To Banish Doubt

posted February 28, 2019

I have been waking at 2am, when all the demons are circling their fires, and as soon as they see they have my attention, they proceed to tell me that all the decisions I have ever made in my life are wrong, from my choice to be a musician to my marriage to my low-carb diet. This is Doubt on steroids. In my wonderful manuscript group, we hard-working writers start with a check-in before we turn our attention to each other’s work. As we share around the circle, the exact same issues and concerns come up over and over.

“I am afraid my main character is unlikeable.”

“I am afraid I am wasting my time writing this book that no one will buy or read.”

“I am afraid this book will be read only by the most brutal of my childhood bullies who will laugh at my bad prose and post cruel memories of me on Facebook.”

“What’s the use? Even if it’s a best-seller, it will still end up at the bottom of a box in someone’s attic someday.”

Last weekend, we escaped to the Adirondacks for a blissful 48 hours of no cell phones and no internet. Well, OK, the truth was we thought there’d be internet–there usually is. But for some reason it was down, and when we first arrived, I spent ten minutes dumbly poking at my unresponsive surface, as if somehow if I hit it right, I could Heimlich the thing back to life. But no. I went through a profound withdrawal (witness happy demons and their torments) and finally woke Sunday morning to a clear sky, a beautiful snowy view of Hurricane Mountain, and a reminder that I have been here before. Doubt, a meditation teacher once taught me, is the worst of the five hindrances (the others are Greed, Aversion, Sloth/Torpor, and Restlessness/Worry.) But Doubt is the worst, because it erodes the very base of one’s practice. How can you take the first step, which is to commit to sitting for a period of time, if you doubt the usefulness of the endeavor itself? How can I commit to a writing practice if I doubt the value of putting my words out in to the world? How can I stay married if I doubt my love, my commitment, my choices? But if we challenge every choice, every commitment, we cannot live. We walk in circles, endlessly questioning.

Which is the dog? Which is the stuffed bear?

My therapist has these “Affirmator” cards which she occasionally spreads out for me at the end of our sessions. I am supposed to pick one. Examples: “Beauty,” “Clarity” and “Confidence.” Three times in a row, I have pulled “Self-Love,” which makes me gag. I love myself plenty. Probably too much. Still, the Universe might be trying to tell me something. Out of 52 possibilities, why am I always picking this one? Huh, Self?

Since I am now disclosing to you the potentially embarrassing fact that I turn over “Affirmator” cards, I will also tell you that every day, I write (in my BestSelf Journal) my goals: 1. That the Christ/Self/God/Best-In-Me might see the Christ/Self/God/Best-In-All-Things-and-Beings (Namaste!) 2. To love, respect, support and, most importantly, enjoy my family, and 3. To write an undeniably great book. The first two are hard to achieve, but I see them as helpful lodestars rather than directives. The third one is killing me dead.

Best Self Journal

What do I mean, anyway, by “undeniably great book”? I thought this would be straightforward! I want my book to be beautifully written, with characters that feel like friends to the reader, full-blooded humans who make mistakes, have their hearts broken, learn and grow. I want a plot that keeps the reader turning pages, staying up too late, thinking about the book during the day while s/he is at work, looking forward to getting back into it. I want, most of all, to write the kind of book I love to read. But I love to read books that I don’t think are undeniably great! And some undeniably great books I find boring. In whose eyes is the book undeniably great, anyway?

Here’s what the Doubt is telling me: you were better off as a songwriter. Write more songs. Here’s what the Doubt also says: “You need to learn how to write. You must get an MFA.” Now, the truth is I DO want to get an MFA, and I’ve recently figured out how to make a low-res MFA program work for me and my family. But now the Doubt is saying: “Are you kidding? there’s no way you can handle an MFA!” The Doubt tells me that because I am writing this book, I am a terrible and negligent parent. The Doubt tells me I am wasting my time.

Fortunately for me, I am surrounded by other writers. I participate in a fabulous manuscript group at Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop on Mondays. I run my own groups on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. I am part of a kick-ass Mastermind group of women writers on Fridays (see below). I run and write in retreats out of my Little Blue Studio five or six times a year. Soon (YES, Doubt, SOON!) I will be an MFA student immersed in the word and pen. This is my life. As with anything, the game is to recognize the thought, welcome it with kindness and appreciation. “Thank you, Doubt, for trying to protect me! Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go work on my new scene.” When I came to my various groups in despair, this was the reminder I got from my fellow Journeymen and Journeywomen.

Yesterday, I got the reminder I needed. My son’s fifth grade class led the monthly assembly at Jackson Street School. Topic: The Harlem Renaissance. Each class chose an artist from that period, and over the course of the year, emulated that artist’s style to create their own pictures. The work was stunning. As I watched the slideshow, I was reminded of the primary reason we make art: because to do so is transformative. We learn, we grow, we breathe, we connect, we see, we hear, we live. Thank you, children, thank you, art teachers. And now, to the scene that needs writing.

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  1. Brava! And I love your response to Doubt– “Thank you, Doubt, for protecting me”–because that is very probably the job that Doubt is meant to be doing for each one of us. I just want to tell it “Dude. Not helping. Could you just like…go to the market and get us some broccoli instead?” But “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a scene to write” is better. Except we do need some more broccoli.

  2. Thank you for this, Nerissa. As a writer myself, this resonates with me. Yes, Doubt can shield you and Doubt can be a motivator. I love these posts.

  3. Padraig O’Tuma read this poem on the most recent On Being podcast. I think this speaks to what you write about.

    “Phase One” by Dilruba Ahmed:

    “For leaving the fridge open
    last night, I forgive you.
    For conjuring white curtains
    instead of living your life.

    For the seedlings that wilt, now,
    in tiny pots, I forgive you.
    For saying no first
    but yes as an afterthought.

    I forgive you for hideous visions
    after childbirth, brought on by loss
    of sleep. And when the baby woke
    repeatedly, for your silent rebuke

    in the dark, “What’s your beef?”
    I forgive your letting vines
    overtake the garden. For fearing
    your own propensity to love.

    For losing, again, your bag
    en route from San Francisco;
    for the equally heedless drive back
    on the caffeine-fueled return.

    I forgive you for leaving
    windows open in rain
    and soaking library books
    again. For putting forth

    only revisions of yourself,
    with punctuation worked over,
    instead of the disordered truth,
    I forgive you. For singing mostly

    when the shower drowns your voice. For so admiring
    the drummer you failed to hear
    the drum. In forgotten tin cans,

    may forgiveness gather. Pooling
    in gutters. Gushing from pipes.
    A great steady rain of olives
    from branches, relieved

    of cruelty and petty meanness.
    With it, a flurry of wings, thirteen
    gray pigeons. Ointment reserved
    for healers and prophets. I forgive you.

    I forgive you. For feeling awkward and nervous without reason.
    For bearing Keats’s empty vessel
    with such calm you worried

    you had, perhaps, no moral
    center at all. For treating your mother
    with contempt when she deserved
    compassion. I forgive you. I forgive

    you. I forgive you. For growing
    a capacity for love that is great
    but matched only, perhaps,
    by your loneliness. For being unable

    to forgive yourself first so you
    could then forgive others and
    at last find a way to become
    the love that you want in this world.”

    Brava dear friend.

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