“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”
– Vincent Van Gogh
Ever feel like you’re being watched?
Perhaps you’re trying to crack on with that novel. Or maybe you’re perched on a bench, trying to capture the landscape in front of you in sweeping lines of charcoal. Maybe you’re trying to compose a song, or whip up a new dish in the kitchen.
But there’s someone, or something, breathing down your neck. And it’s sniggering.
When we try to revert to our playful, childlike state of mind in order to be creative, there’s all too often the eyes of an imagined adult audience upon us, and a voice that permeates our thoughts like smoke. Do any of the following sound familiar when trying to work on a creative project?
- “Why are you bothering? Toni Morrison / Stephen King / Vincent Van Gogh / Nigella Lawson already did it so much better.”
- “It’s a waste of time. It’s terrible. I don’t know why you make the effort.”
- “People will hate it. You will be a laughing stock.”
- “Why are you still doing this? You haven’t got talent; you should have realised ages ago.”
The voice may sound like it’s coming from outside of you, but listen closer and you’ll realise: that voice sounds exactly like yours.
Say hello self-doubt, your old (toxic) friend.
“It’s For Your Own Good”
Self-doubt will make you feel like there is no point to what you are doing. It holds such a power, that a few words can make your words or paints dry up quicker than drop of rain splashed onto the searing sands of the Sahara.
The smart thing about self-doubt is that it will make you feel as though it’s protecting you. Saving you from ridicule. Saving you your precious time.
So, all too soon, the notebook page is torn out in fury and tossed into the wastepaper basket, and another canvas is stuffed behind the easel, never to be worked on again. You instead go and do something that looks more ‘sensible’ and ‘adult’ in the eyes of others; you join a gym, or open a bottle of wine to watch another mind-numbing Netflix reality show.
At least no one will be laughing at your work.
“I’ve Just Always Felt Like This”
As children, we often will have experienced interactions with adults who belittled our ideas or dismissed them as childish folly. Perhaps your big ideas for stories were passed off as “a wild imagination”, something you’ll “grow out of eventually”. Your plans to follow a writing career may have been frowned upon by your parents and brushed off by the careers advisor who slid a few leaflets across the desk on a teaching career instead. Something sensible.
And so, after years of being told creative pursuits are “not real jobs”, or people telling you that your work and/or ideas are purely the result of a wild imagination, its unsurprising that you may now have become accustomed to hearing their laughter every time you try to create. Self-doubt is your get-out-of-jail card to save you from the ridicule you have now been conditioned to both fear and expect.
The Curse of Comparisonitis
Ever feel like everyone else is doing it better? With every inevitable rejection, longlist you didn’t make, or book that blew you away, there’s a part of you screaming, “See? This is exactly why you shouldn’t bother! There are already people doing it so much better than you!”
As writers, we’re often told to read as much as possible to hone our craft. Yet, as valid and effective as this advice is, I can’t help but feel a sharp stab of jealousy when a phenomenal poetry collection opens out in my palms; the words weaving a magic I could never conjure, and the images beyond anything I could ever dream of.
And so I will put the book aside, along with my pen, and go find something else to do. Work. Run. Go to the pub with friends. Suggest a game of Uno to the cat (who will undoubtedly decline with a puff of her tail: 1. Because she is boring, 2. Because she’s a bloody cat).
I’ll do anything at all but write.
It Doesn’t Discriminate
Contrary to what self-doubt will have us believe when it shrinks us and makes us feel like the tiniest person on earth, it’s all too easy to forget that beyond the big names on the shelves of Waterstones, so many of these writers are so often plagued with the same fears.
Just read any of the diaries/letters of some of the established literary greats, and you’ll soon realise that self-doubt is not merely reserved for those just starting out (Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, for example, both describe anxieties around their own writing abilities despite the wide literary acclaim they now receive. Was their writing simply the result of “childish imagination”? Should they have written like anyone else? The answer, almost certainly, is no).
No matter how well your work sells, and no matter how many people say they love it, there will always be someone you believe to be better than you. There will always be the feeling of being an imposter. And there will always be that certainty that you could do better.
Overcoming the Voices
So how do you silence the voice that says you can’t write, or draw, or dance, or create anything?
I’m no expert at this, and I’m still hounded by self-doubt too, but now that I know where it’s coming from and can recognise when it’s happening, I can take action against it as best I can. Try some of the following; they’re generally my go-to strategies for fighting the negativity:
1. Find Your Tribe
When you’re filled with doubt and negativity, the worst thing you can do is to give that voice power by letting it torment you alone all day as you let your thoughts run riot. This is where a support network can help. Set up a monthly coffee group with friends who have similar interests and talk over your concerns. Practice your art together. Reassure, lift, and find inspiration in each other. I’m grateful to have a group of fellow poets I meet with regularly, as well as friends I can message any time I’m not coping well mentally.
Just hearing a supportive voice that comes from a real person and not an imagined audience can be the best thing to weaken that vicious little voice of self-doubt that will tear you up as long as you give it your time and headspace.
2. Take a Break
Sometimes we put far too much pressure on ourselves to continually create. But creativity doesn’t work like that. We expect our muse to snap into our lives at the click of our fingers; that any time spent not writing must simply be a waste. We believe our ability to write has left us forever.
But it’s all too easy to forget that living is a part of writing too. Without giving yourself permission to become immersed in rich experiences and give yourself fully to the unexpected twists and turns that inspire us to write, the muse will have no reason to appear.
Your muse is like the Cheshire Cat in a way; far more likely to be grinning from the twisted trees of Wonderland than cooped up in a box in the study room.
Inspiration is found in the unexpected, not the confines of routine.
3. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway
Sometimes, the most powerful act you can commit is to go ahead and create anyway, even when the voices in your head are overwhelming in their persistence. By ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’ (adopt it as your mantra for the year if you haven’t already got one, by the way), you will weaken the grip that self-doubt has over you.
This is about reclaiming your right to create.
You’re Not Alone
Remember, you’re never alone, no matter what that little (yet overpowering) voice will have you believe. Imagine all your favourite writers, musicians and artists putting down their work and deciding it was childish, or not good enough, or that others will always do it better.
Don’t deprive the world of your own unique art. No one will ever write (nor paint, sing, nor create music) like you do. Nobody ever will.
Bravery is feeling the fear and doing it anyway, just like your favourite artists must have done too. Overcoming it is to defy it with a sprinkle of words, the thump of a drum, or a lick of shocking paint.