Self Doubt

Dale Fehringer

Copyright 2018 by Dale Fehringer


Photo of John Steinbeck.

Most writers, even the best of them, experience periods of self-doubt about their writing skills and work.  John Steinbeck, author of "The Grapes of Wrath" and many other novels, was one of the most successful authors of the 20th century.  But even he did not escape self-doubt.

I tried to write this book the way lives are being lived not the way books are written.

John Steinbeck

I’m willing to bet that all writers have experienced a moment, somewhere along the way, when they doubted whether the work they were doing was any good. That seems to happen even to writers who have been successful in the past. No one knows why – it seems to be a hazard of the trade.

Virginia Woolf was a popular author of the 20th century, who even after acceptance and success lamented that she was not fulfilled:

My writing makes me tremble…” she wrote to a friend. “I have wasted all my time trying to begin things and taking up different points of view, and dropping them, and grinding out the dullest stuff, which makes my blood run thick.”

She wasn’t alone.

Stephen King, one of the most successful fiction authors of our generation, has also felt it. In On Writing, his book about the craft of writing, he warned:

Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.”

Even John Steinbeck, one of the most acclaimed American authors of the 20th century, had bouts of self-doubt during his long and successful career. He alluded to it regularly in the diary he kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath, one of the most popular works of fiction ever written.

He set a high bar:

This must be a good book,” he wrote early in the process. “It must be far and away the best thing I have ever attempted – slow but sure, piling detail on detail until a picture and an experience emerge. Until the whole throbbing thing emerges. And I can do it.”

He had done his research, and he felt strongly about his subject. He and his friend, Tom Collins, spent months with migrants who were fleeing the devastating Dust Bowl, and who were driven from their land and homes. Steinbeck wanted to tell it exactly like it was. He wanted to describe their exodus to California, which they thought of as the promised land, and to show that they were willing to do anything to support themselves and their families. He wanted to record how when they arrived in California, the migrants found horrible living conditions, below-subsistence levels of pay, violent repression, and discrimination.

He had seen it, lived with it, and he was severely affected. He and Collins had spent time with the migrants – working with them, listening to their stories, and helping them. He was sickened by the cruelty that some Americans heaped on their fellow Americans, and he was repulsed by the horrible living conditions and how thousands of migrants – starving –were burned out or flooded out of their shelters. He admired the way the migrants endured suffering, retained their dignity, and never gave up.

He twice attempted to write about it, but both times destroyed his work. It wasn’t right, and he didn’t want to do a disservice to those who were suffering so badly by misstating their situation. Now, on his third attempt, he was determined to get it right.

He developed his book in layers and left it up to readers to absorb as much as they wished. He wanted them to participate in the story, to be affected.

His book consists of narrative chapters that tell the story of an Oklahoma family forced off their land, trying to find a new life in California. Interwoven with the narrative, he included a few “general” chapters, which shared his beliefs about economic disparity, endurance, freedom, human rights, migration, and the way humans treat each other. One of those chapters describes how civilizations take land away from previous occupants, and he imagines a migrant, unable to find work, planting a tiny garden of carrots and turnips among the weeds in a fallow field, and tending to it by “secret gardening in the evenings, and water carried in a rusty can.” One day a deputy sheriff approaches the migrant, demands to know what he is doing, tells him he is trespassing, kicks him off the land, and tramples the carrots and turnips. The deputy defends his action saying, “We got to keep these here people down or they’ll take the country. They’ll take the country.”

To write his novel, Steinbeck sat down at the end of May, 1938 in his favorite room of his small northern California house. He outlined a work schedule that would produce a minimum of two hand-written pages a day, six-days-per week, for seven months. It was a grind. Each day he had to push himself to start writing, focus, and continue until that day’s work was done.

There were a lot of distractions: hammering, cement mixers, and installation of plumbing at the house next door; a steady stream of visitors; publishers who wanted decisions about his previous books; aspiring writers who wanted his advice; a search for and purchase of a new home; and a world war breaking out in Europe. At times, he wanted to throw his book away and attend to the other things in his life.

He coached himself to be steady. Five weeks in, he advised himself:

Above all I must take my time. That is the most important of all. Take it easy. I don’t mean to write less or less forcefully but to keep the frantic quality out of my approach.”

As the daily writing drudgery wore on, he had good days when he praised himself, and bad days when he doubted himself.

I’m not a writer,” he wrote nearly two months into the book. “I’ve been fooling myself and other people.”

After two months of grinding it out amidst the distractions, he doubted himself again.

I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too. I’ve wanted so badly for it to be good. If it isn’t, I’m afraid I’m through in more ways than one.”

Summer turned into Fall, and Steinbeck continued to write six days a week. He also continued to doubt himself.

This book has become a misery to me because of my inadequacy,” he wrote.

A little more than three months into the writing, Steinbeck’s wife, Carol, began typing his work. That seemed to calm him, because he could see the book taking shape.

Carol has 150 pages typed now and she is racing ahead,” he wrote in early September. “She’ll turn two hundred (pages) this week. This is really a God send, getting it all in type so quickly. But I wonder whether it will be any good.”

As the book neared completion, Steinbeck’s self-doubt turned into caution.

This is the important part of the book,” he wrote as he labored to describe the migrants’ strike against cotton farmers. “Must get it down. This little strike. Must win it. Must be full of movement, and it must have the fierceness of the strike. And it must be won. I can’t let this thing get lost at this late date. And in my mind the story is moving again.

In October he was nearing the end, and he could sense it. He became his own cheerleader.

One more month of good hard work will finish it. So I must put it in. Must.”

But he still had doubts.

It would be funny if my book was no good at all and if I had been kidding myself. Now forget the end and just go gradually to work.”

As the end of his book neared, Steinbeck became more positive and enthusiastic.

The end is peering in on me now,” he wrote in mid-October. “I can feel it. It’s coming closer. But a lot of things have to happen. Also, I am pretty excited now about my story.”

As he started to write the final chapter, now less than a week from finishing his book, he still had self-doubts.

I’m on my very last chapter now. The very last. It may be fifteen pages long but I can’t help that. It may be twenty. The rain – the birth – the flood—and the barn. The starving man and the last scene that has been ready so long. I don’t know. I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don’t want this to seem hurried. It must be just as slow and measured as the rest but I am sure of one thing – it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do.”

Steinbeck’s stomach bothered him the last two days of writing. Probably nerves, he guessed. But he pushed on through the ending, still uncertain how it would be received.

Finished this day,” he wrote October 26, 1938, five months after starting. “… and I hope to God it’s good.

It was. It was debated, discussed, and referred to as a Great American Novel. It won the National Book Award, best fiction book (1939), and led to Steinbeck receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and later the Nobel Prize. And, most important (as Steinbeck would likely add), it was read. He was vindicated and his self-doubts were put to rest.

We all have self-doubts; that seems to be part of being human. But when we doubt ourselves, it might be helpful to heed Steinbeck’s advice, which he scribbled in his diary near the end of the most difficult period of his life:

Straight through to the finish now without loss. It must be that way. And I shall do it.”

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