I recently moved from a home on the outskirts of Seattle to a very small town in a rural area, six hours away. Gearing up for selling our old house, buying our new house, and then moving took up most of last year. The year prior to that, I had a different set of challenges. I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, fortunately in early stages, and it had taken up a good chunk of the year getting things like surgery and radiation handled. Both years meant taking a hit on my writing and my coaching work.
Over the course of all of this, my mojo went missing. My writing was definitely a step off. Hell, my whole life was a few bubbles off plumb.
I was having a crisis of confidence.
I was missing my faith.
If there’s one key component in a writer’s toolbox, it’s faith. Faith is the invisible fuel that propels us forward in the face of critique and rejection. It’s the scaffolding that keeps us from collapsing when we see systematic injustice. It’s the rope that we cling to when we’re trapped in a blinding blizzard of doubt, convinced that our writing is wretched and we should abandon all hope and pursue something more stable, like running a three-card-monte game.
Faith is elusive, and by its very nature, illogical. You can’t learn faith. You can’t study it or buy it. You either have it, or you don’t.
So what do you do when you lose faith in your writing, and yourself?
This is something I’ve wrestled with for two years. More than that, actually, but in the past two years I’ve felt it most acutely.
One of my favorite sayings is: “Whenever God closes one door, He opens another. But man, those hallways are a bitch.”
Sometimes, you’re in the hallway. It will seem like you’re sentenced to live there forever, like you’re going to be stuck in darkness, feeling blindly along walls, with all exits locked against you.
There are going to be times when you just don’t have it in you. For some people, this is due to outside circumstances, like illness or bankruptcy or bad break-ups. For others, it’s the internal environment: mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar.
A lot of good, well-intentioned people are going to tell you that it isn’t that bad (or that it could be worse), that they believe in you, and that you’ll get through it.
They’re not wrong, necessarily. But it won’t be easy to hear, either. And there will be times when it won’t help. You’ll still feel the sting and the overwhelm and the despair. You’ll still feel lost.
My best advice is: try not to make it worse by feeling that you have to feel better. That’s just adding insult to injury. No one needs that.
On the other hand, don’t isolate yourself from these people who love you, even if you can’t accept what they’re saying just yet. (Unless they’re trying to pressure or guilt you. Like the doctor says: if it hurts, don’t do it.)
I’ve learned that you can’t force faith. If you’re not feeling it, you’re not feeling it – and if you try and believe that you’ve got faith that you don’t have, it creates what’s known as cognitive dissonance. You experience psychological stress because you’re holding two contradictory beliefs in place… for example, “I am confident in my writing” vs. “my writing sucks a big bag of rocks.” You know you’re lying to yourself, one way or another – and it freaks you out.
That said, I have another favorite saying. “You can’t think your way to right action, but you can act your way to right thinking.”
The basic theory behind this aphorism is, you can’t logic yourself into a better frame of mind. If you could, you’d have done it by now. But you can reverse engineer your mental state, reprogram it as it were, by doing the physical actions, following the routines, and slowly but surely getting yourself out of the damned hallway.
For writers in general, and for me specifically, that means writing.
Yes, you’ll take breaks. We’re not machines. You’ll take hiatuses to recharge, and you’ll focus on self-care. But getting into the routine of writing, getting support structures in place so you continually write no matter what your emotional state, will help you weather the worst of the turbulence.
Even better, these routines will help you when further crises strike – and strike they will. It’s the nature of the beast and the nature of the business, the nature of life itself. Working on strengthening your faith and your sense of self is important, don’t get me wrong. But for those times when you don’t have the energy or the reserves to believe, you’ll have an ace in your pocket. Muscle memory. Practice long enough, and you’ll be able to keep moving even when your heart has given up hope.
Best of all, you can set up routines that don’t need a great deal of confidence.
You’re not trying to write the great American novel – you’re just writing two sentences.
You’re not trying to get a multi-million-dollar world rights deal. You’re just sending out one query letter.
You’re not trying to become the next Hugh Howey of the self-pub world. You’re just going to try formatting a single ebook.
You’re going to look at the next simplest physical action, and do that, mindfully, with no thought to future consequences. When you’re paralyzed by what might happen if you make the wrong decision, this will help loosen the chokehold of anxiety.
It’s not as good as confidence, admittedly. But it beats the hell out of despair.
I’ve been in the hallway for two years. I’ve been there before, and I know I’ll be there again. But at least now I know it’s a way station, not a life sentence. And I know that, with the help of some friends and some physical actions, I can make it a little easier on myself… and finally open that door on the other side.
Have you experienced a crisis of confidence in your writing? What have you done to get yourself out of a slump?