stuck/unstuck: Jennifer Haigh on writing through doubt

by Meredith Resnick

In this issue of stuck/unstuck,* I ask New York Times Best Selling author, Jennifer Haigh, about doubt:

In life there are choices we have to make that, in hindsight, don’t seem like choices at all. We might say that the situation found us, or the decision made itself. But at the time we worried, were anxious, filled with doubt because what if we picked the wrong thing? Since the writing life is like any other aspect of life, can you share how you’ve moved through periods of doubt? How you used the doubt to enhance your process? Did you welcome it, so to speak, to go from being stuck to unstuck? How does it, each time, eventually resolve?

Jennifer Haigh is the author most recently of the widely acclaimed Heat and Light, and three New York Times bestselling novels, Baker Towers, The Condition, and Faith. Her first novel, Mrs. Kimble, won the PEN/Hemingway award for debut fiction, and Baker Towers won the L.L. Winship/PEN award for outstanding book by a New England author. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic and Granta, Best American Short Stories 2012 and more. [I love her work.]

by Jennifer Haigh

“Like most writers, I live in a nearly constant state of doubt. This is particularly true in the first year of a project, the conjuring phase, in which I am making something out of nothing. My initial enthusiasm is interrupted again and again by troublesome flashes of common sense, in which I recognize the unlikeliness of success, the better-than-outside chance that the fragile thing I’m fashioning will turn to dust in my hands. This is no idle fear. It’s happened to me more than once, and will doubtless happen again.  The only way to guarantee it won’t happen is to write the same book and over again, something I’ve chosen not to do. This summer I finished my first-ever short story collection, NEWS FROM HEAVEN, and found myself as nervous as when I delivered MRS. KIMBLE ten years ago. I’ve written short stories my whole adult life, and yet this project felt very much like writing a book in a foreign language.

Unless you’re willing to risk a giant pratfall, it’s impossible to write anything of value.  It’s a question of writing through the doubt.  I’m now working on my sixth book, paralyzed by uncertainty, and the answer is the same as it ever was.  I get up and go to work.”

Visit Jennifer at JenniferHaigh.com.

Read Jennifer’s 3-Question Interview (the only one with 3 questions!) by clicking HERE.

*From the vault.

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Sheryl

There is no easy answer to self-doubt. We just have to plod through it and keep moving.

Alexandra

I’m stuck right now, so this was helpful. You have to believe in yourself. I rewrote a manuscript three times, but know it is stronger. Interesting to hear Jennifer say she wouldn’t do that again. I look forward to reading her new short story collection!

Brette Sember

The answer for me is always to just keep working even if I am certain what I’m doing is garbage. I agree you have to just keep moving forward with it.

Jane Boursaw

“Get up and go to work.” Excellent advice (and I so need it right now). Reminds me of what Steven Pressfield writes in The War of Art. You just keep getting up and doing the work. Keep making something out of nothing. Pretty soon, it’s something.

Alisa Bowman

I’ve read all of Jennifer’s books. Every single on of them is worth reading and worth her overcoming the doubt during the writing process. Interestingly, while she doesn’t write the same novel twice, there is something about her writing that is very *Jennifer.* I would know one of her novels even if her name wasn’t on the cover.

ruth pennebaker

I know these periods of doubt are painful and paralyzing. But I am also inclined to think they’re necessary and even good. I don’t think a doubt-free writer — or even a doubt-free person — is thinking, writing or living deeply. It’s a troubled, complicated world out there.

Jeanine Barone

Doubt is often an issue when you’re involved in creative pursuits. I agree with Brette. You just have to keep moving forward. If doubt creeps up on me, I backburner it by being mindful of the task at hand. It usually works.

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