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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.