Not a Real Writer: How Self-Doubt Holds Me Back
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When I was in high school back in the late ’90s, 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 SATs, 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