
  4. ClaudiaLepo

    Dear Lindsay,
    this morning I was living the usual fight: something like that song says “Should I write or should I go”… a real pain. I thought about texting or calling somebody, to put it out, to overcome the funk in which I fell everyday when I realize that the other components of life (work in the 1st place) would cannibalize the time to write consistently. And I wished to find someone who could understand it, how deep and strong is this struggle. Than I realize (as always) that’s the difference between a writer and a wannabe: a writer writes. You wrote, you write and you will, so you are a writer, you can’t help.
    Anyway, tonight I found in your article the voice and the hear I was looking for. I could quote it almost word by word.
    I wish all the best!
    Claudia

    Reply
  5. BobBa

    I get that in some contexts struggling and working at something you aren’t innately incredible at can be a good, but here it seems a waste. If you’re not a good writer, or have huge doubts about being a good writer, why continue? There are other professions, and other avenues in life. This is very against the current strain of mindless infantilizing optimism in American life, but a girl has got to know when to give up too. And move on to something else. That, sometimes, is the real wisdom. Not just doubling down on choices you made as a teenager.

    Reply
    • ace

      Realizing you’re not the wunderkind you thought you were is not the same as not being a good writer. The author has had enough successes (including a Pushcart nom) to suggest that she actually *is* good at it, but just because someone has talent doesn’t mean all self-doubt magically vanishes. However, for a true writer, writing is actually intrinsic to one’s identity, not just a job or hobby. You don’t just quit being who you are.

      Reply
      • bobBa

        Sure, she may be good enough to get a pushcart nod – but a small magazine can make up to 6 pushcart noms, meaning that she was one of the hundreds or thousands nominated that year.

        My point being that she has chosen as her “life calling” this field wherein only those at the very tippity top are rewarded. Being in the top six of what a single literary magazine published that year, once, is not the tippity-top.

        There’s been this “you can do it champ!” ethos that has dominated the replies. Why encourage this person? She could be a doctor, a community organizer, a great mom. She could take up programming. She could even (more minimally) switch genres. Take what she’s learned trying to write literary fiction and apply it to YA.

    • Jacob (Goby) Russell

      BobBa,

      Because “making it” has NOTHING to do with monetizing your work. That’s the trick capitalism plays on artists. Fall for it, and yeah–it’s only the tipity top that are rewarded, but that reward is based on fashion and gatekeepers who are judging what will sell, not what has literary or aesthetic merit; fall for it, and you’ve doomed yourself, made yourself a slave to an idol, and no money will make up for the loss of your soul.
      Wanting to make art (of whatever form or medium), is terribly fraught in this fucked up racist patriarchal Empire of Money and Death. A complicated business (sorry for that word), sorting out the creative drive from the false rewards that are held out like the temptations of St. Anthony.
      If you’re a “normal” person, who long ago had that creative love crushed and buried, you really have nothing to say to artists and writers in the way of advice, cause you know nothing about it, and will only end up trolling and sounding stupid.

      Reply
  6. Matthew

    Dear Lindsay
    Fine piece, speaks to a lot of writers in MFA land, myself included. Have you read “Silences: When Writers Don’t Write” by Tillie Olsen? It always calms me down when I’m feeling what you describe.

    Be well

    Reply
  7. Hamuel

    Last week I submitted my first piece of fiction. Right after handing the envelope containing the manuscript (in triplicate) to the receptionist, I had to go find a private spot because all that negative self-talk and doubt and fear and hope came bubbling up and almost choked me.

    Thanks for this.

    Reply
  8. celeste noelani

    This is all to familiar, and I send you my sincere mahalo for sharing. Congratulations on the achievements you have unlocked so far, and I wish you many future successes.

    Reply
    • Joshua

      I’m not sure this writer really knows what she wants, and I have a feeling what she actually wants, as much as she denies it, is to get back to that place where the teacher tells her her work is “brilliant.”

      There’s something that doesn’t quite ring true about the idea that this writer suffers some kind of crushing self-doubt, a phrase normally reserved for accomplished writers who were so unable to inhabit their successes that they turned to alcohol and drugs (not netflix binging), became reclusive, or even committed suicide. To wonder whether one is a great writer, when one has, as yet, no evidence whatsoever that one *is* a great writer, is just a normal human thought process. It’s like hearing an average little-leaguer complain of “self-doubt” about his baseball skills — who told you you were going to make the majors in the first place? And if you even have a snowball’s chance, what are you doing sitting around whining about “self-doubt” instead of practicing and drilling and working out?

      Of course, the author does, correctly, recognize that certain adults did a “disservice” to her by giving her unrealistic expectations, and yet, almost paradoxically, it is peevish to complain about it, as though if only they hadn’t done that “disservice” she would have the psychological mettle to realize her obvious brilliance.

      Reply
    • Steve Sklar

      I love this essay. Very heartening, oddly enough.

      I had a little beginner’s luck, of sorts, many years ago (late ’70s/early ’80s). Fresh out of college, got a few ski articles published in Powder Magazine (I think I got few to no rejection letters before first one was accepted!), then a little later, had a few articles published in Variety. Wonderful!

      Now, years later, trying to get more ambitious and (I think) better pieces published, am hitting the very same horrible odds you describe so engagingly. It’s very helpful to know the actual score, so you can set your expectations and, to the extent possible, ego accordingly.

      Reply
  9. Karen Hall

    If it makes you feel any better, I’ve made my living as a writer for 30+ years and I still think everything I write is crap.

    Reply
    • Nancy

      I enjoyed your writing Karen, your sense of humor has always been impressive. Instead of a column you should write a novel! By the way, I have been one of your follows for a good 30 years.

      Reply
      • Karen Hall

        Wow, that long? Thanks! In fact, I just finished a novel. My novel Dark Debts was published by Random House in 1996 and it is being republished by Simon & Schuster (my editor moved) next spring for its 20th anniversary. I did a major rewrite on it. I’m in the process of starting another novel. It doesn’t pay well, but it’s much more rewarding that television.

      • Nancy

        You are the same Karen who had a column in the Windsor Star? I also followed Gord Henderson; wow I miss those days. Much luck to you, I’ll look for your book, would love to read it.

      • Karen Hall

        No, I’m Karen Hall the TV writer. I don’t know the Karen Hall you’re talking about.

      • Nancy

        I am so sorry Miss Karen, I have the wrong person. Karen Hall was a columnist for the Windsor Star in Ontario Canada for many, many years. My apologies.
        Still, I wish you the best luck in your pursuits.

  10. The Online Reader’s Digest | Iss. 2 | GMLSMR

    […] Cinq. “There have been moments where I have considered giving up on writing altogether, but those moments are fleeting and usually born of exhaustion and the frustration that comes with never feeling like there’s enough time for writing, that no matter how many pages I produce, I could’ve written more. Deep down, I know I’ll never quit because I feel a compulsion to write. It can be torturous, thankless process, but the act of storytelling is so essential to my identity that I’m not sure who I would be without it. I’ve come to accept that my writer’s doubt is something I will probably never get over” – Lindsay Merbaum on ‘How Self-Doubt Holds Me Back‘. […]

    Reply
  11. re

    Self-doubt is absolutely appropriate in writing, as it is in all the arts. Hardly anyone gets tons of awards and accolades, and the ones who do often feel like impostors. It’s okay. You do it because deep down you know you have to do it, and because the pleasure of making something you love is impossible to resist. It’s worth the rejection, the isolation, the anonymity.

    A lot of young people do their work in order to get the approval of the grown ups– that approval is the basis of their self-worth. But once you grow up, you have to separate the opinion of others from the work itself. Is it the work you want to do? Do you love it? If so, keep doing it. If not, why bother?

    Reply
  12. ugly1

    Small crumb of comfort to offer – at least you had some early years of believing you were good and could make it and had encouragement from other people. It probably made you less scared of interacting with other humans. It might have set you up to feel disappointed that the world was less appreciative than you expected, but that is still a more comfortable position to be in than knowing that one is a rubbish writer but worse at everything else than at writing. You might miss the self-confidence you once had, but the very fact that you think your high school self deserved some credit shows that you have benefited in some way.

    If you are kidding yourself that those who have never received praise or encouragement or had any self-belief don’t know what they are missing, please stop that. We can imagine. We see the self confidence in someone else’s face. We are told that they deserve success because they believe in themselves. We are told that we will never succeed, and will never deserve to succeed, because we don’t believe that we are more than others.
    And we believe it.

    Reply
  13. Quick Quotes—The Week in Publishing | S.W. Lauden

    […] “Friends of mine have described the letdown they’ve experienced after publishing their first book. Each accomplishment is supposed to be IT, and yet there’s always another rung to climb, accompanied by the worry you’ll slip, or that you just can’t climb any higher.”—Lindsay Merbaum at Electric Literature […]

    Reply
  14. Sathish Rajamohan

    I write short fiction and going through the same emotions. The question is why we write? For recognition from others or because we love to write. I am battling with this question for quiet sometime and yet to find a convincing answer.

    Reply
  15. Amanda

    That was a great text. Very helpfull at this precise moment. Thank you.

    Reply
  16. Sathish Rajamohan

    Success really kills a writer’s creativity. Take any successful writer, they keep rehashing the same thing that made them successful. A Dan Brown’s book is inevitably is about chasing signs and symbols. Can’t count how many versions of Harry Potter has JK Rowling written. When you are not successful as a writer you tend to show a lot of variation in each of your work.

    It is like a startup that keeps innovating, but once it grows bigger its own weight makes it difficult to innovate.

    Reply
  17. E

    This is nice, but the last lines irk: it is not about winning. If that’s your writing mantra, it doesn’t seem like you get it.

    As long as you take this endeavor, writing, to be a matter of winning and losing (prizes and publications and “likes” and reviews and thumbs ups and whatever), rather than about producing amazing writing for the ages, which will speak to someone a hundred years from now, you’ll be stuck in this cycle of self-doubt and be chasing the wrong things. Of course those kudos are nice, but they are really, really, not the most important thing.

    Reply
  18. Defying Gravity | Andrea Blythe

    […] “My college professor Brooke Stevens told my class it was not the best writers who succeeded, but the most persistent ones, and I have reminded myself of that advice again and again. What he left out is that in addition to trying really, really hard, you also need the chutzpah to promote yourself and make the right connections. But that becomes challenging, if not impossible, when you’re constantly questioning your value as a writer,” Lindsay Merbaum writes in Not a Real Writer: How Self-Doubt Holds Me Back. […]

    Reply

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