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Launch 1: Dealing with self-doubt

Have you ever felt like you’re just not good enough? That you don’t deserve success? You may even be afraid of being exposed as a 'fraud'. Well you’re not alone. Feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and the increasingly-prevalent imposter syndrome have long been felt by those in creative fields. Forbes reports that studies estimate around 70% of the population could experience these feelings. Even Sylvia Plath lamented “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

I'm going to describe my recent experiences with self-doubt, including some questionable actions and opinions on my behalf. This is a cards-on-the-table account, to demonstrate the harmful thought patterns which can accompany crises of confidence. This is not an elicitation of sympathy - I'm doing fine. I just want to highlight an often overlooked side of pursuing a creative art.

I started to struggle with these feelings a few weeks before my first launch date. It initially stemmed from a creeping anxiety about the deeply personal nature of my poems – much of September centres around bereavement, family, and relationships. I felt uneasy about sharing these feelings with a wide audience, and for them to be able to refer to them repeatedly (if they chose to).  It was almost as if I was opening my diary for people to read.

I tried to reason with myself that I had written the poems for an audience, so they must be shared. That the catharsis could help others, and that I was giving people something valuable in the imagery and emotions of my work.

But as the weeks went on, I started to question the quality of my writing. This completely flew in the face of established facts such as:

  • I really passionately love a lot of my poems

  • I have been shortlisted in recent awards

  • I have been published in respected publications

  • Other people have told me they like my poems

  • I literally had my published poetry pamphlet in my hands

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that my writing just wasn’t good enough to ‘win people over.’ I wondered if people would be disappointed in the pamphlet, after parting with hard-earned cash for it.

I compared myself mercilessly with other writers – those I know and those I don’t. People who I found a glimpse of in a shared post or retweet. This went both ways; first, the self-interrogation - am I pretty enough to gain an audience? Young enough? Do I have the right engaging personality? Do I come across as genuine? Should I be harnessing the power of social media? Will I sell enough books to please the publisher? All things I saw others doing with success, and not all things I'd concerned myself with previously.

I also became vicious and dismissive in my private evaluation of others' writing. This led to an illogical and circular argument that if I didn't like work that had been published, this surely meant publication was no indication of quality. Therefore, my poetry wasn’t actually good. It's a shameful feeling, and not one I want to hurry to repeat.

This culminated in me, at my first launch event (at the monthly 'City Voices' event run by Offa's Press at the Light House, Wolverhampton), panicking and wracked with nerves. I convinced myself that this reading was different to the many readings I’d done in the past. A lovely group of my friends attended this event – friends I’d never read poetry in front of before – and I wondered whether I would bore them to tears. Also, many Offa’s Press poets came out in force to offer support – was I 'good enough' to join their ranks?

Once I started reading, I became more confident, and I relaxed. I could see that the audience were engaged, and their appreciative noises throughout the set helped me to keep going. After my performance, I received many kind comments about my work.

Poet Cherry Doyle stands in front of an audience, reading from her book, September
Reading from 'September' at the first launch event

But this is not the happy ending. I am completely overwhelmed and humbled by the wonderful comments and responses to September. Despite this, I still feel the gnaw of inadequacy at the back of my mind. I have no doubt that during this busy period of launches, events, promotion, and just life in general, such feelings will strike again, so I need to recognise and deal with them when they do.

So, I've been reflecting a lot in the last week about these feelings of inadequacy, and creating a few counteracting arguments, which I intend to repeat to myself when I undoubtedly find myself in this situation again.

Re-establish your idea of success

For many people, fame, money, and – in the case of writers – publication, are the ultimate goals and measures of success. I attended a keynote speech by Mandy Ross at the recent National Writers’ Conference, and in it, she spoke of her many community-based projects engaging people with writing, encouraging them to participate, and using writing to deliver messages. Is this considered unsuccessful, because the projects didn’t result in publication, and didn’t win an award?  The key to this question is asking yourself to be honest about why you write. Simon Fletcher asked me this question many years ago, and my answer at the time was ‘to show people what I can do.’ But now, the answer has evolved. Writing is a drive – I use it to express myself. I use it to get my feelings out. I use it to remember experiences. If I've done this - even if the poem never again sees the light of day - it has achieved its purpose. Making a connection with someone is a success. Showing someone they’re not alone is a success. Inspiring someone is a success. Giving yourself enough time to show yourself you can do it is a success. Do it for yourself; for your own reasons.

Quality is subjective

I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m a picky, pedantic and hard to please person (just ask my partner while we’re watching a film). I like a specific type of poetry, as I like specific types of most things. If I don't like someone else's work, that doesn't mean it's not good poetry - it's just not for me. It's unfair of me to judge other people's success based on my tastes. And guess what? It's not fair for others to do that to you either. And most of the time they won't. Different publishers like different things. Different editors like different things. Different competition judges like - you guessed it - different things. Some audiences want highbrow poetry which recalls the masters and is riddled with technique. Some like Avant Garde work. Some like poems which are easy to understand, and which speak from the heart. You will never please everyone, and just because you don't please one person, doesn't mean you won't appeal to anyone. Just keep looking for your place.

Cherry Doyle reads from September in front of an audience

The journey is as good as the result

I have blogged previously about how I came to be published. If I had appeared out of nowhere with a stack of amazing poems, got an offer of publication straightaway and had done with it, I would have never built the network of support I have around me today. I would never have met the amazing people I've met, made the friends I've made, or spent hours on hillsides in the rain as part of workshops. I have really enjoyed honing my skills, exploring techniques old and new, being forced to try different techniques and forms - learning! I doubt I would have such affection for haiku, had I not spent as much time in the company of one David Bingham. I love the little thrill each time I see a poem of mine in print. This is a gift, and if you have the opportunity to build on your writing in this way, go for it.

Everybody has a hidden life

If you're jealous of other people's achievements (which is completely natural, by the way), just remember this - there will be lots more tales of rejection and failure, which are not promoted. Even when someone seems to be having success after success, you do not know and will never see the truth behind this. Just like any aspect of social media, not many people advertise when things don't go well, or don't go at all. Let me tell you - I have sent off countless - COUNTLESS - poems to competitions, magazines, pamphlet competitions, online journals etc. My sum total publications are listed on my website. In six years. Some take months or even years to respond. Some, I never hear back from. Some quietly update their Submittable status weeks after the fact. My point is, success is only part of the story, so give yourself a break if you're feeling like everyone else is doing so much 'better' than you are.

Be as good as you can possibly be

Writing is a craft. Nobody is naturally good at it. I mean, sure, some people are naturally inclined to language, and some people even have natural talent. But nobody can sit down with no prior training and bang out an amazing poem or story. As odd as it sounds, it’s more than just sitting down and writing something. What have you done lately to improve your writing? Some things you can do include attending workshops, taking short courses, joining a writing group, and seeking constructive, honest feedback. If you want to be good, work at it. I thoroughly recommend investing in a book such as How to be a Poet by Jo Bell and Jane Commane, (Nine Arches Press), which won't teach you any poetic technique as such, but will give you loads of information from industry insiders about how to move forward with your writing in terms of editing, polishing, and submitting for publication. You owe it to yourself to be the best you can be, and if you know you've done your absolute best, you don't have to beat yourself up about it.

Can you hear angels yet? I think I've done just enough preaching. It has been difficult to write down and admit to some of the things I've felt and done in the past few weeks, but I believe that by speaking up about less positive aspects of writing (life?), we can all help break the veneer of success which is often portrayed on social media.

Enjoy me reading one of my poems at the launch below:

Other resources for fighting self-doubt can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

"People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within." - Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Photos & video by Kuli Kohli.

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