In some of my courses and programs, I have started to do an exercise whose power is proving to be awesome. I wanted to share it with you today and invite you to do it, too – AND if you are brave enough, to share it either with your name or anonymously.
It's called Write A Letter to Doubt.
And it’s exactly what it sounds like. You write a letter to your own creative doubt, so that you can get comfortable with it, and understand it, and face it, and find a way to make room for it so you can do the work you need to do.
Note that the goal is not necessarily to get rid of it. I have found that it almost never goes away.
But you can take control of it, and name it, and tame it. That is why this is so awesome.
I was inspired to start asking people to write this letter by two things, which I want to share because they will help you understand the exercise:
1.) In her book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert shares a little letter she wrote to fear – and it’s so good. It’s real and poignant and to the point, and it helps her re-frame her fear in a way that allows her to keep creating.
Here’s the passage:
Here's how I've learned to deal with my fear: I made a decision that if I want creativity in my life—and I do—then I will have to make space for fear, too.
Plenty of space.
I decided that I would need to build an expansive enough interior life that my fear and my creativity could peacefully coexist.
In fact, I cordially invite fear to come along with me everywhere I go. I even have a welcoming speech prepared for fear, which I deliver right before embarking upon any new project or big adventure. It goes something like this:
"Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip. I understand you'll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do. But I will also be doing my job, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There's plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. You're not allowed to suggest detours. You're not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you're not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, you are absolutely forbidden to drive."
Then we head off—me and creativity and fear—advancing into the terrifying but marvelous terrain of unknown outcome. It isn't always comfortable or easy but it's always worth it, because if you can't learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you'll never be able to go anywhere interesting. And that would be a pity, because your life is short and rare and amazing, and you want to do really interesting things while you're still here.
I re-framed it as a letter to doubt because I misremembered Gilbert’s letter -- which I find sort of hilarious, because I recently wrote a post about the fallibility of memory, and here is yet another example. I have been going around saying that Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a letter to her doubt when in fact she wrote it to her fear.
I turned it into doubt because for the writers I work with, doubt is often the language they use to talk about their own roadblocks. Is what I’m writing any good? Will anyone care? Am I really a writer?
Doubt feels more true to me in these instances than fear – but listen, no matter what you call it, it’s all the same thing, and it’s the thing you need to get past to do your creative work.
2.) The second reason I started using this exercise is because of my chiropractor, Dr. Tracy Foley. Yup, I just put my chiropractor in the same breath as Elizabeth Gilbert when it comes to creativity and doubt, because she is far more than a person who works on spine alignment. She works on stress and the body, so she works on emotion and the body, so she works with fear and doubt and hope and ambition and regret and guilt and pain. About five years ago, when I went to her and her partner, acupuncturist Dr Erica Barrantes, for treatment for chronic migraine, Dr. Foley asked me to write a letter to my migraine. “Picture it as a person, give it a name, get personal,” she said.
While some people might have thought this assignment was a highly suspect treatment modality, I loved it. (A doctor who believes that writing is instrumental to the healing process? We should all be so lucky to have someone in our lives like that!) I went home and pounded out ten single-spaced pages.
The name I gave to my migraine was improbably, genius. I pictured a wild-haired genius who lived in the attic. He (yes – he) was crazy and entitled because he thought could get away with bad behavior and no one would kick him out. And I hated him, and hated how much power he had over me, but what I learned by writing the letter was that I also didn’t want to ask him to go. I found out that I kind of liked having him there – as an excuse, a crutch, an escape.
That realization was the beginning of the end of the hold migraine had on me.
Throughout our time working together, Dr. Foley has asked me to name many other characters and write letters to them, too, and the exercise has always proved to be powerful, because it helps you step outside your own mind and assess your thoughts from a distance. (One of my favorite characters was the person I named Worst Case Scenario Wanda. Such a bossy bitch.)
Anyone who saw Pixar’s Inside Out knows exactly how this works. That movie is a must-see for writers, because a writer’s superpower is inhabiting all the different perspectives present in a story (narrator, reader, author, characters…)
So anyway, back to the letter I’m asking you to write to doubt.
Say what you need to say so you can move on.
For an example of how this looks, and for a piece of writing that will take your breath away, here is the letter that my friend, Lizette Clarke, wrote. She is a novelist and an Author Accelerator book coach, and she wrote this letter when she was beta testing my brand new Pitch Track. (The Pitch Track is a step-by-step program at Author Accelerator that helps writers with every element they need to prepare to pitch agents. Right after they rank their agent list and write a pitch plan, and right before they start to pitch, they have to write a letter to doubt. The Pitch Track is so new that there’s nothing on the website yet about it. But there will be soon. If you’re dying for it, just write to me and I’ll give you the inside info…)
Huge thanks to Lizette for letting me share this letter. I’m going to put a link at the end of the post for anyone who would like to share their letter, too. I have this vision of a hundred or maybe a thousand letters to creative doubt organized by…. I don’t know what. But organized so you can search them and rest in the comfort of knowing that no matter what you feel, you are not alone.
This is the start of the vision.
You can request anonymity or use your whole name or initials to go along with your letter. I will figure out a way to share them so you can all see….
Okay, here goes Lizette:
Before I tell you the business, I need to address Confidence for a minute.
Confidence. Confidence! What happened to you?
Writing has never been hard for you. Ms. Ferrara read the stories you printed out on the dot matrix printer in the basement to your fourth grade class during story time. In junior high, classmates offered you cash for a copy of the stupid magazine you penned despite the fact that your articles included hand-drawn illustrations (with a highlighter!) and nary a word of legitimate journalism. You killed it in your college workshops, being the only person to actually add pages to the same story week after week and have a finished product to include in your grad school applications. In all those instances, you knew how to satisfy your audience, because your audience was you.
It wasn’t until grad school that you realized that successful writing is actually about writing for other people. Still, you kept writing for you. You dealt with the haters, and shutting them the fuck up was one of the best feelings in the world. As with college, you went through graduate school believing you were a Michael in a sea of Titos. And you totally were. You changed your thesis idea less than a month before graduation, and that first draft was awarded distinction. You made it look easy because it was easy. You had that shit in the bag, Confidence.
So what in the hell happened? Where did you go? Who ate you?
Here’s the problem: you started listening to people. You started reading online forums. You became exposed to the reality that everyone gets rejected. You heard people say that everything, even book titles, often get changed by publishers and editors. You heard that TV execs change everything, that they'll whitewash your black and brown characters to appeal to a wider, whiter audience. You realized that the business of writing involves hearing yes from everyone but yourself.
That horrified the shit out of you. It still does. You have always been your ideal audience, but you are not an agent or publisher or TV exec. Hardly anyone looks anything like you in that crowd, let alone is you. But that’s who you have to convince: a bunch of folks who are decidedly not you.
Susan Cain confirms in Quiet that introverts hate having to impress people. That’s what querying and pitching ultimately boil down to: the need to impress people you’re not even all that impressed by. You’re sending them your baby, something that’s lived in your head for over a decade, something that taught you how to become a better writer, something that changed your life and got you into graduate school nearly a full decade ago. You’re trusting someone who isn’t you with a major part of you.
Do you have any idea how terrifying that is?
Of course you do, Confidence. It’s how you became Doubt.
Okay, look. Doubt? It’s okay if people (agents, publishers, etc) don’t think I, Lizette, am the right fit for…whatever it is they need a right fit for.
It’s okay to let someone else make that decision. It’s okay to be uncertain. It’s okay to be powerless.
I will still write for myself with the knowledge that somewhere, someone is waiting for my book, and I just need to find them.
Your Michael in a sea of Titos,
Share your letter to doubt by clicking HERE.