“Doubt,” by Louise DeSalvo
May 19, 2010
Doubt. It comes with being a writer. Doubting that what we do is useful. Doubting that what we’re writing is worthwhile. Doubting whether our narrative is the one we should be writing. Doubt. Doubt. Doubt.
I’m not sure that writers have more doubts about their chosen work than “civilians” – non-writers – but I know that doubt is forever with me, and so it’s best to come out of the closet about it, to talk about it, to face the beast down. It might be helpful to know that some important writers – like Virginia Woolf – had those doubts too. Pick up her diary, and what you’ll find is a transcription of doubts about her work (interspersed, of course, with moments of surety) very much like our own.
The only writer I know who didn’t very much doubt that what he was doing was worthwhile was D. H. Lawrence. Even when one of his books was banned and burned; even when another was censored; even when he struggled along. He was sure that his work was important; he was messianic in his fervor that what he had to tell his readers would help change society’s attitudes about materialism and about sex and love between people of different classes (during the time he was writing Lady Chatterley’s Lover). He didn’t think anything was wrong with his work; he thought that anyone who thought there was something wrong with his work was mistaken, and he reviled them in his letters, cursing them in flamboyant language, calling them insects, beetles, hedge-hogs.
It’s true that he had his fears. That, after Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published, he’d be regarded as “a lurid sexuality specialist.” (John Worthen quotes from a DHL letter in his D. H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider).
This sense of mission – and perhaps a premonition that he would die young – fueled Lawrence’s writing. When he was working on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he wrote an astonishing 2,000 to 4,000 words a day, in longhand! (In contrast, if I hit 1,000 words, I’m jubilant.) He took Lady Chatterley through three revisions, transforming it in the process, introducing more social criticism into the work as he progressed. So he didn’t just scribble; he went back over his work and rewrote and revised. He let himself be “in process”; he didn’t expect himself to get the job done all at once; when he reread his work and discovered that he needed to rework, he reworked and didn’t spend time beating his breast about how awful the first version was. There was no such thing as awful. There was only work in progress, work that needed to be revised, rewriting that needed to be done.
Maybe the fact that Lawrence took the time to spell out what he believed the novel should do, what he believed it should accomplish in society, helped him move forward resolutely. What he did, in essence, was to write a “mission statement” for his work, to contextualize what he did. In doing so, he elevated the writing of his work into an act that transcended the personal. He wasn’t only writing fiction; he was writing fiction that criticized the society he knew in order to change it.
If you read DHL’s letters, you’ll see that he continually clarifies his mission as a writer. Here’s DHL writing to Ottoline Morrell when he was revising The Rainbow: “It really puts a new thing in the world, almost a new vision of life.” (Letter #308 in the Cambridge edition of DHL’s letters.) When writing Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DHL spoke of its revolutionary character.
D. H. Lawrence didn’t have it easy as a writer. His work was criticized, ridiculed, burned, banned, ridiculed. He had tuberculosis for nearly all his writing life. He was poor, often, living on charity. He only had enough money to get medical care after Lady Chatterley’s Lover became a sensation, although he had to publish it himself. It was, what we would today call, a vanity publication. He did it for good reason; he knew that if it were published in England, the publisher would have been prosecuted.
So, is there a lesson in all this for us? I think so.
We can – we do – doubt the worth of what we do. But riding the horse of self-doubt is a waste of the psychic energy we need to do our work. We can own our doubt without letting it disable us. How would we react if a book of ours was condemned, banned, burned? Would we carry on like Lawrence? Or would we let society’s decree about the worth of our work disable us?
Perhaps we all need to take time to write a mission statement. Perhaps if we do that, we’ll understand more clearly why we’re doing what we’re doing. Perhaps it will give us the motivation we need to move on, despite our doubt.
When my students doubt whether what they’re doing is worthwhile, I ask them to imagine a world in which there are no books because every potential writer has stopped writing because they’ve doubted whether they had anything to contribute. Is that a world any of us wants to inhabit? I ask them to remember, too, that every book that has changed their life has been written by a writer who wondered, just like they do, whether their work was worthwhile.
So doubt, yes. But work anyway. And if you’re so inclined, copy D. H. Lawrence, and write a mission statement. I have. It helps.