How a Cuban Rescued Me from Artistic Self-Doubt

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.

Elation, right?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

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  • I Jackson

    March 22, 2016

    I love the riff on Freud’s, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”….

    I had the denouement experience after graduating with my doctorate, and, at the time, I thought as you did – so much work and pain of various types, and is this all there is? I pushed the rock up the mountain, and can’t even see the view because of the sweat in my eyes.

    Fortunately it passes, in part because positive consequences soon do roll out. In my case, I got to be called “doctor”, I got a raise, and, eventually, I got to work for myself and be my own boss. I was also given a beautiful painting with a lovely inscription on the back by my family.

    I had achieved something that I’d wanted to do sinceI was twelve years old and I continue to have my dream career. I wish the same for you.

    • Ryan Melsom

      March 22, 2016

      Of course, I couldn’t resist a good Freudian revision, particularly in light of my readership. Thanks for your comments. As always, you add wonderful perspective to these critical moments in our lives.

  • Charles P. Whaley, PhD

    March 23, 2016

    Enjoying your new blog, Ryan.

    I’m surprised Iris didn’t also mention post-partum depression (PPD), which is pretty much the same thing. Estimates of up to 60% of all mothers become intensely depressed after childbirth (and up to 25% of fathers). In 1/1000 women this can lead to psychosis. In 8/100,000 the child is murdered.

    PPD isn’t understood any better than your experience. I’m guessing that the brain chemistry during the “challenge” changes radically on completion, since the challenge is gone. It’s instant withdrawal.

    This is why new mothers should be offered Cuban cigars too, not pink bubblegum shaped like a cigar! If it works for you, it might work for PPD too! That’s my two cents worth!

    • Ryan Melsom

      March 24, 2016

      PPD is a interesting and unexpected comparison, Charles, and I like the suggestion that it may be actual withdrawal. I definitely get a huge rush when I’m working, and particularly as I near the end of a project draft. All of that energy (viz. brain chemistry) has nothing to attach itself to once the work’s done. It almost seems like a mourning. What I wonder is if the completion process will feel differently at different points of life (i.e. as I repeat the experience over time).

      Re: Hospital cigars. Was it Freud or Lacan that said the baby represents the phallus? Cigars seem like a logical amplification/celebration of phallus-babies. I suppose pink or Cuban or none-at-all is all a matter of preference. Power to the mothers.


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