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Recently, on a social networking site, a writer described what a former writing teacher of mine called “The I-Suck-Spiral”, which I think all fiction writers are susceptible to from time to time.  He posted:

I’m going through one of those periods where my self-confidence is sorely lacking. It’s not helping that I’ve reached plot dead ends in two stories and my book. (Of course, those could be my inner critic having a field day with me too!) …everything I think of to move the story ahead [has] been done before, and I find myself wondering if I’ll ever be anything more than mediocre.

I admitted in my book review of Joyce Carol OatesThe Faith of a Writer that I too periodically question my skills as a fiction writer. When that happens, I wonder if I’ve somehow fooled myself into thinking I can write fiction, as if there’s some curtain to pull back and expose hidden wires and pulleys. A woman is behind the helm – the real me – who sheepishly grins, “Been faking it all along you see.”

That is when the spiral begins.  I question myself and come up with an answer that has no validation from an outside source (not that it would matter).  Of course I won’t openly admit what I’ve already begun believe, so I embark on a pointless journey to crush what little is left of my self-confidence as a fiction writer.  I start to “comparison read”, in which  I’m acutely aware of how skilled the author is.  I’m in awe of their strategies in the narrative and compare them to my own feeble attempt of writing fiction.  I’m no longer reading to learn, to appreciate or to simply enjoy.  I feel a bit like the old woman who lived in a shoe, and my stories are the dozens of children, both on paper and in my head: a single parent with children who are poorly fed, poorly dressed and poorly behaved.  Silently and quickly, writing ideas begin to dry up and soon it feels futile to continue writing my stories.

Oddly, my desire, my impulse, to write still remains.  My writing journal, usually filled with hasty scribbles about plot or character or dialogue, is now lined with lamentations of my lack of writing talent and skill. My emails have more engaging language, and my notes to my dry cleaner have more flair.  But at this point I can’t stomach writing or reading fiction.

That feeling of being not good enough is when the spiral is at its worst and it can easily become what some people might call “writer’s block.” On that same social network’s discussion thread, another group member mentioned a writer who gave up writing fiction after reading Grapes of Wrath, because “every thing worth saying was said in that book, and that it was utterly impossible to say it any better than Steinbeck.” It inspired me to dig around for a quote from John Steinbeck’s journal. During the time writing his seminal work of fiction, Steinbeck reflected:

If only I could do this book properly, it would be one of the really fine books and a truly American book. But I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. I’ll just have to work from a background of these.

Although I haven’t found a surefire cure, I have developed some of my own rituals to keep myself from slipping.  I’ll involve myself in other literary and writing activities while giving the fiction writer in me a rest.  They may help you if you ever find yourself slipping towards the “I-Suck-Spiral”:

  1. Read non-fiction – try reading a memoir, a collection of essays, a self-help book, books on writing fiction, or any other non-fiction work
  2. Read poetry – Like me, you may not always grasp the meaning of some poetry, at least not on a rational and intellectual manner, but you can usually connect with the poem’s imagery and language on a sensory and emotional level.
  3. Write non-fiction – Write a personal essay, a blog post (or start a blog),or write a short article on a subject you are interested in.
  4. Go out into the world and write down any impressions that come.  Write about the place or event you find yourself in.  Concentrate on a sense of place and include setting, sensory and physical details.
  5. Go to a literary event or reading in your area – check local bookstores and nearby universities who host readings and special events for any interesting authors.  Going to these also gives you the opportunity to talk to these writers who may inspire you or have good advice.
  6. Connect with other writers and join a writer’s group – providing feedback is a great way to spark ideas in your own writing. A good group can tell you what’s working in the story, what questions came up for them when reading and what untapped opportunities they see in the narrative.
  7. Learn to write in an altogether different field of writing  – learn to write a travel piece, a human interest story, a press release, a book review, etc.

Sometimes my time away from fiction lasts for several months, but I no longer beat myself up for not writing fiction during that period.  As I participate in any combination of these activities for a few weeks, I can feel fiction ideas beginning to percolate, and I slowly start to weave my fiction writing back into my writing life.

I’d love to hear from other fiction writers out there who periodically struggle with self-confidence in their craft.  What are your rituals for keeping out or getting out of the fiction writer’s dreaded “I-Suck Spiral”?