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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:question_mark_character.jpg

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.

Gardner continues:

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.

You might also enjoy:

Three Questions Seekers Must Ask Themselves

On Making Mistakes

The Elements of (Life)Style

Secrets of Creative Longevity

Daunting Task? Learn to Whip It

Trust Thyself

11 Comments to What Am I Doing With My Life?

On Feb 8, 2009, Adam Steer - Better Is Better commented:

This may sound strange, but reading this made me think of “Thing 1 and Thing 2” from the Cat In The Hat. They run around making a horrible mess, and the whole time you can do nothing but worry about how to stop them. But once everything is cleaned up, you look back and wonder if you couldn’t have enjoyed yourself a bit more… :-)

I don’t think your Doubt 1 and Doubt 2 are limited to writers. Anyone trying to accomplish something extraordinary lives with them pretty much every day to some degree.

Thanks for the post.


On Feb 8, 2009, by Mark commented:

An apt analogy, Adam. And one especially vivid to me right now, having just introduced my little one to his first volume of Dr. Seuss! You’re absolutely right: Doubt-ridden or not, one ought to strive to enjoy the ride. ~Mark

On Feb 8, 2009, Dwight commented:

This article and Adam’s comment were exactly what I needed to read today. Thanks to both of you.

On Feb 8, 2009, by Mark commented:

So glad to know the post was well-timed, Dwight. Bon Courage! ~Mark

On Feb 8, 2009, Johnooo commented:

Wow, great post! My favourite to date. I will share this one with friends for sure.
There are so many resources that are in screaming support of that person inside you running the show while you’re inspired and excited and on top of the creative world. I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t hear as many supportive voices while I’m doubting myself. These pearls of well-thought supportive wisdom are surely at least as important as motivational messages pushing an already fast-spinning wheel of enthusiasm.

… and fun comment from Adam. I definitely agree that this can be extended beyond writers. Certainly to entrepreneurs.
I’m happy to hear the Thing 1 Thing 2 lesson come up. It didn’t come to mind for me while reading this post, but it’s always a message worth sharing.

On Feb 9, 2009, Mark commented:

We’re happy to have you on Soul Shelter, Johnooo, and to know the post applies to folks of various pursuits. Please do share freely with friends. ~Mark

On Feb 10, 2009, doe commented:

a really lovely post, and good timing, yes. thank you. i do my all my best doubting in the middle of the night, hence, not much sleep lately. :)

On Mar 22, 2009, Follow Your Doubt « The Phil Wells Dot Com commented:

[…] my work (the real work that I do) and I see futility and wasted opportunity.  Tim Clark over at Soul Shelter describes it pretty aptly: Initially inspired, you started out with jaunty step — but now after […]

On Jul 14, 2009, Soul Shelter » Blog Archive » It Is Natural to Need Help commented:

[…] What Am I Doing With My Life? […]

On Mar 27, 2011, Hannah Rachelle' commented:

After what seems like a “never-ending season” of dry desert & soul searching on what i want to do with my life, i’m coming to the conclusion that fear has been holding me back my entire life. the dreams i’ve had ever since i was a young girl have only really remained dreams…& i don’t want them to always just be ‘dreams.’
so thank you for the encouragement…(:

On Jun 11, 2012, Anu commented:

Thank you.

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