What Am I Doing With My Life?
— Two Kinds of Doubt and How to Use Them —
Last month I wrote in Fulfillment: A Work in Progress:
In spite of some great successes (my first novel was glowingly reviewed, nominated for a prestigious award, and even earned me royalties) living by writing continues to be a struggle, requiring — as ever — extreme determination and ceaseless hard work.
Inevitably, the life of a writer (or of any creative person) also requires constant reckoning with doubt.
Doubt takes many forms. Let’s consider two that seem to be of particular relevance to the creative soul — that is, anybody seeking to rise with dynamic freshness to a challenging endeavor.
• Doubt Version 1: What Am I Doing With My Life? Or: When you feel you’ve got nothing to show for all your efforts.
You could just as well call this The Story of the Artist’s Life. This kind of doubt is exerted, or rather you may perceive it to be exerted, upon you by people around you — folks pragmatic and well-meaning, probably (but occasionally insensitive or even mean-spirited), who find it hard to understand your objectives. These befuddled commentators affect you, consciously or not. Your endeavors are called into question, and by some unavoidable reflex you begin comparing yourselves to more successful people: “Look at her. She’s thirty-three just like I am, but she’s achieved, she’s earned accolades, she’s in demand. Must be that she’s really good at what she does. Must be that I’m not as good as I thought.”
In his classic book On Becoming a Novelist, the late beloved teacher John Gardner describes this particular version of doubt as it applies to the literary aspirant, but creatives of all kinds can certainly relate:
If a writer learns his craft slowly and carefully, laboriously strengthening his style, not publishing too fast, people may begin to look at the writer aslant and ask suspiciously, ‘And what do you do?‘ — meaning: ‘How come you sit around all the time? How come your dog’s so thin?’… Nothing is harder for the developing writer than overcoming his anxiety that he is fooling himself and cheating or embarrassing his family and friends. …
Because his art is such a difficult one, the writer is not likely to advance in the world as visibly as do his neighbors: while his best friends from high school or college are becoming junior partners in prestigious law firms, or opening their own mortuaries, the writer may be still sweating out his first novel. Even if he has published a story or two in respectable periodicals, the writer doubts himself. … Each rejection letter is shattering, and a parent’s gentle prod — ‘Don’t you think it’s time you had children, Martha?’ — can be an occasion of spiritual crisis…
• Doubt Version 2: Oh, What’s the Use? Or: When you feel suddenly and overwhelmingly daunted in the midst of action.
This kind of doubt emerges from within, often stemming, strangely, from the same burning idea or vision that originally set you in motion.
Think of Doubt Version 2 as a location, or vista point en route to accomplishment. It’s the place where you stop and observe that the gap between your gift and your goal yawns wider than you’d ever thought (in business terminology this is referred to as ‘Gap Analysis‘). Initially inspired, you started out with jaunty step — but now after cresting a few summits you stand and behold innumerable other summits ahead, just as big or bigger than the ones you’ve already struggled to overcome. An icy wind burns at your face, and attainment of your ideal vision seems to recede before you. Reviewing your work so far, you can’t help feeling that the bright thing you meant to create has actually emerged a bit pale. You wonder if you can see your task through to its end, or if you ought to even try.
* * *
In his short story “The Middle Years” Henry James famously wrote:
We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.
Writer Cynthia Ozick recently called this
A declaration of private panic mixed with prayerful intuition.
That’s a turn of phrase I quite like — and one we might apply as a very serviceable definition of doubt.
After all, if viewed as a crisis of spirit, doubt really is a kind of, well … prayer. Or in other words: Doubt is a means of clarifying vision, sharpening focus, polishing the lens of inspiration.
We doubt in order to become more intuitive in our task. We doubt in order to proceed more discerningly.
In a private notebook, Henry James made a further astonishing remark on the subject:
One has one’s doubts and discouragements — but they are only so many essential vibrations of one’s ideal.
Doubt, indeed, is at the soul of creativity.
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