The Old Man and the Sea of Self-Doubt

I’ve not often considered myself a fan of Hemingway, but a few years ago I decided to give The Old Man and the Sea a try. It wasn’t especially exciting, but it did evoke nostalgic memories from my childhood of fishing on lazy summer afternoons with my father. Shortly after finishing, I sat down at my computer to write a short story that harkened to those memories, but fast forward about two years and a 117,000 word novel has now sprouted from my fingertips. It’s the novel I’ve wanted to write for years. As I look over some of my old work, I see influences rooted throughout. But now that I have finished a readable draft, I’m plagued by the question, Is it any good at all?

The first two novels I ever wrote are now artefacts of a bygone era. Upon finishing them, I was excited at the prospect of others reading them and giving me feedback. Though I did get some positive comments, overall, it was the silence that spoke the loudest. If someone reads your work and says nothing, there’s a good chance that they remain quiet to avoid using descriptors like “refuse wagon” and “turd cannon” while critiquing what you just poured your heart and soul and free time into. It wasn’t long before I realized my errors, and so for my latest attempt, I took an entirely different approach. I essentially remade my authorial self into someone whom early incarnations of me wouldn’t recognize. But now, the fog of writing has lifted, and I can’t tell for the life of me the merit of that which I’ve produced.

I immediately loaded an ebook version onto my iPad and read the thing over a few days. It was clear that I had some tonal and stylistic shifts, so I noted where revisions had to be made. But when I’d finished, I honestly couldn’t tell if it was good or not. The easily enthused part of me says, Yes, of course it’s good. But the much more cautious side of me disagrees. Because of the last two disasters when it came to having my friends and family read my work, I’ve wanted to create something as polished as I can before sending it off for a trial reading, but I fear I’ve come to a point where I just need to let it go to see if it can walk. If it falls in a heap on the floor, hopefully I’ll be able to pick it up and find the areas of weakness, but sometimes I feel so overwhelmed and so sick of the whole process, that I doubt if I’ll actually be able to do that.

I’ve never really been able to market myself. I’m not good at shamelessly self-promoting. Sure, I could talk myself up and give off the impression that I am the supreme leader of the confidence brigade, but there’s nothing more embarrassing than making a claim like “I can fly” only to jump from the side of a cliff and end up a small gray poof on the rocky floor below. What this bizarre metaphor is trying to say is: I don’t want to be a fool who can’t face the facts, no matter how disagreeable those facts may be. Self-doubt is a blanket that helps guard against the validation of your personal insecurities. If I think my work is crap and it turns out to be crap, then that’s fine, I figured it was anyway, so next time I’ll try to improve. Whatever. But if I think I’m the next Hemingway and it becomes evident that I’m more of a Stephenie Meyer, then who’s going to be there to pick up and reassembled the crumbled mess of my ego?

What comes next, whether I want it to or not, is the reading of my work. I’ve done what I can for now, and it needs to rest. My wife is slated to read it within the next few months. If she approves, I’ll do a revision and pass it on to the next troop of readers who I’ve yet to recruit. If it again passes, and only if it passes, the next revision will take place immediately followed by me trying to hawk it to publishers and literary agents. A prior novel has never really passed the first round of revisions, so it would be great to have a first this time around. And maybe, if it does ever get published, I might finally be able to say: Yes, this book is actually good.

Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

3 thoughts on “The Old Man and the Sea of Self-Doubt

  1. You’ve put your finger on the paradox: you need self-confidence to write at all, and self-doubt to evaluate and revise. Many terrible writers have no doubt whatsover, and many potentially wonderful writers are defeated by doubt before they complete (or even begin) a story.

    And as someone in the midst of the query process, I can tell you that if I didn’t have sufficient self-doubt before setting out, I have plenty to spare now. And yet, I’m beginning another book, which requires me to tune out the negativity and tune into the the voice that says, “Hell, yes I can!” No wonder writers have a reputation for being strange. And alcoholic. And impossible to live with…

    1. Hahaha. Exactly this. A good number of times I’ve worked myself into a frenzy and abandoned a project, but I try to be as objective as possible when I’m evaluating the viability of a piece. Good luck with the query process! I’ll be starting that this fall. :/

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