Story Hospital

#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:

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

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

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

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.


Story Nurse

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