“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” – Sylvia Plath
I’ve been writing poetry since I was 5 years old.
Somehow, I can still recite word-for-word a poem I wrote when I was 7 or 8 years old, ‘The Greedy Shark’. I’m pretty sure I took inspiration from that Lewis Carrol poem, ‘How Doth The Little Crocodile’; mine was like a spin-off. It makes me smile to think about it.
Around the same age, I remember my mum bought me a huge anthology; I can picture it in my head right now; it was red and had illustrations and featured at least 100 poems. My favourite one by far was ‘The Silver Swan’.
The Silver Swan, who living had no note,
When death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more:
“Farewell, all joys; Oh death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”
Even then, even as a kid, there must have been something morbid about me for this poem to have appealed to me the most; many were much more light-hearted. Apparently ‘The Silver Swan’ is by Orlando Gibbons, but in the book I remember it was stated as having an anonymous author. And I guess that also attracted me – it somehow made the poem more mysterious and profound and fascinating in the eyes of an 8-year-old girl.
At this age I got a poem published, an elaborate exploration about, essentially, a mouse catching cheese. The poetry company weren’t (and still aren’t) very prestigious at all but when I got that acceptance letter saying my poem(!) was going to be published in one of their books(!) I was ridiculously excited. I simply couldn’t contain it. My triumphant glee in that moment was the equivalence of someone getting an acceptance letter from Harvard University. Always supportive of my literary endeavours, my mum bought a few copies of the anthology when it came out, gave a few to family members, kept two for ourselves. A week later I confidently recited my poem in front of the entire primary school assembly, beaming like a proud idiot when the audience clapped at the end, even if I knew it was just perfunctory and probably bore no relation to the quality of the poem whatsoever.
Since that day 12 or so years ago, excluding family members, I have never again recited any of my poetry to an audience. Not once. And it’s not like I haven’t had opportunities. I’ve been to open mic poetry nights, only to always find myself watching from the safe comfort of a chair, envious of the people who got up from theirs and walked past the rows to perform; envious of their composure, of their nervousness, of their bravery, of the words they weren’t afraid to share.
Sometimes I thought the poems were good. Sometimes they were brilliant. Other times they were atrocious. It didn’t really matter; it was all subjective anyway. That wasn’t what I was focusing on. Rather, every time someone’s name was called I would wish in that moment to trade places with the owner of that name. I wished I could see things from their perspective, if only for those 2 or 3 minutes before the next poet was beckoned. I wished, being them, I could skim my eyes across the faces of the audience and catch those of the girl with the nervous energy and the afro hair. I’d shake my head at her in disappointment. Fervidly, so that everyone would turn their faces to look at hers. I’d press my lips against the mic, pause for dramatic effect, then finally, I’d give her an ultimatum: get up (to perform) or get out.
She’d get out, of course. Undoubtedly.
I have gone years without writing a word of verse; I have probably gone months without writing recreationally altogether. In fact, in my lifetime I’ve probably started hundreds of novels, stories, screenplays, plays, articles, even recipes. I’ve finished about 10, give or take.
(I’ve only written so many poems because they’re short, so finishing them doesn’t scare me nearly as much. Writing a poem is an injection; the pain’s there but it’s over quickly.)
So, what happened?
You’ve probably already guessed from the title.
I have self-doubt.
If a ‘Self-Doubters Anonymous’ therapy group was ever created you can rest assured I’d be the first person to sign up.
“I am Meah, and I’m a Self-Doubter.”
I’m pretty sure it’s something I’ve suffered with all my life. The only difference is when I was young there was less of it, and I didn’t care very much anyway. People were going to listen to the stuff I wrote whether they liked it or not. Now, however, and by ‘now’ I actually mean for quite a long time, I’ve struggled with anything that could be classed as a ‘hobby’ or ‘interest’. Anything that someone can actively be good at is difficult for me to enjoy – it’s an open invitation for that voice in my head to creep up from its squalid hole to brazenly inform me that I’m not good enough.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think for a second that I’m the only one who gets these thoughts. Everyone does, especially creative people – singers, dancers, artists, writers, actors etc. From time to time, or at some point in a person’s life, they will be confronted with their own potential inadequacy. It’s not pleasant but it’s fairly normal.
When this starts to become a real issue is when these thoughts occur regularly – weekly, daily, hourly – when they crawl into the crevices of your mind, festering like bacteria, feeding insatiably on your self-esteem. They ultimately manifest into your beliefs; every time a doubtful thought occurs, you trust it. 100%. You stop doubting the doubt itself.
As someone who is currently, finally coming down on a mental elevator from this extreme level of self-doubt, it’s a horrific place to be stuck at. When you doubt yourself so intensely, the feeling doesn’t just stay boxed into one category of your life, it implements itself into every single one of them. Before you know it everything you do is wrong. You can be washing a dish and BOOM: ‘you’re not doing that right, you’re a f**king idiot’. Every aspect of your day-to-day existence is put under scrutiny, from what you’re wearing to how you’re talking to what you’re eating. It’s like spending an entire day walking backwards and forwards through a full body scanner, constantly detecting faults and flaws in the way you’re living life. You start to feel embarrassed simply by your own presence in a room.
Writing is particularly difficult for me as it’s what I’m most passionate about. I care, perhaps too much. Ironically, it should be the very thing I enjoy the most. And I kind of do. I love it and it kills me at the same time. Right now, as I’m writing this, somewhere in the back of my mind someone’s wondering: ‘What the hell is she on about?’ But I’m ignoring it.
Because it’s not worth listening to. I’ve finally realized that, I think.
Sylvia Plath was right. Creatively, I could’ve achieved a lot more if I didn’t suffer from self-doubt. But there is a level of responsibility in every emotion we feel. I’m no longer indulging my self-doubt. I’m writing again, and it hurts but I don’t want to care anymore. I guess I’m learning a lesson from that 8-year-old girl who wrote every day, not even because she gave any thought to being talented, but because she simply enjoyed it.
Strangely, there is a fine line between self-belief and self-berating. Sometimes we put way too much emphasis on being ‘good’ or ‘successful’ at what we enjoy, to the point where we stop enjoying it altogether, then we can’t be successful. It’s counterproductive.
Someone once said, ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. So I say, feel the self-doubt and do it anyway. Exactly like the fear, eventually the self-doubt will subside once it realizes it no longer has any power over you.
Now I’m just waiting for that to happen.