Every writer needs a lizard. Or maybe a frog or a spider or, in my case, a golden ladybug.
We need a mythic animal or a symbolic touchstone where we can park our doubts when they get in the way of our writing. My friend Rachel has a lizard painted on the wall of her office. Lise has a stained glass frog hanging in her window. I have a golden ladybug. She sits on my desk as a symbol of luck. One day when luck seemed about as attainable as a trip to Mars, I looked down and there she was: benign yet strong, a little hopeful even. And perfectly capable of gobbling up my doubts like her live counterpart gobbles aphids in the garden.
Doubt is different than disappointment. In the aftermath of an immediate bad news moment like a rejection or poor sales figures or a difficult conversation with an editor, chocolate is a quick fix. Or triple cream brie or a shot of Scotch or a head-pounding workout if you have no hedonistic qualities at all. A walk & talk with a writer friend or a good movie; they help too.
So no, I’m not talking about piercing bad news. I’m talking about those ugly doubts that linger like the nasty cough that won’t go away after the cold is gone. The doubts that say ‘you aren’t good enough,’ ‘this story bites,’ ‘the odds aren’t in your favor,’ and ‘find a real job.’
Doubt like that doesn’t belong at the desk.
In his outstanding book ‘Writing from the Inside Out’ Dennis Palumbo says writers need doubt in the same way we need faith. It’s a mistake, he says, to strive to banish doubt, to see it as the enemy. “Just as courage has no meaning without fear, faith has no meaning without doubt. They’re the yin and yang of all aspiration,” Palumbo writes.
Most of us, however, want faith to win over doubt. We’ll take whispers of inspiration, encouragement, and hope over shouts of doubt any day of the week. Not so fast, says Palumbo. The more willing we are to mine our doubts, the truer and more recognizably human our characters will be.
He has me there. Anything for the writing, right?
Okay, not so fast, Dennis. There’s a fine line between doubt and despair. Despair, like faith taken to the extreme – blind optimism – doesn’t serve me.
Although, I have to be honest, doubt does serve me sometimes. That niggling seed of doubt telling me the plot twist isn’t quite right or the character motivation isn’t strong enough, that’s healthy doubt. Welcome doubt. But when doubt is so strong that faith is a distant memory, I have a problem.
That’s when I hand it over to my ladybug. ‘Take it and hold it and let me write,’ I say. ‘Just for today, let me have faith.’
Where does your doubt live?