Writers and the badgers of self doubt

People would say, ‘Aren’t you afraid you’re never going to have any success? Aren’t you afraid the humiliation of rejection will kill you? Aren’t you afraid that you’re going to work your whole life at this craft and nothing’s ever going to come of it and you’re going to die on a scrap heap of broken dreams with your mouth filled with bitter ash of failure?’ The answer – the short answer to all those questions is, Yes.” – Elizabeth Gilbert – author of the manically “successful” Eat, Love, Pray.

badger anatomy.jpg

Most writers have a badger of self-doubt burrowed tight into their amygdala. Mine had the habit of calling me a “dick” (occasionally “you dickhead”) throughout the entire writing of my first novel. Luckily, I grew up in East Manchester. I was used to name calling, failure, fear, and poverty, and have an abnormally high shame threshold. So I wrote anyway. There was little for the badger to taunt me with, I was already experiencing it all. With nothing to lose, I just wrote. But if you’re not used to feeling shitty, or have an aversion to rejection, a badger in the brain can be a real problem.

Badgers of self-doubt have very sharp claws and dig deep into the amygdala. They piss everywhere. Moult. Drool rabid spittle. They frequently mumble insults, outright chat shit, scoff, and offer black and white statements in authoritative tones. Sometimes they are violent and abusive – threatening you with annihilation, alcoholic stupors, or tall bridges. Each and every one of them is a furry fat bastard. They are the only badgers I would celebrate bating. (Even Brian May would agree that the badgers of self-doubt need kicked in their smelly hairy balls.)

I know a lot of writers. We are all uniquely odd, but our badger taunts are similar. These seem to be the top three. (Add your own in the comments if you’re brave.)

In at #3:

“You’ll never support yourself” or in its more abusive form “get a fucking job you freak!”

Surfing in on the wave produced by #3 is #2:

“You are wasting your time” or in its more abusive form “you loser, get a life!”

And crashing into rocks at #1… carrie

“You’ll never be good enough” or in its more abusive form “They’re all gonna laugh at you!” said in Sissy Spacek’s mum’s voice from the movie Carrie, on a loop, when you’re trying to sleep, eat, write, have sex, take a shit, just ALWAYS THERE!!!

Now let’s look at how you can shut the bullying badger up (while maintaining sobriety and life.)

“You’ll never support yourself” or in its more abusive form “get a fucking job you freak!”

Listen. Unless you have a partner/family/trust fund chances are the badger is right. You won’t make “a living” from writing. At last count, I think The Writers Guild of GB said the average writer makes about five grand a year and most of that is from teaching workshops. BUT JUST BECAUSE YOU DON’T MAKE “A LIVING” doesn’t make writing a waste of time!!! Writing has to be something meaningful for its own sake. Something life enhancing, not diminishing. As writer Casey Armstrong says of her own process, “Writing raises a lot of questions that I wouldn’t normally think of. It forces me to ask why and explore the world in deeper detail.” Looking at writing as something intrinsically linked to our development as human beings is a great way to banish the badger and reframe the experience. Define your own writing’s worth. It will reduce the fear factor.

“You are wasting your time” or in its more abusive form “you loser, get a life!”

Again, if you think you are, then you are. You see, no one gets to decide how you spend your time on earth. No one gets to determine what your life “well lived” looks like. If you decide you are wasting your time, then you are. But let’s be honest about what the badger of self-doubt is really saying when he utters this particular taunt. He really means “Only things that create status/wealth/notoriety/praise/awards/admiration are worth spending time on.” Do you really believe that? Really? Writer Gemma Cartmell has it right when she says, “Writing is my way of expressing hidden feelings and letting them out. It helps me see myself in black and white through my stories, to know exactly who I am. Sometimes I surprise myself with what I find out. I see many traits through loads of my characters, even the evil ones. Writing is therapeutic. It lets me escape into a world that I understand, and one that understands me.” Claiming the purpose and meaning of your process, whether it is therapeutic like Gemma or something else, is certainly more helpful than waiting for something as intangible as “success”.

“You’ll never be good enough” or in its more abusive form “They’re all gonna laugh at you!”

Good enough for what? Publication? Production? Sex? Fame? Fortune? Friendship? Love? The history books? (Forget that one if you’re a women, no matter what you do they’ll just erase it, unless you kill yourself after it. DON’T KILL YOURSELF.) Listen, none of us are good enough. Just go away and write. It’ll be ok. Just keep writing. (PS: you are always loved you silly badger believing bean-head.) Contemplate what the poet Ruth Woodward says about her writing being “…almost a way of ‘dumping’ all the emotions and anger I feel at the situation. By reading it back, I can feel it reduce.” We are all “good enough” for this level of self-care and creative catharsis. Who are you not to express yourself? You should be seen and heard, and at the very least by your own psyche!

It’s not your genius, genius.

Self-doubt seems to come hand in hand with being creative. Or rather, as writers, we seem to be a vile mix of sticky treacle self-doubt and fluffy floaty self-belief candyfloss. Such speedy oscillation of self-image lures many a writer off the path and into the woods with the wolves. Where we wander about, bumping into trees. Asking rabbits for directions and so on. There is a middle path though. No seriously, there is. There’s a road between crippling self-deprecation and the temporary relief delusions of genius brings. Yes. That road is discussed by Elizabeth Gilbert in her book on creativity – Big Magic. (Her words also introduce this post, scroll back up you dirty skim reader.)

Once upon a time I was on a writing retreat and realised just how much Gilbert’s ideas on inspiration made other writers recoil. Her notion (admittedly not her own idea) that genius/inspiration/creativity/songs/music/poems/projects/ideas/stories are not owned by the creative person, but are in existence beyond us as themselves, as wee entities, consciousnesses, or whatever. These beautiful-ugly things search for translators. Mothers. Creative doulas. Midwives. They sniff out writers, poets, musicians, and artists to collaborate with and then communicate. They strike with inspiration. A flash of cleavage. A dilating eye. But once the creative stops communicating, or listening to their loving whispers, the idea leaves to work with someone else. Leaving you to dry in the sand like an old sad snake too dumb to slither to the sea. If you have not heard her ideas, I’d suggest you listen to her TED talk HERE! (It’s only 17 mins long.)

A lot of scoffing is directed at Gilbert from writers who feel they are the single source of their work. That they rise and fall by their own will. All I can say is that must get real scary REAL fast. Genuinely believing you pull stories out from your own well, rather than some kind of collective ocean, means the well could *shudder* dry up. Talk about pressure.

I’m not suggesting we all believe in faeries (I am) or build some form of transcendent practice into our process (part of me is) but I do want more people to write. Especially people who have been told they can’t, or shouldn’t. I also believe, like Gilbert, that the notion of creative or literary genius gets in the way. I suggest people talk to their project and listen for the answer. If you wanna write, get quiet and curious. Listen, then write.

You’re a writer when you write. So write. Right?

evil badgerWhen I was at school, not only was I non-verbal for many years, but I was also dyslexic. Half the time I was so anxiety-ridden I couldn’t hear what people were saying, let alone formulate a reply. School felt like prison. But I could tell stories. Once I’d found the library, I decided I would be a writer. Luckily I had a mum who was an artist. She valued creating for its own sake and was vehemently against formula, training, or structure. If I’d been touched by the notion that only tortured geniuses write, then I wouldn’t have put pen to paper. My life would be radically different and I love my creative life so so much. Thank god that didn’t happen. Now through MADA I want to help others write too. Which means kicking the badger of self-doubt in the balls. (Seriously, do it as many times as it takes, just keep kicking the sod!!!)

MADA does not publish literary geniuses (because they don’t exist) and the notion pushes writing into the hands of elitists. Those who for some reason (money/power/status) get to decide what genius looks like. And funnily enough it is always people who look like them. In fact, they always seem to be the same kinda white people from the same kinda families, from the same kinda class sphere, from the same kinda school… is it any wonder the majority of us think we can’t write? Is it any wonder many great writers give up?

Reclaim your story

By making the process of storytelling one that is personally transformative at its core we reach a deeper level of excitement about our work. A journey MG author Emmy Clarke knows well, “After every project I come away a different person.” The MADA co-founder says, “It can be daunting yet exhilarating to start another project because of this – I never know what I’ll learn about myself!!” As writers we can take hold of our own narrative. If we manage that we will survive the rest, which is just the petty outer bickering of a self-conscious world and an industry ill-at ease with itself.

“I think it’s important to accept that we as creators all have doubts and that they’re a natural part of the process,” says writer and MADA editor Evangeline Chateau-Loney. “I have doubts every week, Tuesdays and Thursdays from six till eight. The main thing is not to let them mess up your schedule.”

Don’t let badgers mess up your life! Ever!!! And if I can add a final thought (like a strange version of Jerry Springer) let it be this… JUST GO AWAY AND WRITE. NOW.


women of the wild cover

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