David Cronenberg almost quit making his second film Rabid (1977) right before production started because he was suddenly plagued with a serious bout of insecurity vis a vis the edgy material. It went on to be a big hit, establishing his now legendary reputation as a maverick filmmaker.
Woody Allen was disappointed in how his 1979 classic Manhattan turned out that he wanted to buy back the negative from the distributor. Today it’s considered one of his very best films (especially compared to much of his work since then).
If you’re reading this, you’re most likely neither David Cronenberg nor Woody Allen. You’re probably not even a filmmaker. But you’re almost certainly a writer. And as such, you’re an artist, someone that creates from his or her imagination, and as such, you are no doubt similarly afflicted with feelings of inferiority and downright worthlessness.
Otherwise, what’s wrong with you?
The short answer either way: nothing. If you’re often unsure about the quality of your own output, you’re normal. If you’re completely confident in your work, all the time, then you’re lucky.
Or self-delusional. But that’s really for you to decide.
Clean Your Mirror…
For the rest of us – even writers like me that are happily independent – dealing with doubt and depression can be just as debilitating as dejection. Basically, by assuming your work is lousy before you’ve even shared it, with a friend or a stranger, you’re launching a pre-emptive strike against “inevitable” rejection.
Or you’re cheating yourself out of your own success, whether it’s artistic, commercial, or ideally, both.
Generally speaking, this creeping sensation that you’ve just wasted a lot of your time and energy – if not most of your entire life – investing in a project or pursuit that is not worth the paper it’s printed on (virtually speaking, of course).
Even projects that have imbued you with a sense of pride and accomplishment can suddenly seem like a steaming pile of self-indulgent garbage.
What happened to all that enthusiasm?
You burned through it, that’s all. Creation is an exhaustive endeavor, especially if you’re writing an entire book. But even if it’s only a short story, a poem, or an article, the optimism that you began with can still evaporate into pessimism by the time you type the final sentence.
Why is this?
The reasons will vary from individual to individual, and believe me, based on numerous conversations I’ve had regarding this very subject, even seasoned professionals with enviable sales records routinely confront this strange mental malady.
Call it the literary version of “stage fright.” Even major actors and singers report suffering that tinge of dread before a performance, even though they are veterans of their craft and are justly celebrated in their fields.
Essentially, it’s that all too common human foible: the fear of failure. In fact, this "sudden panic syndrome" can strike especially if you’ve enjoyed a string of successes, because no one is infallible, and odds are, your lucky streak is overdue for a harsh “reality check.”
But reality is relative. Just because you’ve won a lot doesn’t mean you’re automatically doomed to lose one. That works in reverse as well.
Stephen King tossed out his first manuscript after numerous rejections, which only seemed to affirm his fear that he had no future has an author.
Fortunately for the horror industry and generations of fans, his wife Tabitha retrieved it from the trash.
The name of that discarded manuscript? Carrie. You may have heard of it.
So trust your initial instincts, at least enough to complete then show your project to objective beta readers whose opinions you trust. Or just put the work aside for a while and revisit it with your own refreshed eyes after you’ve had time to rest your fevered brain and weary fingers.
You’ll thank yourself later.