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How to Write When You’re Not Sure About Anything

Photo-Illustration: by Preeti Kinha; Photos: Getty Images/Getty Images/Westend61

I decided recently to start bringing my daughter to day care. I’ve worried incessantly about this choice — asking myself if I am a reckless parent, if she’ll be safe. I’ve wondered whether I should just keep her home with me and resign myself to working only during the stretch of hours between her bedtime and dawn.

While mulling over this decision, I delivered the final manuscript of my second novel to my publisher and here, too, I agonized about every choice along the way — from what my characters should say to each other in the denouement of the novel to whether to use asterisks or space breaks between sections. I wish I could say this anxiety was all COVID-19 related, but self-doubt is central to my way of being, and my writing is not immune.

Like most writers, I have enough of an ego to believe I have something to say and that the way I say it is interesting, and yet, I am not above craving guidance and approval. As I’ve edged closer to publishing my second novel, I’ve managed my worries by turning to friends for advice. I text a friend a list of adjectives and ask which two would best describe an elusive character for the jacket copy. I read aloud a note from my editor to my husband and say I disagree, but maybe she’s right, and what does he think? Is she right? I ask my friend if she thinks my book isn’t fitting for the times because it’s a book about trauma and the halting, tenuous progress people make in its aftermath — it doesn’t answer the urgent call for more stories of Black joy, always and right now.

This dependence on the opinions of others could make writing a novel impossible. I’m fortunate that, when I’m drafting, I’m able to ignore my inner worrywart enough to just write; I know it isn’t time yet to tune in. But as publication approaches, her questions grow louder, and I’m rarely satisfied by my own answers or the ones supplied by my friends. “Trust your gut,” they reassure me, and I feel more lost than ever.

My gut poses a problem for me, especially if my gut is meant to stand in for my instincts or physical sensations. I’m a survivor of abuse, and I live with trauma — I cannot always trust my body and my brain, which are primed to warn me that catastrophe looms or is already here. It’s no help that I’ve moved through institutions and a larger culture that have reinforced the message that I, as a woman of color, don’t know what I think I know, and my judgment shouldn’t be trusted.

I recognize it isn’t cool or admirable or on-trend to speak so plainly about seeking the approval of others. Shouldn’t therapy, mindfulness, and the right wellness influencer be able to cure all my self-doubt?

Even writing communities dabble in the idea that there’s a way out from under creative uncertainty. Workshops, conferences, private consultants, and coaches often promise, however implicitly, to help you figure out whatever the hell it is you’re doing every time you sit down to write. And even more woo-woo approaches to writing offer up the notion of intuition as an antidote to feeling unsure. Whether writing is seen as an unconscious, mystical process, a highly professionalized craft, or both, what’s unavoidable is the concept of a gut: Either you can develop one or tap into the one that’s already there. How do those options leave room for writers to be unsteady and tentative, to never fully transcend the feeling of not knowing?

I teach creative writing in MFA programs and online workshops, and my students often share that they find writing to be emotionally hard. Perhaps I open the door to these confessions with my own expressions of wariness. They want to know how I manage to feel more sure, to overcome uncertainty. Maybe other writers have more concrete advice: an inspiration board, an annual retreat, a damn good writing exercise. Instead I tell them: The feelings are a part of it. Every time you sit down to write, you come face-to-face with yourself, your fears, hang-ups, desires, and delusions. And there may not be a place in the writing for all that you find inside of you. You may be able to channel some of it sometimes, but much of it isn’t useful. You write anyway, even when trusting your gut isn’t an option.

The first day I dropped my daughter off at day care, I cried as soon as she was out of sight. She was nonchalant and calm as she left, folded into the arms of someone else. I immediately emailed my therapist, hoping for a reassuring reply along the lines of It isn’t bad that she didn’t cry! She feels secure! You’re doing great! I knew this logic enough to want someone else to offer it to me; it wasn’t quite enough to tell it to myself.

In attachment theory, there is a clear link between a child’s ability to trust the people around her and her ability to trust herself. If she has learned to rely on others, she will navigate the world confidently. She feels accompanied, supported, free.

Perhaps the trouble with my gut isn’t that I don’t trust myself but that I have trouble trusting others. Unlike my daughter, I don’t believe the world is a safe, secure place — and surely it isn’t, as many of us knew long before the crisis of COVID-19 and the tragic murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks.

In an uncertain world, books have offered me great solace. The comfort isn’t only in the texts themselves but in what they promise: deep contact with the minds of others. Publishing may be far from impervious to the problems that vex our larger society, but I have still found powerful opportunities in my life as a reader and writer to practice trust and risk connection.

It does me good to trust others to handle my work with care. I trust they will work to understand my choices or wonder about them; they will delight in the thing I’ve created, or appreciate it, or simply engage with it and spend time. This trust isn’t easy — it doesn’t guarantee comfort or blot out fear. I don’t trust anyone and everyone, but I don’t reserve my trust only for those who love my work either. Whether others adore my writing or not is secondary and beyond my control. I can’t know for certain how anyone will respond. The value is in the relationship — the attention and engagement that make writing come alive. It’s a bond that doesn’t depend on perfection or being right.

Naima Coster second novel, What’s Mine and Yours?, is available for preorder.

How to Write When You’re Not Sure About Anything