war on the rocks

Entry 28: Self-Doubt Strikes

January 22, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 28th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

 

This weekend marked my first potent feelings of self-doubt during this book project. I managed about 650 words, which is not enough, and I’m not even sure they’re good words.

I’ve reached a point where I’m unsure whether everything I’ve written hangs together as well as I thought it did. I’m also suddenly struggling with how to structure the current chapter. This #NukeYourDarlings journaling process helped start me off with a wave of optimism. But self-doubt — self-loathing even — is supposed to be the norm for writers, and I’m feeling it right about now.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t suffer from imposter syndrome to the same extent that my better-pedigreed friends often do. I’m reasonably self-assured, often even in the absence of confirming evidence.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t get down on myself, especially in the midst of a writing project. The typical writing process for me resembles the “creative process,” even for analytical writing:

  1. This is awesome
  2. This is tricky
  3. This is shit
  4. I am shit
  5. This might be ok
  6. This is awesome

Right now, I’m somewhere between steps three and four. I’ve spent a lot of time here in my life, and that’s not me being cheeky. I’ve been in and out of the writing-process gutter countless times, so I know self-doubt doesn’t last. I don’t know how I get out of it exactly, except that I keep writing. There are a lot of clichés out there about not giving up, but there’s something to be said for them.

There were half a dozen times during my PhD when I was certain I’d never finish. Pre-dissertation, I just kept enrolling each semester with little expectation of seeing it through, until one day it was time to study for comprehensive exams. Same for the dissertation process. It was such an impossibly big project, and I had never tackled anything of that scale before. But I just kept doing my words. In the early phase of the dissertation, there were days when I didn’t write, but at a certain point I knew I had to put words on paper. So I did. Some days only 100 words or so, but I did the words, and it added up. Eventually I was sitting on 400 pages that needed less revising than I would’ve assumed.

So there’s something to be said for just writing the words every day. I’ll probably keep feeling self-doubt for a while. But as long as I keep doing my daily words, I should come out the other side with something awesome.

 

Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.

Image: NASA/Joel Kowsky