4 professionals sound off on how they handle periods of creative self-doubt
by brittany taylor | November 15, 2017
In the book publishing world, authors are either pantsers or plotters. A “pantser” is someone who writes by the seat of their pants, going wherever their imagination takes them with little forethought or preparation. A “plotter” does the opposite; it’s an author who lays a solid framework for their book before they begin to write.
I am a meticulous plotter. It extends to every facet of my life, whether I’m buying a book or scribbling fan fiction or considering a trip or deciding where to have lunch. Before I got a smartphone, I wrote out directions (complete with mileage and road markers) on sticky notes and stuck them to my steering wheel.
Some people say I spend too much time planning and researching. I say there’s no such thing.
The thing about planning is that you spend ages figuring out where you’re going…and then you change your mind. Maybe you make a wrong turn, maybe you buy the wrong thing, maybe your tastes change, maybe you’re just not feeling it. Whatever the reason is, there are always plans that go belly-up. For me, that’s every single creative project I’ve ever started, whether it’s a business or a book or a painting.
I always begin with the best intentions. I have systems to keep me organized, calendars and schedules to follow, goals to meet and actions to take that will help me achieve those goals—on paper, I’m all set. It should be a no-brainer: follow the plan, launch a solid business, reap the rewards.
And for a while—maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months—I’ve got my head down and I’m working away. I’m enthusiastic. I’m on-message. I’m checking off my to-do list day after day.
Then, something happens. I start to wobble, and at first, I recover. I get myself back on track. But then I fall. I wipe out. I lose track of my path forward and my work becomes vague and inconsistent. I stop hitting my goals and I stop caring about them. After that, it’s no surprise that the plan I crafted so carefully falls apart.
I’m a highly sensitive person, so it’s not surprise that I’m an emotional boss. My instincts tend to drive my business decisions, which leads to excellent results when it comes to client projects and my own writing. But that same instinctual push in a certain direction is also what gets me into trouble, because sometimes, my instinct is to freak out.
I can feel the anxiety at the base of my spine. It’s like when you’re sick with the flu and you’ve got chills, but you’re not sure if you’re too hot or too cold. You know, a subtle shiver that you can’t get rid of. That’s what my business panic feels like.
The wobble is this feeling. It’s this gut instinct that something is wrong, but you’re not sure exactly what that wrong thing is. It makes you falter and lose focus. It’s creative self-doubt, it’s Imposter Syndrome with a twist.
And it turns out that it’s an absurdly common problem creative people face, but we never talk about
The project-crippling problem creative entrepreneurs *never* talk about--and how to handle it
I spent a recent Saturday cloistered with thousands of other young adult book lovers and our favorite authors. In a panel directed at aspiring writers, someone stood up and asked what Leigh Bardugo, Kami Garcia, Margaret Stohl, and Soman Chainani do when their brains freak out on them mid-story and insist that they need to change some huge part of their idea.
The authors got what the person was asking immediately. And from my perch in the back of the packed, 500-seat auditorium, I could see that the rest of us did, too. We all leaned forward. We all quieted down. We all waited to see what Leigh and Co. would say.
This is the gist:
Slow your brain down. Quiet the panic, still the urge to retreat.
Ask yourself: Where is this coming from?
Often, when we’re distracted, it’s not so much that we’ve got a better idea or that the concept we’re working on is fatally flawed. Usually, what we have is workable but not quite perfect. This creative self-doubt is how our brain lets us know that there is a thing, but we’re not sure what it is, exactly.
Think about what this shiny new idea is. Break it down to its most essential elements. Then, compare that to what you were working on so happily before you wobbled.
Are there ways you can merge the two? Are there solutions the shiny new idea presents that could fix problems in your earlier concept? Are there lessons from one that you could apply to the other?
Whatever you do, don’t jump willy-nilly from one project to another.
Remember how much time you’ve invested in the old project and give that investment its due consideration before you change your plans. If you always leap when you wobble, you’ll never accomplish anything. You’ll never see your plans to completion. Your wobble will become your way out of doing the hard stuff.
Don’t give yourself a way out. Give yourself a way forward. If the way forward requires a change, make that change. But always change strategically.
It’s OK to let your instinct tell you a change might be necessary, but it’s not OK for you to let your instinct make decisions on the fly. Don’t let creative self-doubt derail you.