The Age of Doubt

Being a writer, doubt is something you learn to live with.

I have come to believe that there are different ages of doubt. When I was still at the beginning of my writing career, eager to get published and high on the achievement of actually completing a piece, doubt wasn’t a nagging matter that kept me from sleep. You are young and you think you got the world on the palm of your hands. You are keen to experiment. You want to show everyone who matters what you are made of – or what you think you are made of.

Growing older things change. You become more grounded. Your youthful experiments no longer appear as original or innovative as you might have thought, and revising what you wrote back then makes you realise that, laudable as those efforts were, there is still so much to improve, to learn and to achieve. That is the stage when doubt, I mean real doubt, starts creeping in. You start with questions like ‘Am I real or just a wannabe? Do I really have it or it’s just me deluding myself that I have it? Is this writing worth something or it’s just scribbles, without consequence?’ Then, other questions, doubts, come up: ‘How will I know that finally I’ve written something of worth? When will I be ready?’ And, finally, you get what I call ‘doubts of reception’: ‘How will my writing be judged? How will I be looked at by the established ones?’

The problem with these doubts is that they never go away. If anything, I find that they get worse. Doubts kept me for a very long time from publishing. Too long perhaps. It was only age – realising that I was getting older – that rushed me into publishing my novel ‘Grasshopper’ in 2016.

Before I had written a quarter of a million word novel in Maltese. It took me two years to complete but upon completion I was so doubt ridden that I started working and reworking it so many times that in the end I never really finished it. In the end I dumped it along with my laptop into the garbage bin (literally!). Back then I was discussing with Alfred Sant – a great writer, friend and one of the few politicians one can genuinely look up to – and he berated me for dragging the process of completing my novel. He told me (and these are words that I will never forget): “If you keep correcting and over-correcting, you will never finish (the novel). At one point you have to cut off. To stop. Otherwise it will be never good enough to publish.” He was right. And then, somewhere else I read: “Publishing is important to the writer. You cannot move forward and improve, unless you have ended one writing and move to the next.”

Honestly, I know the lesson there. But it doesn’t mean that I have gained full control of my doubts. On the contrary: sometimes especially when revising a work for publishing, the doubt is such that it becomes painful, so painful that I start hating my work. I am at that stage right now with my novel ‘Camerata’. I don’t know if it will be ready on time for publishing. Actually, I don’t know many things about ‘Camerata’ – whether it’s good or not, whether it works, whether the characters are well rounded and dialogues make sense – I don’t know whether to press the delete button on it or give it a chance. Right now I am in a really dark and terrible place to be for a writer. Perhaps this blog is also a distraction from that.

‘Whatever you do, do it your own way. Don’t care what the others say.’ It’s a quote from a film I can’t remember which. But it was about some painter – that much I remember. I find many of the doubts arising from perhaps ‘too much knowledge’ – if there is such a thing. All the books I read about literary criticism, and those about writers describing their craft – they left in me ‘too many rules’. And as much as I try to shut up those voices, and make myself believe the mantra ‘do things your own way’, they keep coming back. Some time ago I was watching on Youtube an interview with the great Orson Welles and he was asked about the filming of Citizen Kane. One thing that really struck me was when he admitted that during the shooting of Citizen Kane, all those ‘innovations’ that eventually shaped the art of filming were the result of Welles being ‘ignorant’ of the craft. He was a kid, a newcomer, straight from the theatre, pretty much alien to what were then the conventions of film-making. Here again – youthfulness, before the age of doubt! Perhaps that is the secret: retaining a certain youthful wrecklessness, but then, it’s easier said than done. How can one diverst oneself from the accumulated personal history, from the experiences, from one’s readings, from critical reception, etc.?

During my newspaper years, especially as an editor, choices had to be quick. Articles were written and published without much time to ponder upon. It’s a fast moving world in the news business. There is little time to doubt. As such it builds your confidence, sometimes perhaps a bit too much. But in time you learn to decide quickly, confidently, and then – if things don’t veer the right way – you face the music and strategise the best way out of it. Those are not options open for a writer. It’s ‘Publish and be damned’, right?

I don’t think I can put a concluding paragraph to this post. It’s still work in progress.

If you’re asking what it has to do with management, then perhaps you haven’t been a manager long enough. If you don’t doubt yourself then either you are going through all the motions on autopilot or else you are being wreckless. All self-reflective processes lead to doubt and perhaps that’s what we ought to learn about: learning how to live with our doubts, if we can’t overcome them.

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