Fighting Self-doubt: What If I Fail Again? - Post 5

Earlier in this series, we looked at how fear of failure can make you doubt your writing.

But what if it’s not just fear?What if you’ve failed before?

You write regularly.

You submit stories.

Enter writing competitions.

The response: rejection.

Or worse: silence.

One way to deal with failure is not to see it as defeat. Many creative people view it as the world throwing down a gauntlet. Failure becomes a challenge that galvanises them to work even harder.

You may have come across the famous quote attributed to Thomas Edison:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10, 000 ways that won’t work.”

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the invention of the light bulb. But we do know that Edison was responsible for other important developments like the first commercially viable electric light.

This attitude is all very well if you’re inventing the electric lamp. Earlier versions weren’t doing their job. They were too expensive and didn’t last long.

Creative writing is more subjective. You may think your story is doing its job. A publisher might disagree.

Stephen King started writing when he was very young. The Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine turned down his first submission. Unconcerned, King stuck a nail through their reply and hung it on his bedroom wall. By the time he was in his mid-teens, the nail wasn’t strong enough to support all his rejection slips. He had to replace it with a spike!

One of those submissions was a short story called The Night of the Tiger. This one included a short, personal note:

“This is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again.”

– from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

King describes how he rediscovered this story in a box years later. He rewrote it and sent it back to the same publication who accepted it.

Of course by then he was an emerging novelist. His writing skills would have improved.

But it’s a good example of the idiosyncrasies of the publishing world.

Why had the publication turned it down before? They said it was good. Was it the wrong time? The wrong style? Did it need too much editing? Or were they reluctant to take a chance on an unknown writer?

You only have to join a book club or a writers’ group to see how many different opinions people can hold on one piece of writing.

I remember one time a friend lent me a novel she’d just finished. She said it was the best book she’d read that year. She wasn’t the only one. The novel in question had won the Nobel Prize.

I couldn’t finish it.

As a writer, I could appreciate the beautifully-crafted sentences. But I couldn’t connect with the story.

Are you struggling to get back into writing because you’ve been rejected?

Think back to all the times you’ve disagreed with people over books and movies.

Consider why you and your friends had different opinions.

“Not for me” is not enough.

Go deeper.

Was it something about the plot that didn’t work? Or was it difficult to relate to one of the characters?


Ask other friends for their opinions. Are there other people with the same view?

Thinking about this can help you evaluate the feedback you receive on your own writing. Is there something you can work on to improve your work? Or is it a question of different tastes?

To return to Edison, the job of the electric lamp was to connect people and illuminate life.

Isn’t a story’s the same?

As long as your story’s doing that for someone, it’s not a failure at all.

Fighting Self-doubt: What If They Don’t Like My Writing? - Post 3

In the last post, we looked at the relationship between self-doubt and comparisonitis.

But what if your feelings stem from a fear of others judging your work?

Because they will.

It’s comforting to know that even established writers worry about criticism.

In an interview with Unwin and Allen, Khaled Hosseini describes going through this. He had recently started his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. His debut novel, The Kite Runner, had sold millions of copies and won several awards. As his fans waited eagerly for his next book, Hosseini began to worry about his literary abilities.

He pushed through by realizing his experience was normal. Numerous authors before him had battled with the same thoughts. As he got further into his story, he was able to focus all his energy on his characters and forget his fears. To help himself get into the zone, he rented a windowless office that he referred to as his bunker.

You might not have the money to rent a special writing room.

But there are a lot of other places you can go to immerse yourself in your writing and shut out the voices in your head.

Try using a spare bedroom as a temporary office. If it’s difficult to find your own space at home, get out of the house and write in a public place like a café or library. We don’t always need silence to write. A change of scene can also be a great distraction from our mind chatter.

Sometimes I write in food courts as they’re much bigger than cafes. I don’t feel pressured to give up my table as soon as I’ve finished my coffee. I can be alone and have company at the same time.

And they have good air conditioning too!

Self-doubt doesn’t stop after you’ve published a certain number of books.

In 2012, journalist Decca Aitkenhead interviewed J.K. Rowling. They spoke about the upcoming release of Rowling’s first adult book, The Casual Vacancy. When Aikenhead mentioned how much she enjoyed the book, Rowling could hardly contain her excitement.

After Harry Potter, Rowling was under enormous pressure from her readers. She explained that she approached this by imagining the worst case scenario.

The worst that can happen is that everyone says, ‘Well, that’s shockingly bad — back to wizards with you,’ then obviously I won’t be throwing a party. But I will live. I will live.
— J.K. Rowling

You might be thinking it’s easy for J.K. Rowling not to care what people think. After all, she is a multi-millionaire.

But she never set out to be one. Before anything, she was and is a writer. After Harry Potter there was no need for her to keep writing, but she did.

As writers, we all have one thing in common:

Our stories are part of who we are.

When someone criticises our work, it’s like we’re being judged as human beings and found lacking.

Push back by imagining the worst. If we put our fears out in the open, we become lighter and freer.

When I’m imagining the worst case scenario, I find it helpful to go back and list all the reasons why I write.

The first one that comes to mind is that life has so many layers to it. I can’t just live it. I have to write about it too. I need to capture tiny pieces to reflect and reimagine.

If people don’t like what I write, will it hurt?


Will I stop writing?


Why do you write?