An Artist's Date With Self Doubt

Some mornings are grey because they blend the white of the empty page and the black of what you meant to write and look back at you with an insipidness that borders mockery. This is one of those mornings. A pile of unpaid bills and a rapidly depleting pantry hang like rain clouds from the roof of my mouth. The most common question that taunts the decision to live a principled life is whether honesty pays. Of course, it doesn’t – it was never meant to. Honesty grants you peace and meaning, but if you are looking at benefit beyond your needs, it is perhaps not the best way to get there. From where I stand, it seems an excellent way to get back to writing on this blog though. I have had the most wonderful year behind me and it just seems to get better each passing day. Last weekend, I was at a writers' workshop with Corinne Rodrigues. My time with her and Aarathi (an old familiar out here) led me to think deeper - more honestly perhaps - about contemplative writing, intuitive painting, and photography, and what I do out here.

I have been seriously challenged to make time or even feel like writing a post. Those who follow me know what I mean all too well. And as many of you are artists and writers yourselves, you know how it is to get your butt back to the writing desk. It is a cool morning after a while, and the tea smells awesome. So hey!

I am not trying free writing (writing without stopping to think or edit) but I am close, probably because I am short on time. The two overwhelming enemies that I have been able to identify in the last several weeks of working with my creativity mentors or catalysts or whatever are self doubt and sloth.


As a writer, I have a daily schedule of writing. However, on most days, I do not produce a single cohesive work. Some days I create an outline, or pick up a piece I had started earlier, and on other days, I edit something that I liked but was not to my satisfaction. However, the fact remains that I write everyday. Many of the writers I admire, like Corinne, create complete works in their day’s writing, and I have always found that amazing. Some of them take on prompts and turn out a new article every day based on random ideas. Others write poems or publish photographs, one incredible piece each day.

As June commences, I decided that I would give it a try too, but perhaps only till I have something to say. I have four year-end papers in June and a slew of other things that I need to get done. The days I cannot get a piece, I can always do a Worst of 2014 (since it looks like I didn't do that). I am filled with apprehension as I begin this series, since the only thought in my mind is that it will turn out to be nothing more than a dull journal. I do not have an outline for the series; I plan to take it one day at a time. I am also excited since it challenges my perception of myself as a writer. I hope that my fears and my hopes will result in a bearable marriage. I hope as I plod along, the outcome will not be a boring narrative but something that will be of use to all who read it. Like an accused unsure of his own innocence, I surrender to you.


Like a dear friend once said, “Keep your hat on. We may end up miles from here.” (Courtesy a term assignment by another dear friend.)

The one thing that typifies my brief journey as a writer is self doubt. This self doubt is not the type that questions whether I am good enough, whether what I am writing is good enough. Ego and arrogance keep me protected in that regard. It has more to do with whether I am being able to clearly communicate what is relevant, whether the reader finds resonance with my views and my feelings. To a large extent this has to do with the fact that much of what I write is really a footnote to the commentary that I live out on a personal level in my daily life. My writing is often dotted with references that are not merely subjective, but intensely private. Yet like frisky puppies on a winter morning, they clamor to come out of my mind and into my writing.

This self doubt has been present all through, but for many years, it did not bother me because I was not writing to be read. It remained like a nagging knee pain that you learn to live with and compensate for. My blog, the only place where I publish my writing, had a total readership of six-and-a-half for the initial years. Things changed as I began writing and updating my blog more frequently and inviting people to read my blog. I began to write in a way that would attract, interest, and create value for readers across demographics and belief systems. The first casualty here was tone. I found myself slowly becoming more impersonal and removed from the voice that I thought in. It took a while to realize this, since for every such “popular” piece, I would be writing something that was more me. With time, though, I learned how to get “my kicks” while consistently writing posts of general interest. Whether that has enhanced or diminished the quality of my work, I do not know.

What I do know is that it helped me appreciate the role that doubt plays in the life of creative artist, and to explore ways of using the power of doubt to refine one’s art. In the process, I also began to see how self doubt functions in many areas of life, and plagues even those who do not consciously reflect on it, and how it can be overcome. The first insight in this journey was being able to see self doubt as a form of approval seeking, a sort of inverted fear of rejection. We want to be appreciated, praised, recognized, and we cringe at the thought that it might not be forthcoming. This is one of the strongest drives in all human beings. On the other hand, we are faced with our apparent powerlessness in the face of the complex interplay of causes and consequences that makes up our world. This is the birthplace, the breeding ground of self doubt.


The other thing about self doubt is that it serves to strengthen what I call the “delusion” of the self. Most of us are born and bred into believing a linear concept of time, matter and space, including those of us with strong roots in the nonlinear traditions of eastern philosophies. This creates a strong identification with the physical-mental construct of the self. Just like seeing through to the core of things, being able to say to myself that it doesn’t matter what people think of my writing is simultaneously liberating and frightening. I feel paralyzed and insignificant in the face of both – the liberation and the dread. This is where self doubt comes to the rescue, almost lovingly building back the walls of the familiar, reassuring me that my doubts are proof on the materiality of my physical-mental existence.

I have not found a silver bullet to bring down this demon of self doubt. What I have found instead is a way to dwell more in the realms that may be considered the opposite of self doubt. These are the realms of faith and certainty. Faith in my essence, in the awareness that each moment is unique and precious, in the importance of what I am doing. It is not hard to imagine that what I am doing does not matter. Neither is it hard to see that nothing would be what it is were it not for what I am doing. This is not grandiose posturing but rather, it is the realization of the interconnectedness of all phenomenon. Confidence on the other hand comes from clearly identifying your strengths and abilities, adopting a disciplined program of self improvement, having a system of real time feedback on what you are doing, and implementing inputs that may come in various forms.

Self doubt can rob you of your potential to make a difference to yourself and to your world. It can also be the trigger that lets you optimally impact your world, making the best use of your thoughts and your skills. Rather than seeing it as a judgement or a condemnation of your output, see it as a friend who is helping you improve the quality of your contribution to your world. I am grateful to self doubt for helping me keep an eye out for all the factors that go into making a piece of writing readable. I am also thankful for self doubt since it provided me with enough fodder to come up with the first of my pieces for this self imposed challenge. Do share your thoughts on self doubt as well as your experience with similar challenges. This will add value to the discussion and also encourage me as I try and keep at it. Tell me what you want to read more of, in terms of skill development, literary esthetics, whatever. I will need your help here.



In the series so far:
An Arist's Date With Self Doubt
An Arist's Date With Laziness
An Arist's Date With Great Good
An Artist's Date With Writing
An Artist's Date With Tea
An Artist's Date With Reading
An Artist's Date with Good

6 comments:

  1. "Apparent powerlessness"
    Exactly what I perceive so much of the time. This post has been an education. Thank you for your wisdom and for sharing it in all those very ways I feel best connected with.
    Cohesive and complete - here I come, fueled by my self-doubt!

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    1. Thank you, Incognita! I hope you come back to see what comes of this determination to write tangibly, mindfully and purposefully each day.

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  2. Ah! Self- doubt is an important spur to personal growth. A pity that I never really feel it strongly enough - in the sense that I hardly ever care enough for other people's approval to change who or what I am (Not the same as saying that I do not care at all :) ) Which is probably why I write things as they come and seldom seem to improve or grow :)

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    1. Been reading you too long to buy that in its entirety, Suresh, but yes, one solution is not be affected by dis/approval. Not entirely convinced that growth cannot take place in the absence of self doubt. I am sure it can. Thanks for bringing this up.

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  3. Your writing is as usual elegant and your thoughts are as usual lucid. Self doubt has not changed that. Self doubt usually comes from financial insecurity of the moment, and, whether you have made the right choices. Self doubt however, should never turn into learned helplessness. That's dangerous.

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    1. Pratap, such a joy to have you here! I see what you mean about learned behavior and somehow, self doubt seems to me more a survival tool than a learned self defeating one. Financial security plays a big role, but then the greatest of artistic works have been conceived and executed when in the depth of financial woes. Van Gogh is a top of the mind example. Hopping across to look for self doubt in his portraits, landscapes and sunflowers.

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