I’ve made a living from doubt (I’ll explain shortly). I’ve frolicked in its bounty and have cried under its lash. Doubt can be cruel and merciless, and hold us back. It can be the burning sun in a waterless desert. It can be an icy wind that whips away our cloak of confidence. We want to run from self-doubt (I am sure that is not just me). We want to bathe in the cool, clear waters of conviction. But conviction is dangerously beguiling. US President Donald Trump has risen to power by promising rubbish with great conviction.
Doubt was the last big test for Buddha before he reached enlightenment, and it nearly felled him. That’s one mother of a reputation doubt has. I have come to feel an enormous respect for doubt. Writers make a mistake if they do not connect to the power of doubt. It takes courage to step towards the fire and ice. Our edges melt, our eyes smart. But if we can stand its power, and step towards it, a creative marvel happens: our confidence returns purified and stronger. In writing, our words become deeper, fuller and more powerful.
A writer’s mind
Journalism is rife with doubters; it’s our job, and for 20 years, I have fostered that scepticism. But I am not advocating for an army of sceptics. Journalists do not stop at scepticism; they take the next step, which is inquiry. If something doesn’t make sense, a journalist’s nose will twitch (metaphorically), and they will ask why.
In his beautiful book, ‘Follow the Story’, James B. Stewart defines the ‘writer’s mind’ this way: ‘The essence of thinking like a writer is the recognition that what’s most interesting is what’s unknown, not what is known.’
Paradox, mystery and uncertainty
Writers foster qualities that serve us all (which is why I love writers). These qualities are the ability to follow a paradox, to engage with the mysterious, and to be comfortable with uncertainty, says Stewart. ‘Thinking like a writer prizes the question more than the answer.’
But what can we writers do with such advice? Am I suggesting waffle, in which we canvas every side of the story, and leave our readers lost in a maze of possibilities? Am I encouraging you to slide an avalanche of negative scepticism upon the world? Of course not. I simply ask you not to turn away from doubt, but to embrace and follow the inquiry that doubt demands.
The doubt dialogue
Perhaps you have been writing your blog or book when you are suddenly struck by doubt, ‘This is all shit!’ You stand up from your desk, walk away, either in a huff or despondent. ‘What’s the point?’ Your blog or book grinds to a standstill.
But here is an insight: I’ll bet my bottom dollar that your doubt surfaced at a precise moment. It might seem like an existential, non-specific kind of doubt, but it’s not. What’s happened? You wrote some words that triggered your ding-dong doubt bell and set it ringing. Go back and look for those words. Examine them in detail. Are they shit? What is shit about them? Are they unconvincing? Boring? Lacking energy? Bullying? Arrogant? What questions arise in your mind when you read those words, and how would you answer them?
Take the cure
It’s taken me years to discover that doubt can be my ally. When I first started writing for the business magazine Business Review Weekly in 1997, my self-doubt was out of control. I spent hours, if not days, on a single story. And sometimes I sat staring at the page with blank despair. I was tortured by uncertainty. Slowly, I found my way through doubt’s curse to its bounty. Instinctively, gropingly, I began to use doubt to fire my curiosity, to search for answers, for stories, and even for serenity.
For doubt to be your ally, interrogate it. Invite it to tea, as the Buddhist meditation teacher, Tara Brach, suggests. Welcome it, and listen to it, and learn from it. When you write, give your doubts a voice on the page. I encourage every writer find their own path to embrace and befriend doubt.
PS: Want more? You might like: Your readers really are judging you: What can you do about it?