Sunday, September 9, 2007

When to Quit

Self doubt. I won't bore you with the details of my current round of it - but the gnawing beast is at it again. For me, it is usually triggered by one of two things:

1) Coming across work that's really really good. Something so frackin' brilliant that I know I'd never manage it. Something I connect to so much that I feel like the writer read my mind and wrote it for me. I hit something like that, and after the glow of the work itself fades, I wonder - should I just quit?

2) Coming across work that's really really bad. Something so horrible that you wonder if the writer has any connection to reality at all. I see something like that, and I think to myself: "Well if that writer can't see how bad it is, I wonder if I'm as blind about my own work?" And I consider quitting again.

Thing is, I think there is too much mediocre work out there. And I'm one of those people that believe we writers should raise our standards concerning the work we send out to theaters. So when the self-doubt worm starts burrowing, I wonder if I shouldn't follow my own advice and just stop submitting.

Most of you don't actually know my work as a playwright - so I'm not trolling for compliments. I am wondering, however: When does self-doubt hit you? And how do you muddle through?


David said...

When does self-doubt hit me? Every time my heart beats. And when is it cured? With every breath.

OK, that's a bit facetious (and, I think, a lyric from a song in a Bette Midler movie)... but I just wrote and deleted a comment that, in the end, was probably best summed up by those four sentences. So let me try again (even though I'm not sure that this effort is any less rambly):

You mention two things in your note: mediocrity and self-doubt. Re: mediocrity... As a profession and as individual writers, I think we do ourselves and our colleagues a disservice when we don't demand and deliver the very best from ourselves. I'm not talking about plays that are still in-process, that we are submitting to "development" programs or to one or two friends for a critical review. No, I'm talking about the plays we think are finished.

I think this impetus to send out work before it's ready is a result of many factors: our desires for a production; our need to show people that yes, we've actually been working; the often very lengthy timeframe between sending a play out (even to people who know us and our work), getting a response, and then, one or two years later, actually seeing the thing on the stage. We're impatient, and often rightfully so.

Unfortunately, the result is that the recipients of these submissions get so accustomed to receiving incomplete work that they start to assume that this is all that's out there. It's simply overwhelming. And sometimes the plays that would rise above the fray don't get spotted, and a less-ready play (forgive my choice of words) does strike at least one chord hard enough that it gets produced... and then the audiences say, "What? Is this an example of the state of American playwriting?"

It's sort of the YouTube effect. How many videos of people lip-synching to their favorite song can you watch, before you stop bothering to sift through the traffic to find the gems? (Major mixed metaphors, there!)

I'm all for failing big. I've advocated it and (hopefully) I've attempted it. But there's a difference between being "not ready" and failing big. Between being mediocre and failing to grab the brass ring. And, in my tiny opinion, accepting mediocrity is bad for all of us.

And while self-doubt may seem like a much more personal, internal issue, I think there is a relationship between some of what drives mediocrity, in general, and my own moments of self-doubt.

My self-doubts rarely arise because I think I suck. The doubt tends to come sneaking around the edges and through the cracks of my defenses because I start to compare myself to others. As you said, I'll read or see that great play and wonder if I'm capable of doing that. Which is silly, because that play is usually completely unlike what I'm working on.

Of I'll see a mediocre play and think, "THAT was produced?" (Or won... or was a finalist... or whatever...)

And then I realize that my doubts are coming from my (mis)perceived position in the universe of playwrights.

The cure for the larger problem of mediocrity is, for me, often the same as my cure for self-doubt: To go back to me, my writing, my work. To pull myself out of the competition, if you will, and refocus my energy on what I'm doing: writing.

And to be as honest with my work as I'm capable. (Which, I realize, is not easy; as humans, I think we've developed some pretty sophisticated methods of self-delusion in order to keep going, to keep striving.) To write freely, and then edit harshly. To create and finish the best work of which I'm capable. And then, when I'm satisfied with it, to re-enter the fray.

To be honest, for me at least, it's very difficult to carve out those periods of self-focus. (I'm in the middle of attempting one now, having retreated to my secret Writing Castle Of Ice, recently.) There are so many of us, elbowing for slots in seasons and in programs... for example, I'll read that someone has just sent off an application for XYZ program, and I'll think, "Damn! I should have done that, too!"

I find myself getting too worried about the "game" of getting produced. And when I do, I open myself to all sorts of incoming feedback that plays too easily on my writerly sense of self. And when it does, I need to pull back into myself -- not for protection, but so that I can focus on what truly matters, to me: the work. The rest is so out of my control.

Devilvet said...

When those periods of self doubt arrive I usually just ...
it goes away and then i start writing again. I find that when I have something I really want toget on paper, I don't have time or space for self doubt, but if it is undeniable then

do crossword puzzles
or write words
on a sheet of paper
and lists
of words
doubt disappears
write again

Amy said...

Devilvet much more eloquently explained how I also muddle through . . .

I try to use my brushes with problematic plays as lessons. Instead of letting a less-than-perfect work depress me, I puzzle out solutions. I think of it as a free workshop, "How would you rework this??" After one particularly frustrating experience I went home and wrote four pages of changes that I would have made to the show I saw.

It's a great exercise to identify specific issues that bother you so you can be on the lookout for them in your own writing.

And of course, that which frustrates us in others' works usually crops up in our own.

Scott Barsotti said...

This is the first time I'm interacting with the blog, and the fact that it pertains to self-doubt is pretty indicative of my current state.

I agree with david's statement that self-doubt comes much less in regards to my work itself, and more in the comparison with others. How did they get that? What did they do? Who do they know? And that type of resentful thinking (it doesn't have to be resentful, but it probably is when I do it) breeds a defeatist attitude that hits me at my worst. I don't think my work is crap, but most of whats being read is crap, and so why bother? Or something like that.

My self-doubt also comes when I step back and look at the state of things, that is, the state of theatre and the arts in the country, in the city. Again, it's not questioning my own ability to write a play, it's questioning my choice to be a playwright, and wondering if this is something I can ever be a success at. Of course, I feel successful anytime I finish a play, and especially if that play gets produced and people are affected by it. Money is not success, though it would be nice. what I wonder and sometimes doubt if if I will ever be able to break out of the theatrical sphere that I'm in, the fringe, 10 people in the audience, no money, run it for 4 weeks and then move on to the next thing process that I've been in for the past 3 years.

That's my self-doubt.

How do I get through it? I keep submitting. Maybe we're all gluttons for punishment, inherently masochistic or whatever, but it's like in golf, that one great drive brings you back.

I also remind myself that there's a large percentage of writers out there who never have the guts to shwo their work to anybody, and I'm thankful that I do.

Anonymous said...

Pookie Said...

It's perspective. When most people speak of self doubt ...they are really speaking of validation.

We want to be recognized for the work that we do, and find it difficult to navigate a shifting landscape in pursuit of success. (Insert Your definition of success here)

There is really no room for self doubt. It is the curse of the thinking ape. When we really get down to it ...either you write or you don't. But none of us live (just) to write. usually it is a sometimes frustrating but yet vital part of who we are.

How to remove doubt from the scenario?

Remember what writing is. Remember when you ran home with a story from school and wanted to tell it over and over again to anybody who would listen? Not because you were getting a grade, or paid, or laid, but because the telling felt good. And the retelling even better.

Be a "story junkie" and keep chasing the high. And if you can't get high today... don't press it, and don't doubt it. THe high will be back.

I write when I have something to say (which is often)... When I don't -I stay immersed in art making even if it is not writing. I design sets, sound, and lighting for theater. This keeps me grounded in the practical craft of telling stories (and less concerned with the theory of it).

Also I continue to explore my craft as a musician and photographer. I raise my kids, I fret over the Bears piss poor Quaterback, and the curse on the cubs franshise (playoffs not withstanding).

In short -- I keep living. And when I discover once again that I have something to say. I write- because it is as much a part of me as breathing, or raising my children, or eating. It's essential, but there is more to my life than any one of these things.

I leave the judging of my work to those who will come after I'm dead. ..and then I won't be around to care.

In the meantime I strive to remain a function "story junkie". I have no doubt that sooner rather than later I will get my fix. It doesn't matter to me if I'm the only one who wants to get high.