The doubt doldrums

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The doubt doldrums don’t appear on any map.  They are a state of mind rather than a place.  But as the geographical doldrums can stop a ship in mid-sail, so the doubt doldrums can cause creativity to come to a standstill.  Down in the doubt doldrums, my writing is never as good as I thought it was.  My paintings are a waste of paint.  There seems little point in creating at all.  This is a perilous state of despair and stagnation, in which it would be easy to give up.

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Doubt is an inevitable part of a creative life.  Just as fallow periods and creative maelstroms occasionally punctuate our typical creative routines, doubt always haunts us in one form or another.  And it can be difficult to be objective.  There are no performance appraisals when you’re a writer.  There are no reliable, neutral measures of how good your work really is.  And because creativity comes from a deep part of our selves, if we feel we’re not doing well, it’s personal.

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Generally, I can keep doubt at bay, but when I fall into the doubt doldrums, as I have recently, it can be difficult to get out again.  I have learned that now is not the time to do anything rash.  This is not the time to delete anything or decide on a complete change of direction.  I think the first step in combating the doubt doldrums is not to act, but to experience it for what it is.

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I find that it helps to begin with a wallow.  Preferably in bed, in a darkened room.  I may not be writing, but I can use my writer’s imagination to picture every detail of how terrible life could be.  This might encompass the whole spectrum from my writing being no good to my demise as a lonely, crotchety recluse whose death won’t be noticed until my dog has eaten me.  This part of the process is important, because I have to really feel how bad things could get.  And if I’m honest, when I’m in the doubt doldrums, there’s a small, melodramatic part of my personality that actually enjoys wallowing like this.

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But wallowing is a two-part process.  Now that I’ve imagined just how badly things could turn out, I have to dream things better.  So this time I’m a Pulitzer prize-winning, best-selling novelist, spending every day doing what I love to do.  Both of these types of wallowing have something in common – they’re a form of escape.  Intellectually, I know that things will most likely never be as bad as I imagine, nor as good.  But by giving in to doubt or giving in to hope, I don’t have to face the actual reality and fight myself out of it.

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It’s easy to withdraw from the world when I’m in the doubt doldrums.  But I’ve had my wallow, so now its time to engage.  I’ll go for a walk, somewhere I don’t have to speak to anyone or do anything but walk.  This journey isn’t to find inspiration (although I may find some on the way).  It’s to clear my head, get away from my normal life and to find something, anything, in which I can experience joy.  This time it’s daffodils.  Everywhere I look, there are more of them, bountiful and bright.  How can I fail to feel my spirit lift when faced with that joyful yellow mass?

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Although we all feel doubt, when we’re in the midst of it, it feels as though we’re on our own.  But now I have a worldwide writing community, so I know I’m not alone.  Without consciously doing it, I begin to think of all the times my fellow writers have expressed doubts and how they have combatted them.   I remember that Gemma Hawdon suggested that we can use our lows as a time to be our best judge.  That despite all of her successes, Kourtney Heinz still has to tackle self-doubt.  I remember Silk Questo’s recent thoughts on finding your way as a writer when you become overwhelmed about the future of publishing.  And the recent comments conversation I had with Sandra Danby in which she recounted a story about how the author Maggie O’Farell was still noting revisions to her published novel at a reading.

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Ultimately, I find the best way to get out of the doubt doldrums is to be contrary.  To write even though I think my writing is useless.  To paint when every stroke that goes on the canvas seems to jar.  To submit stories to competitions, because I have nothing to lose and by the time I hear anything, the doldrums will be far behind me.

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I’ve been stuck in the doubt doldrums for two weeks or so.  But I’ve wallowed, I’ve walked, I’ve felt the supporting words of my fellow bloggers and I’ve written my way to the other side.  I’m in motion once more.

77 thoughts on “The doubt doldrums

  1. Wouldn’t it be nice if the doubt doldrums appeared on a map or on our calendar…then we could be prepared. But they don’t, they slap us upside the head when we aren’t expecting it…so cruel.
    My favorite way to wallow is with my Kindle. Reading good writing always gets me back on track and wipes away the doubt.
    Thank you for sharing your beautiful photos, Andrea, the last one in particular warmed my heart.

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  2. I think it’s great that you understand your own process so well. So there’s no need to panic, just allow yourself a little wallow time and keep going. I also believe one of the greatest lifters when we’re in a ‘doubt doldrum’ (love that) is to draw inspiration from other things – books, movies, those things in life you love. I often take myself off to a movie mid-day when I’m low. I usually come out feeling fresh and inspired. Great post, and thanks for the ping back 😉

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    • I understand the process, but it doesn’t make it any easier when it happens – it’s a miserable period of time, but yes, it’s great to get inspiration from elsewhere – as long as you can avoid comparing yourself – not a good time to do that! 🙂

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  3. Sorry you stumbled into the doubt doldrums, but I’m happy you’re finding your way out again. Every writer experiences self-doubt. I’m sure even the bigwigs do. But as you point out, the best way to combat it is to keep writing. Some days are good, some not so good, but at least we can improve upon what we’ve written. We can’t improve upon a blank page. 🙂

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  4. I’ve heard two quotes about doubt doldrums, Andrea, and both were from writers who wrote some beautiful but unpublished stories.
    Both quotes also apply to painters, music composers, sculptors, performers… everyone is the process of “creating.” Here they are:
    1) “Doubt is its own worst agony. If it sinks you too deep you either drown in the muck or cut off your ear. Neither is worth it.” 😉
    2) “Today’s sadness and inertia from doubt can actually be the nudge telling you to step back, take a breath and a nap, and believe that tomorrow your idea will be rested and ready to shine.”

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  5. Ah Andrea – you speak so eloquently for us all. I’m sure we have all experienced the doldrums – it’s at times like those I feel like throwing the laptop in the river and taking up carpet bowls. We do get through it and I think your way of imagining the worst and then the best is a pretty good way to find your own creative spark again.
    If it makes you feel better – I had great plans recently to submit a story to a competition but it needed a bit of re-working to get down to the required word count. I faffed around, ran out of time and missed the deadline.
    But be in no doubt – you can and do write beautifully – even this post!

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    • Thanks for your words of encouragement Jenny – but is it ever so bad that you need to take up carpet bowls? 🙂 Sorry you missed the deadline for that competition – it was obviously meant for different things – find another competition and get it submitted!

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  6. Self doubt is probably the worst part about being a writer. Walks always help – either that or working on another project or looking back over older stories. Sometimes I’ll be surprised when I end up liking some of the older stuff. So much depends on our mood at the time and sometimes it’s better to wait for that mood to pass (or else there’s that danger of deleting or burning everything)! But then the mood will change for no reason at all and you’ll start loving it all again. So don’t let that dog eat you! 🙂

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    • Thanks Sheila. Walks always do help, whatever there is to see on the way. And yes, now my mood has changed I’m liking stuff I thought I had a problem with – there’s a lot to be said for a little time and distance.

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  7. I guess it’s a necessary part of being a creative person Andrea. When a writer has doubts I always bring to mind the tortured painter destroying his not-quite-perfect masterpiece before hiding in a corner with a bottle of whisky for a week :-). A cold-call salesman knows he will only get one sale out of 20 calls, so the 19 failures go over his head. A runner will only have a very good run once in 5, so he/she treats the 4 as part of the process. Inevitably you’ll recover and start firing again before long. As Jenny ^^ says this post is proof of your talent.

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    • Thank you Roy! You’re right, it is inevitable and though it doesn’t help when you’re down in those doldrums, you know it will pass just as inevitably as it began. Some great thoughts about the failures just being part of the process of success.

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  8. One of my favorite fantasies is the pulitzer prize winning, best-selling novelist one. We share that in common! (I’m actually, finally, working seriously on a novel for publication now. I’ve written two previously, and feel like I’ve gotten the kinks out of my process. Now the process is fun!)

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  9. The present short story I’m sharing on my blog … I hated it when it was finished. I’m lucky enough to have a local writer’s group to help support me and point out where my writing could use some revising. I rewrote and edited areas until I felt satisfied. Sometimes, like you said, you have to push yourself onward even if you think what you’re doing is worthless. Just get it on “paper” the “screen” or whatever. Once it’s completed, there is always the chance to mold it and hone it. Here’s wishing you onward movement from your wallows. May you be blessed with an uplifted spirit from here on out.

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    • Thank you for that Lori. On another day, those stories seemed fine, but it does show the effect mood can have on your thoughts of yourself as a writer. That’s why I decided to submit them anyway – and who knows what will become of them!

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  10. Please excuse me for being the comic relief, but have you ever seen Shakespeare in Love? Do you remember the quip about “just adding a bit with a dog” to always grab the audience? Well, you never know what will catch a reader’s attention. Your single, humorous line about dying alone with no one but the dog to take notice brought a smile to my face and a laugh from the pit of my stomach after a long day’s work (with dogs, incidentally!) . So thank you! Don’t ever doubt that your words touch others…even the ones you wouldn’t expect! 🙂

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  11. “I’ve wallowed, I’ve walked…” wise words. I wallow and then through the writing process, I write, until I find the meaning or the joy in the situation. It’s always there, that silver lining. Sometimes, I have to mine for it!

    Thank you for your inspirational article and for the reminder to pause and reflect then to go out and discover the beauty in the world, character, or situation.

    Your self doubts~ be gone! You are a beautiful writer!
    x

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  12. I know the doubt doldrums well. I tend toward depression, so I have to be very careful about engaging too much with my doubt. Some of my best forms of fighting doubt are to write anyway, to keep busy, or to veg out with a favorite feel-good, inspirational movie. Books are good too for that, but they take too long to get to the feel-good part, so that’s why I choose a movie for a quick pick-me-up. 🙂

    However, I do find it helpful to recognize and address the doubt, just like you say. Pretending it’s not there can hurt us in the sense that when we do get a win, it doesn’t feel as much of an accomplishment.

    I hope that you get through your doldrums soon.

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    • Thank you! I tend that way too, so the doldrums tend to get me to a place where nothing is right with my world, not only the writing. I think that’s why the wallow helps, because then I can feel completely miserable and sorry for myself but know that once that’s done, it’s time to move on. An inspirational movie is always good, especially if you can have a good cry as well to get the tension out 🙂

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  13. Andrea, we seem to be cycling together on this round of doubt doldrums! Sometimes it seems my doubts kick in after I’ve had a run of positive thinking—as if I shouldn’t be positive because that might tempt Fate to knock me down a rung or two.

    So I’ve been battling with my self-doubt, which has been whispering that if the original versions of my stories weren’t good when I thought they were, why do I think the rebuilds will be any better?

    Like you, I know not to delete any files or make any drastic changes to the stories at times like this. And I try to keep writing, even if only a few words make it onto the page. And if Winter will ever give way to Spring, I’ll enjoy those long walks filled with blooming bulbs and trees, too.

    I’m glad to hear your mood is shifting, and I hope your Spring will be a positive one for your creativity.

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    • Yes, I was feeling very positive after our visit to the forest – raring to get going in fact, so it was a bit of a crash to hit the doldrums only a few days later – best laid plans…I think distance helps as well. My novel kept nagging me to make changes to it again before I started submitting, but when I read the parts I was concerned about, I was pleasantly surprised by them (needless to say, I didn’t read them while in the doldrums), so I think while sometimes those nagging doubts are telling us something valid, they can just as easily fool us. A whole raft of your readers, including me, can vouch that you are a good writer with some great stories to tell!

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  14. As with all doldrums, the trick is keeping the mind active on other things. Walking is a big, big creativity booster. So is music. Not a day goes by that I don’t listen to some song on my iPod. Also, photography, which I love on your site, btw, helps with opening the mind up to new ideas. Even sleep helps, I find!

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    • I did spend an afternoon in bed wallowing! But yes, walking always seems to do the trick. I don’t listen to enough music – I have playlists aplenty but I really should spend more time listening to music.

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  15. Oh Andrea, I’m finally getting over to you and yes, I do see your beautiful daffodils! Nothing like a walk and communion with nature to help clear the cobwebs away, just a little anyway. I was so heartened to read at the end that you are ready to get in motion again and that reading other blogs has helped to lift you up. I know just how it is, we all do as writers, must be something in our psyche and what makes us writers/artists/musicians etc. Beautiful post, writing and photos,you have it in you with your writing and your art. Maybe your recent rest was what you needed and now you can move ahead in your refreshment – and in the sight of your daffodils 🙂

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    • Thank you Sherri – I don’t have a circle of physical writers for support, so it does make all the difference being able to share with other bloggers – though even if I did have a writing group, I’d never have met so many diverse people writing such diverse things across the world. I’ve read so many posts this year that have described a flat start to the year, but I also read so many that are uplifting and give me a new perspective.

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      • I’m the same Andrea, I don’t have a writing circle, never have had, and so having this blogging community for the mutual support and interaction is invaluable. I’m so glad that in this way you were able to find the new perspective and uplift that you needed 🙂

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  16. As long as you believe that writing is partly inspiration and partly hard graft, then even when you’re fed up with something you’ve created, you can say to yourself “I can improve on that and become a great writer, by rolling up my sleeves and getting on with it”. …Well, that’s how I look at it anyway. But yes, those doldrums are unpleasant when they strike, often out of the blue and often when one is tired.

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    • Yes, they did settle in when I went back to work after a break and had so many other things to deal with. Writing then becomes one more area for doubt, but you’re right, just getting on with it and working through it gets you to the other side.

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  17. I like what you say about how there’s a part of you that enjoys what you call “wallowing” — I notice personally that, if I’m feeling sad or lonely or something along those lines, if I focus my attention on the physical sensation I’m feeling (which is usually in my stomach) there is a sweet quality to it, which changes my relationship to the feeling.

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    • I tend to feel emotions in my stomach too. It’s surprising how much opposite emotions can feel the same physically – I was once feeling very anxious about something so started to write down how I felt and realised how very similar excitement and anxiety feel if you consider them purely on a physical level.

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  18. It’s all part of the creative process, isn’t it Andrea? The ups and downs, like waves or cycles that move through us.. You just have to sit it out, I guess and some very good suggestions were already given in the other comments; set your mind to something completely different but the ‘keep on writing anyway’ also makes sense.
    I so much understand your statement that because “creativity comes from a deep part of our selves, if we feel we’re not doing well, it’s personal.” and nobody will turn your mind about that when you’re in this mood.
    So glad you’re already doing better. No doubt at all this was a top post Andrea! I always learn from you. Gorgeous pictures! Keep them coming! xx

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  19. Oh how well I recognise the doldrums which you describe so eloquently, and with such wonderful photos! Have just emerged dripping from a bit of a black pit myself, actually. Yesterday I finally made myself go and sit at my desk, open my journal at a blank page….and nothing. So I picked up a magazine and read, giving in to unproductivity, only to discover that this half hour of idle reading was exactly what my mind needed for refreshment. By evening I was firing on several cylinders again.

    I make it sound easy, but I was just lucky that time. It is very reassuring and rather comforting to hear how many other people go through the same moods. We can help each other through the mire. 🙂

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    • Thank you for your kind words. Yes, although I don’t wish the doubt doldrums on anyone, it’s good to know that others feel the same way so that we know we’re not alone. I’ve made my way out now, fortunately and I think remembering that they will pass is another way to get through them.

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  20. Oh my, girlfriend. I can understand your doldrums and doubt. I just went through that myself a couple of weeks ago. Not fun, but there is value in it in that it helps us to slow down a bit and take account of our lives and feel whether we’re where we need to be right now.

    Take care, it doesn’t last forever and you’ll come out on the other side (sounds like you already have). There are new rainbows to see and new horizons to set your sites on. 🙂

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    • It’s surprising (or maybe it shouldn’t be) how many of us have these particularly bad periods of self-doubt and it does help to see them as a necessary passage that we need to pass through to come out feeling more inspired on the other side.

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      • I know, Andrea. It does seem surprising when we’re the ones going through it. At least, we can take comfort we’re not alone and is only temporary.

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  21. Thanks for the shout out here Andrea. I love the term “doubt doldrums” because that’s exactly how it feels. I have been known to take to my bed and engage in the lowest wallowing. I think you have to. Or at least I have to so I can hit bottom and climb back up again. 🙂 So glad you know you are not alone and are being contrarian. 🙂

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    • You’re welcome – it’s good for me and others to look at someone like you who has been instrumental in their own success and realise that you too have those periods of self-doubt (though I don’t wish them on you!) 🙂

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      • Aw thank you! I wouldn’t wish them on anyone, but it is reassuring to know we all get them. 🙂 I recently had a bout where I began fretting over the use of “but” in my manuscript. It was a stupid trivial thing but I almost convinced myself the merit of the manuscript rested on me removing more buts from my sentences. I can laugh now but last week it was a serious problem. 😉

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  22. You did some amazing and epic reading at my site yesterday. I thank you very much for your time and desire to learn about the subject. I hope you felt it was worth the effort.

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    • You’re welcome! I started following you somewhere towards the end of your original series about your dad, so had it in mind that I’d go and start from the beginning at some point – knowing nothing, I have to say, about the subject. Really enjoyed following ‘Smitty’s’ story and I think it’s wonderful both that you have those stories to draw on and that you’ve invested the time in putting them online. I will drop in from time to time to continue reading! It hasn’t escaped my notice either that you’ve been reading some of my past posts, so thank you too!

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      • I enjoy peeking into other people’s archives. What were they thinking a year ago? etc. I find some really great posts that way too!

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  23. You are very eloquent and wise, friend. Your photos are powerful in their ability to uplift the viewer, and I love the term doubt doldrums, so apt. Thanks for this, and for the likes.

    Fondly,
    Elizabeth

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  24. Andrea I love this post because it resonates with so many in anything we do. Self doubt can destroy dreams and stop people from ever having a go. When I feel one sitting on my shoulder and whispering in my ear. I flick it off and like you keep writing and illustrating even when it feel stiff. Thanks for a great post to keep me plodding along.

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  25. Glad you’ve worked your way through the doubts, Andrea. We all get them and sometimes they are paralysing. They stay with you too – you get an agent and worry they won’t be able to sell your book, then you get a publisher and worry that you’re not up to the job of doing the edits well enough, then the book comes out and you worry about reviews, whether your friends like it, writing the next book. So you are far from alone in feeling this way! I find escaping into the writing itself helps a lot – forget about all those outside fears and pressures and just lose yourself in the world of your story.

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  26. I don’t know what it is about this time of year that brings self-doubt to so many of us writers. Early spring is supposed to be a time of renewal, not stagnation. Weird, isn’t it? I too have been ‘stuck in the muck’ for a while now, trying to keep the demons at bay. I also know from having been at this for a few years now that the doldrums always pass. Life isn’t lived in a straight line (how boring that would be), and neither is writing. We have to constantly maneuver our way around curves and dead-ends until we get to ‘The End’. That is the creative process. Glad to hear you are winning the battle!

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    • Reading all of the blogs I do, it seems this spring has been a time of stagnation for many of us – I think for me, the lack of a winter had a strange effect, while for others, particularly in the US, the lengthy snow has had the same result. But spring is now glorious here and the energy is finally moving.

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  27. What doubt doldrums? TOTALLY kidding, of course. Doubt is something we must endure throughout the creative process…before, during, and after. I love your advice not to do anything rash when doubt consumes us. I absolutely agree. Rather than tossing our WIP in the garbage, it is crucial to step away. Yoga or a long hike are my spirit boosters when the doubt doldrums come about.

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    • I started doing Yoga during a difficult time in my life (very simple Yoga, I should say!) and I found it calmed and energised me to do it each morning. I particularly love Warrior 2 – makes me feel stronnngggg!

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  28. Pingback: Writers’ doubt and how to live with it | Waiting to write

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  32. Love your insights and writing. Your deliberate excavation of your process linked to the natural world and her seasons. Your writing reminds me of ‘Hawk’ a book I’ve recently enjoyed.

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