Doubt

25 09 2012

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When I started this blog I doubted that anyone would read it. Now I see that I have readers in India, the Philippines, America, Sweden and Switzerland. My doubts have been proved wrong. Even on days I do not post, people are reading.

When I started writing fiction I doubted that I would get published. My first novel came out and people enjoyed it and made a point of telling me that they felt it had been unfairly overlooked by the literary press. When I wrote my second novel I doubted that it was any good. The reviews were entirely positive, but I was still surprised by them. This weekend I met someone at a party who said her reading group had thoroughly enjoyed Hotel Juliet; one or two people had even said that it was the best novel they had ever read. I thought of this again today and I still do not believe it.

While I was working on my most recent novel The Beautiful Truth I doubted that I would finish it. I doubted that anyone would be interested in reading it and I doubted that it was any good. I didn’t doubt the ideas, the characters, the subject matter, the setting or the themes; I doubted only my part in delivery of them.

I couldn’t write without believing that I have something to communicate – what I cannot do is escape doubt.

It strikes me that doubt is integral to working on anything that matters. The Beautiful Truth mattered to me more than any book I’ve written and it was composed under thunder clouds of doubt. When I finished it, and saw that it worked, I felt immense relief. I had emerged from the storm and into the light.

Doubt is the cynical observer in the hoody that stands on the edge of the playing field muttering disapproval. When acknowledged, it will offer free coaching advice on other games it thinks I’d be more suited to. Sometimes it is so contemptuous of my performance that it doesn’t bother to show up. I have to go it alone then and push my ball about in a vast white silent space, which is somehow worse than working under its scornful gaze.

If writing without doubt feels so lonely, does that mean that doubt is a useful companion on the long-haul flight of the novel? Does doubt motivate? Certainly it gives me something to push against. It stops me spooling rubbish. It stops me from becoming complacent. It acts as a brake on my enthusiasms. It urges me to go carefully. That’s when it is controlled. Out of control doubt is crippling, as I know.

I won’t eliminate doubt. It’s been part of my working life for too long, and I can therefore accommodate it.  It is a sometimes entertaining passenger even as I cringe from it. The trick is not to let it anywhere near the flight deck.

For years I’ve loved photography, but I doubted that I could understand how to use a proper camera. My new Nikon stayed in its box for over a month. This morning I went out to see what the harbour looked like through my lens. The water was sparkling and calm. As I focused on my shots I lost all sense of doubt. I simply pressed the shutter. I know that is the key to writing well.

I simply write my sentence.  

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