#66: Getting Past the Confidence Sinkhole

Content note: This letter and the response mention suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Hi, I’m a newbie writer who hopes to put out fantasy and science fiction novels. I’m autistic, disabled, and have several overlapping mental illnesses.

I’ve never been able to finish anything, though. The problem is, at some stage in the development process, I always lose confidence in what I’m writing, usually before I put any words down. The advice I always get from other writers is to just push through and fix it later, but this does not work well for me. The harder I push myself to work on a draft I know is worthless, the louder the voice telling me I deserve to be dead gets. Eventually I either give up and throw the manuscript away, or I hurt myself.

What’s wrong with me? Am I just too broken to be a writer?

—Sad (they/them)

Dear Sad,

I’m so sorry you’re feeling this way about yourself and your work, and I’m glad you’re writing in for tailored advice, because the “just push through it” advice very definitely is not right for you and you should not keep trying it. That’s like asking someone with a twisted ankle to just push through the pain and keep running that marathon. Like the person with a twisted ankle, you need to heal before you can tackle a project that size.

On the general topic of healing, I really hope you have access to anything resembling good mental health care. If you can access that care, please do. I’m glad to help as much as I can with the writing-related parts of your question, but when it comes to suicidal thoughts and self-harm, I’m not qualified to offer assistance. I can assure you that you are not too broken to be a writer, and that the world is a better place with you in it and I very much hope you stick around. Please keep reaching out for help the way you reached out to me.

With regard to writing, it sounds like you have a process that isn’t working for you, where you do so much planning that your self-doubt has lots of time to take hold and weigh you down before you’ve got any writing momentum going. That’s not something wrong with you or with your process; it’s a mismatch, like someone putting on a shoe that’s much too large for them. Neither shoe nor foot is flawed. They just aren’t right for each other.

Therefore, I encourage you to consider different processes.

As you describe your current process, it looks like this:

  1. Decide to write a novel.
  2. Do some pre-writing development (I assume this means things like outlining, worldbuilding, and character design).
  3. Lose confidence.
  4. Either continue with the project, which harms you, or throw it away altogether.

That gives us four points where you can try something different.

Some things you could do instead of deciding to write a novel:

  • Set the goal of creating small works. Even if novels are where your heart is, it sounds like you need to build up your strength and find an approach that suits you before you tackle one. (There’s no shame in that. Novels are hard! Very few writers start out by writing books. Working your way up to it is a perfectly reasonable way to go.)
  • Set the goal of creating works that are explicitly for practice, rather than going directly to big projects that you care passionately about. The less emotionally attached you are to the work you’re doing, the less energy you’re feeding into that self-doubt dynamic.
  • Set the goal of only doing development. Make that a win condition! You can team up with a friend if you like: develop characters for someone to play in an RPG, create a world for an artist to draw, and so on. Practice viewing development as an end in itself, rather than as something that isn’t yet a novel and isn’t worth anything if it doesn’t become a novel.
  • Set the goal of writing something other than fiction. Try journaling, poetry, song lyrics, writing letters to friends, blogging, or anything else you like. Maybe you’ll find ways of writing that feel satisfying and don’t trigger your harmful thoughts.
  • Set an emotional goal. Building up a history of positive or neutral writing experiences will help to break the association of writing with trauma and misery, and that in turn will make it easier for you to write, so spend a while thinking less about “How can I make progress on this project?” and more about “How can I work on this project in ways that feel good to me?” You might be surprised to realize that the answer is “Work for three minutes, then stop and distract myself before I can start to feel that creeping self-doubt” or “Only write when I’m in the company of other writers” or “Always use a fountain pen.” And if you’re not sure what would make writing feel good to you, try a few different things and see what works.
  • Don’t set a goal. Just write aimlessly, and see what happens.
  • Choose not to write. I want to be very clear that I’m not telling you not to write, or saying you shouldn’t be a writer. What I am doing is making explicit what is always implicit: writing is a choice, and it’s not a choice you’re obligated to make. When you write, know that you’re choosing to write, and you could also choose not to write. If writing is always harmful no matter how you do it, it’s okay to choose other ways of spending your time that don’t cause you harm.

Some things you could do instead of doing all your pre-writing development at once:

  • Skip the development. If you’re able to do improvised writing, try that—no plotting, no worldbuilding, just drafting from the start. This is definitely one of those places where it’s good to start small; try writing a 100-word drabble or a brief poem or a single paragraph off the cuff.
  • Outsource. Work in an established setting with established characters, or use someone else’s plot. There’s no such thing as wholly original work, so relieve yourself of the burden of making every single world from scratch. If that starts to feel like cheating or an admission of defeat, then think of these partially borrowed works as practice runs for the from-scratch fiction you’ll be writing down the road.
  • Break up the planning. Do worldbuilding and then wait for a few days or a week. Then create some characters and wait some more. Then do an outline and wait some more. Deliberately interrupt your creative momentum to interrupt the parallel drop in confidence.

Some things you can do when you start to lose confidence:

  • Disrupt whatever is going on in that moment. Physically get up and move around if possible. Do something that is not related to writing in any way. Think of this as walking away from someone who’s trying to pick a fight with you.
  • Return to first principles. Something made this particular project feel worth pursuing. Something about it grabbed you emotionally, or intrigued you intellectually, or seemed like good practice for a writing skill you’re trying to build. Whatever that something was, see if you can dig it up again and inhabit that state of mind.
  • Keep a compliments file of kind things that people you respect have said about you or your work. Read through it when you can’t trust your own assessment of your work and need an outside opinion.

Some things you can do instead of either persevering to the point of harm or throwing your work away:

  • Hit the pause button. Label the work you’ve done in some useful way that lets you find it later, and put it someplace safe. You might want to set a reminder for a couple of weeks, or a month, to come back and look at it and maybe write something based on it, if you feel moved to do so. Or pick it up again when you feel inspired to do so in a way that helps to counterbalance the feelings of self-doubt.
  • Write in very small doses. Set a timer for one minute. While the timer is running, it’s writing time, not self-doubting time. Insecure thoughts will have to wait until the timer is up. You’re only asking them to leave you alone for one minute—that’s not long at all. If you can make even a tiny blink of time in which you allow yourself to put words down before the self-doubt comes rushing back in, that’s awesome. Do that for a while, writing for one minute at a time—maybe even only one minute a day—and asking any insecure thoughts that pop up to wait until the timer goes. Once it’s a comfortable practice, see if you can expand it to two minutes, and so on.

At every stage, be gentle with yourself, go slowly, and stay alert for early signs that you’re going to need to take a break. As soon as those harmful thoughts start creeping in, hit the pause button and step away. You cannot harm or shame yourself into being a better writer, or into being a writer at all.

You’re not under any obligation to try any or all of these strategies. Take what works and leave the rest. Whatever you do and however you proceed, know that I’m cheering you on.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

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4 thoughts on “#66: Getting Past the Confidence Sinkhole

  1. Personally, I absolutely get you with the “have a GREAT IDEA! Play with the idea! Wait, no, actually, this is awful,” thing. I have found that usually I give up the story because I get bored with it, there’s not enough there for me to actually do anything with, my mental state has changed so the idea is no longer cathartic, or in my playing I have somehow disrupted a core function of the idea.

    You know what’s cool, though? The ideas come back. I write them down, usually, just chatting about it to myself, scribbling down cryptic sentences in my disorganized, low-pressure, Playtime Story Journal. And then I read back through my journal whenever I have a new idea and then suddenly I have FIVE ideas, all smashed together into a single, delightful one.

    Also, I love NaNoWriMo, because, for me personally, it makes me commit to an idea and write it in a low-pressure venue that could not care less about the quality, and only wants quantity. All of my NaNo drafts are garbage, but I never write books except during NaNo, and I learn something new every time. I don’t necessarily recommend this for you, because it seems like NaNo would stress you out, but I thought I’d mention how I generally solve it.

    I suppose my main advice is to give yourself permission to just play with ideas and words, without trying to force it into a book. A lot of writers talk about how their books spent years brewing in their heads before the writers ever set pen to paper. (I find this simultaneously reassuring and frustrating, because I am 17 and I haven’t had the time for things to percolate and I have very few real-world experiences to draw on. SIGH.)

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  2. Hi Sad,

    Kudos for reaching out and asking for advice – and I really appreciated the advice from StoryNurse and thought it was great. I wanted to respond to you as a published autistic writer with similar brain weasels, so hope something will be helpful too.

    Your letter struck a chord with me – could have written something very similar. I tweaked yours slightly so that it would match my situation. The changed/added parts are bolded.

    I’ve never been able to finish most projects I start, and what I finish, I do not always revise, and what I revise, I do not always send out, and I am not always able to overcome rejection and send rejected pieces out again, even when I know the piece is good. The problem is, at some stage in the development process, I always lose confidence in what I’m writing, usually before I put any words down or after I have invested a lot of time and effort in the project. The advice I always get from other writers is to just push through and fix it later, but this does not work well for me. The harder I push myself to work on a draft I know is worthless [rephrase for me: the more I work on a draft, the more I am likely to feel it is worthless, and if I push myself to work on it], the louder the voice telling me I will never succeed/I am hopeless/I wasted all my chances/need to quit writing gets. Eventually I either give up and throw the manuscript away, or I find a way to finish or repurpose it, or put it away for later.

    What’s wrong with me?
    A. Nothing.

    Rephrase:
    What is going on with me?

    A. You are autistic in a world of NTs who approach writing differently from you and who are convinced that their way/advice is The One True Way OR that it will always work for you as an autistic person. You have absorbed harmful narratives about what it takes to be a writer, and a variety of additional harmful narratives about your selfhood as an autistic person. You are struggling with anxiety, which can be extremely difficult, and you probably have issues with executive function.

    Let me rephrase this for myself: I am autistic in a world of NTs who approach writing differently, I have absorbed harmful narratives about what it takes to be a writer, and a variety of additional harmful narratives about my selfhood as an autistic person. I am struggling with anxiety, PTSD, despair, and executive dysfunction.

    I am also a published writer, and my work was shortlisted and longlisted for multiple awards; I hope this will give you some hope. It’s doable!

    Q. Am I just too broken to be a writer?
    You are not broken, let alone “too broken”. You are just different from NTs, which is not the same as broken. I do not view myself as broken. I struggle, but I am not broken. I am myself. So are you.

    What works for me:

    Radical self-acceptance. I am me. I am myself. Right here. Right now. I am me. No matter what happens, I have myself.

    Radical self-acceptance. It is ok to have all these feelings. It is ok to struggle with them. It is ok to fail. It is ok to give up on projects. It’s ok not to finish.
    It’s ok. It’s ok. It’s ok.

    Radical self-acceptance. Your projects are always with you, even if you deleted them. The ideas will come again. The characters you invented, the words you managed to put down, the plots you think about are worth so much. They are the building you as a writer. You probably cannot see or accept that that yet. It’s ok. You are working. Even if you are giving up, you are working.

    You are thinking about it. You are reaching out for advice. You are acquiring experience. You are growing. These things are so important.

    Positive things that helped me: varied projects, lots of very short projects I could do in one sitting, writing of many kinds (poetry, prose, prose poetry, essays, website content, doodles, drawings, podcasts). Coloring in squares for project progress, I love coloring squares and it is great. Finding a community, and especially an autistic community. Letting myself be, just letting myself be. Patreon. Friends who get me. Ultimately, not wanting to let go and believing that I have important things to say.

    Best of luck!!!

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  3. That advice about setting a timer for a self-doubt-free minute reminded me of something I used to do whenever I was having trouble with perfectionism and judgement and self-criticism: I would take a piece of paper (or a fresh page from my sketchbook, since most of my story development was done there or in a journal of some sort) and draw a little warding circle or square around the edges of it. I’d make it fun to draw, put flowers on the inside line and arm it with spikes on the outside line. This was the no criticism fence/box/zone, and anything I wrote or drew inside of it was free from judgement and doubt, and if I started thinking like that about it, I would just remind myself of the barbed wire or crocodile-filled moat on the outside of that little square keeping the thoughts out, and tried my best to forget about them.

    Nowadays I don’t have to do this so much, but it was a life-saver when I was really struggling. Maybe if LW is a more visually-minded person like me, or tends to write on paper, this could help? Or maybe it could be adapted in another way somehow, just expanding on the theme of a no self-doubt zone.

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