How a Cuban Rescued Me from Artistic Self-Doubt
You may have read on my Facebook page this week that I completed a draft of my forthcoming book Spendshift. Because I’ve been able to focus on writing it intensively, it took me just over two months to complete the manuscript, which is my fastest ever. I woke up the day after I saved the last chapter and went to bed, and I felt one sentiment above all others.
How about excitement?
Relief? Optimism? Possibility?
Try crushing defeat. I felt like I wanted to get back in bed and sew the covers shut.
Maybe you’ll understand immediately, maybe you’ve been there yourself, but on the surface it seems like the exact opposite of what you should be feeling after attaining a creative milestone. Here’s the story that was going on in my head, roughly, when I woke up: so what if you finished it? nobody’s going to read it anyway, it’s completely trite, you’re a charlatan, and even if you do miraculously manage to publish this, it will sit dead on the digital shelves until it’s unceremoniously banished from existence in about two weeks. The fun times spiraled from there.
As I write this now, I recognize this storytelling by a different name. Authors and artists often talk about “self-doubt” in the abstract, but this is, I think, the form it takes. It’s all the things you tell yourself about why you aren’t deserving of success.
When I think about my own process, these stories probably came from the combination of things, some direct, some abstract:
- Personal history: I’ve had many projects fall on deaf ears before, including a particularly memorable and painful one when I was a child. It’s possible that my overwhelming sense of defeat cropped up through my unconscious replaying of these.
- Cultural stories: There are so many here – the unrecognized artist, the crowded and competitive marketplace, the pretension of making art, the inferiority of practical writing. Take your pick. Culture is the air we breathe, so to speak, and as such these stories can be very challenging to discount.
- The weather: Okay, not specifically the weather, but anything else that’s going on in your life – looming bills, physical fatigue, a hangover, a bad hair day.
- The vulnerability of completion: The completion of a large project is exhausting. You put in everything you have just to get halfway there. When you hit a significant milestone, you take in a huge gulp of breath and your heart feels raw. It’s a good time for all those voices that take advantage of weakness to chime in.
These are just guesses, but whatever the case, I did manage to kick the funk thanks to the fine workmanship of my friends, the Cuban people. I decided that in the absence of any external fanfare, I was obligated to say “Screw it” bestow a celebration on myself in the form of a Cohiba cigar I’d been saving for just such an occasion. It was a pragmatic solution to get past all of those factors I listed, and it worked like a charm. Not only did I giggle in celebratory joy as I smoked it, I came up with the idea for this blog post and some next steps for my book.
Sometimes a cigar is so much more than a cigar.
So that’s my story. I’m curious — have others out there encountered a similar feeling of unexpected defeat after reaching a big achievement? What do you attribute that feeling to?