Dancing with the Self-Doubt Demons

I posted once on my other blog about Impostor Syndrome, and brought an anecdote that demonstrates the severity of my case.

It happened while I was reviewing a bio which was going to accompany a poem I wrote for Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression & Empowerment of Women. The editors of the book found a publisher a few years after my poem was initially accepted, and they sent out the proof of the manuscript for us to make sure that everything was still correct and accurate. My bio started with, “Daniella Levy is a writer, poet, translator, and self defense instructor…” And my first thought when I looked at it was, “Poet…? Really? Can I call myself that? Just because I write poetry occasionally… and performed a spoken word poem once for a small audience… I dunno, does that qualify me?”

…And then it hit me that the bio in question was for a poem.

That I wrote.

That was going to be published.

In a book.

HELLO.

Of course, I have since learned that you don’t need to be published to be a poet. You don’t even have to be a good poet, by any standard. All you have to do to be a poet is write poetry.

But I have this deeply ingrained perception that continues to torture me as my career moves forward: that there is this invisible line drawn across the universe that separates the Real Artists™ from the riffraff. And the riffraff are never aware that they are riffraff. They think they are Real Artists™ who are merely misunderstood or underappreciated by The Establishment™. So they flood the “indie” industries with their mediocrity and make it that much harder to find the Real Artists™ who really are misunderstood or underappreciated or otherwise chose an alternate route to showcase their work.

And one of the major downsides of harboring such an obnoxiously arrogant worldview is that I live in fear that I am, and always will be, in the riffraff section.

Consider the following. My short story, The Olive Harvest, was published last week in Reckoning, a new literary journal for creative writing on environmental justice. This is the first time I was paid for a piece of fiction (handsomely, too), and other than Veils, Halos & Shackles, my first publication of any sort on a platform that is not specifically Jewish or Israeli. This is, objectively, an admirable accomplishment–a step higher on the ladder I’ve been steadily climbing since I published Letters to Josepand recognition from The Establishment™ that what I am writing is Real Literature™.

And yet. A couple days before publication the editor sent out the proof for contributors to look over. And you wouldn’t believe the ridiculous things my self-doubt demons started screaming at me. Your picture looks dumb! Your bio is too long! Your story isn’t all that great! It looks pathetic next to the other stories! And your bio looks pitiful next to the bios of these other highly acclaimed/generally superior writers! Or alternately–maybe this is a second-rate magazine and all the pieces in it are meh and so is yours! Your message doesn’t fit the theme of the magazine perfectly! The editor is clearly insane to have included you! Not good enough not good enough not good enough who do you think you are blah blah blah blah blah

(I sincerely apologize on behalf of my self-doubt demons, Mr. DeLuca. They are unspeakably rude and have extremely poor judgement.)

Seriously, it’s amazing. I could win the godd**n Nobel Prize for Literature and they’d be like “Clearly the committee had a terrible selection this year.” “Yeah, but they gave the same prize to Bob Dylan. And um hello Yasser Arafat. The Nobel Prize committee obviously has no idea what it’s doing.” “BUT I STILL DON’T HAVE AN ACADEMIC DEGREE SO WHAT DOES ANYTHING MATTER?”

*headdesk*

The only way to navigate this is to recognize that those demons are not speaking Truth, they are speaking Fear. They are trying to protect me, from disappointment, from external criticism, and to some degree–ironically–from shame. Self-doubt and self-criticism are part of a mechanism for inoculating oneself against making mistakes and taking unnecessary risks. This is not always bad; a little self-doubt makes you cautious and humble. A lot of self-doubt, however, can be crippling, because HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO EVER GET ANYTHING DONE WITH ALL THIS NOISE IN MY HEAD?

It occurred to me recently that I have a reward system in place for my failures, and that serves me very well… but I don’t have a system for acknowledging and recognizing my accomplishments. I mean, back when I developed my “rejection chocolate system” I guess it hadn’t even occurred to me that I’d need a reward system for acceptance letters or contract signings. Getting an acceptance is its own reward, isn’t it? I imagined getting The Call from an agent or publisher, squealing and jumping up and down with excitement, crying for joy, and shouting from the rooftops!

In reality, when I got the phone call from my publisher at Kasva Press informing me that they’d like to publish An Ancient Whisper, I was in total shock. Like, staring-blankly-at-the-wall I-cannot-digest-the-concept-that-this-is-happening-in-actual-reality shock. And the emotion I felt most strongly was not joy–it was fear, of all things. The demons were saying: What if this isn’t real? What if this is like that time I was offered a contract by an “agent” who turned out to be a fraud? (This happened very early on, when I was a naive teenager, and thankfully my parents were suspicious when the “agent” asked for $250 up front. It was the worst let-down ever.) I knew that this was different, but I was afraid to let myself celebrate. I was terrified to believe it was true.

My husband, God bless him, took one look at my face and fixed me a stiff drink.

So then I told myself that I’d feel better once we had it on paper. But after we signed the contract, my primary emotion was, once again, anxiety. What if we missed something? What if this is all a terrible idea? What if the publisher invests a ton of money and time in this book and people hate it and it doesn’t sell? What if people write nasty reviews? What if what if what if

It. Never. Ends.

And I think that, paradoxically, is the key to dealing with these critical and fearful voices. Recognizing that it doesn’t end. They will always find something to say.

So… you can do what I do, and externalize them as “self-doubt demons,” who you can write letters to, dialogue with, and laugh at. But if you do this, don’t forget–they are still a part of you, a part of you that is trying to protect you. So don’t be too harsh on them. Be the responsible adult. Let them have their say and then, when they’ve calmed down, do the brave thing anyway.

And as for the riffraff section: it’s like I wrote in my previous post. “Not being great doesn’t make me unworthy. It doesn’t mean my work shouldn’t be shared and enjoyed by other people.” You don’t have to be a Great Artist™ for your work to be worth sharing. Some people are going to love it. Some people are going to hate it. Whether it complies with some stuffy academic standard of excellence is not what’s important. What’s important is that you are genuine about who you are and what you’re doing, and that you keep seeking the audience that connects with your work, because it changes their lives for the better and makes them feel less alone.

That is what matters.

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3 thoughts on “Dancing with the Self-Doubt Demons

  1. I once expressed similar feelings with my therapist and she led me down a path of expressing every single fearful and self-doubting statement in my head — I am subpar, I am a charlatan, I am mediocre, I am nothing, I am delusional — and after each statement, we said “what if that’s true?” and answered that question. And ultimately I became so small and insignificant that I was a grain of sand. And I realized it felt glorious to be a grain of sand. So warm and soft and silent at the edge of the sea, smelling like salt, needing to fill no responsibility or expectation whatsoever. It was an incredibly beautiful, empowering exercise.

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