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[SWP: Behind the Book] Getting Past Doubt and Back to Creativity
Written by
Irene Allison
February 2016
Written by
Irene Allison
February 2016


It takes courage to share your writing with the world because everyone has something to say, sometimes in ways that nurture, sometimes in ways that scorch.

Early in my writing days, I received some unexpected praise from a mentor-author. When I thanked him, he must have heard my embarrassment. He shot back, "As a writer, praise is rare, criticism abounds. So take my praise and enjoy it."

It wouldn't take long before I discovered what he meant about the critics.

When it comes to art, everyone is a critic, and sometimes very vocal. But we shouldn't forget that art is in the eye, the heart, and the ear, of the beholder.

Case in point. The performances of Maria Callas, the great soprano, sometimes ended with angry operagoers throwing rotten vegetables onto the stage. As legend tells it, the great Callas, with diva-like composure, simply picked them up and threw them back.

While not the approach I would choose, I admire Maria Callas' aplomb. Most of all, I admire her refusal to give up.

As for those operagoers attending concerts, pockets stuffed with zucchini and cabbage? That is something I will never understand.

Nor will I ever fully understand my own very small, yet very public, "rotten-veggie-Maria-Callas-moment". There was no unruly mob smelling like garden compost. There was just one publisher with a microphone and a whole lot of anger.

And it was my writing that had made him mad!

The event was billed as an opportunity for writers to pitch to a panel of six different publishers, hosted by the arts editor of a well-known magazine.

Great idea! Despite it being a public pitch in a crowd that numbered 200 by the time I squeezed my way through to an empty seat.

I wanted to escape. But I had signed up, prepared my pitch, and rehearsed it with seasoned writers. Surely I was ready.

One at a time, writers were called to stand up at their seat and launch a 5-minute pitch to the panel on the stage at the front of the room.

One of the writers cracked jokes. The jokes were met with an icy, cringe-inducing silence. I shrank in empathy for him.

Well, at least I had prepared a real pitch, with a hook, some characterization, conflict, a burning story question. I'd even practiced it out loud to avoid stumbling. Surely I was ready.

My turn. One deep, tummy shaking breath, then I stood.  

This was a pitch for my first novel, a love story from the south of France, where I had lived for years, a story of three friends, unrequited love, tragedy with a twist that allowed the lovers to reunite in their senior years.

The reaction was swift. A red-faced publisher at the far end of the panel shook his fist. His outburst, "I feel manipulated," that he yelled into the microphone exploded through the room.

Every cell in my body shook but I was frozen in place. The publisher continued to berate me for willful manipulation. And as he did, the size of the crowd seemed to swell as I seemed to shrink.

Finally, the host intervened. "Thank you," he said, repeating it several times before the irate publisher finally shut up. Then a big clearing of the throat. "Yes, well, your house," the host said speaking directly to the angry publisher, "your house publishes children’s book. So really Irene's book is not for you."

A small mercy, for sure. Unfortunately though, I was still standing, in the middle of the crowd, with all 200 pairs of their eyes boring straight through me.

Then the voice of another publisher. She said, "I'll look at your work." Her house wasn't publishing my kind of story either, but thankfully it gave me permission to force a smile and slink out of sight, back down in my seat.

Later, outside in the bright afternoon sun, my every step felt weighted. I couldn't get the shaming out of my head. Worse, a small inner voice hissed: he's right. Your work is manipulative. It's trash. You're not even smart enough to recognize it.

And there it was: an ugly seed of doubt, spreading fast. I'm no good. I'll never try again. I quit.

Despite some shimmer of understanding at the back of my mind that the publisher's admonition had something to do with him being triggered at the idea of a love story between elders, the seed of doubt had taken hold.

When I got home, I hid my story. And I stopped writing, stuffing my days instead with as much nothingness as they could hold.  

Then somehow, from the other side of the country, my sister got wind of things.

We weren't that close, my sister and I. She had been the family star, an opera singer, athlete, fashionista, and utterly beautiful. Me? I was the messy tomboy of a little sister. Our difference in age separated us geographically long before any adult friendship could take hold. Then she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. On the operating table she suffered a surgical mishap that left her half-paralyzed and unable to speak.

Still, she got wind of things. And with her one good hand, she painstakingly wrote a long letter of support.

That one nurturing voice from my sister, from an artist who deeply understood the destructive nature of self-doubt, was the most precious vote of confidence I ever received. It allowed me to shake the doubt from my mind and toss it aside.

Years later, my mother also succumbed to the poison of self-doubt, when she almost gave up on the book we were writing together.

Again, my sister returned. This time as memory. Her words: Don't let anything stop you. My dear, beautiful, once-proud sister who, not long before she died, sang a final concert, strapped into her wheelchair like a broken sparrow.

Now it was my turn to encourage my mother, to stand firm against doubt, and to say, "yes, we can do this."

When faced with destructive self-doubt, we all need support. Either from inner strength, or from someone who understands, a trusted voice that we can take into our hearts and make our own. A voice to bring us back to our creativity.

Have you struggled with crippling doubt or shame regarding your writing? Did you find that one precious voice? Or did something else shine a light to guide your way?

* * *

Stay, Breathe with Me: The Gift of Compassionate Medicine

by Helen Allison and Irene Allison

will be released by She Writes Press, June 2016




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  • Irene Allison

    Joan, thanks for your support. Yeah, it definitely was one of those totally unexpected shakeups that seem to just pop out from nowhere. And maybe ultimately for a good reason -- along the lines of "what doesn't break us makes us stronger".

    Writers have to be strong. And never give up. And it really helps to have a great community to share with -- like our community here! 

  • Joan Z. Rough

    Oh my, what a story.  We all have self-doubt but when it's brought on by an outside voice in public, I'd say it's abuse and inexcusable.  Another reminder that we should never give up.  And I do hope you get back to your novel and publish it!

  • Irene Allison

    Virginia, how fantastic to get reviews that talk about your characters are though they are real people. We should all be so lucky. That's just great. Kudos to you! 

  • Virginia Llorca

    Quite the opposite. I love my writing and read it over and over. My favorite review was "crazy good read", so I focus on that. I understand the "genre" is not everyone'should taste but when reviews talk about my characters as though they are real people, I am satisfied.

  • Irene Allison

    Marta, thank you for your support! Yes, we all need a lot of courage on this journey!

  • Irene Allison

    Kathryn, thank you for your encouragement! I'm taking note of your suggestions -- and yes, I'll email you down the way -- Right now I'm crazy busy with my non-fiction book coming out in June. Such a big "to do" list. But once things have settled down, I'll look into self-publishing that love story. Thanks again, Kathryn. A shot in the arm I needed and much appreciated! 

  • Authors endure a lot of rejection from publishers and agents however, what you shared is abuse, your share serves to encourage us not to give up. Thanks for your courage!

  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith

    YES DO SELF-PUBLISH THAT ORIGINAL LOVE STORY! ASAP. If you need a great and affordable cover artist, my cover artist Dawn Dominique, is available. Email me if you need any info about self-publishing,etc. [email protected]

  • Irene Allison

    Jo Anne, gee, thanks for asking!  After I batted down that ugly beast of self-doubt, I pulled my novel out again, blew off the dust, and sent it off. I got some really positive feedback, in particular from an editor at a big house, who praised it in a lovely personalized letter but said it wasn't quite the right fit for them. Boy - that was just the nicest rejection I ever got -- it actually made me feel good!

    After a while, I got a little tired of sending it out, then waiting and waiting. So I got very busy writing a non-fiction labour of love with my mother (due out in June), a memoir of running off into the wilderness with a mountain man (yes, I did), and a couple of other novels. But right now, the book with my mother is my key focus.

    After that? All bets are off! I might just self-pub that original love story. Thank you for asking.

  • Jo Anne Valentine Simson

    So Irene, whatever happened to the novel? I'm intrigued. It sounds like a wonderful plot line!

  • Irene Allison

    Katie, I'm glad you found my story useful. And you're right -- it takes a lot of courage to write and share it with the world. So I guess as writers we need: inspiration, perspiration, courage, .... and armour! 

  • Irene Allison

    Diana, thank you for your understanding. Yes, it is strange (and endlessly surprising) what humans come up with. But they do. I guess that's what gives us great material for our writing! Thank you!

  • Irene Allison

    Delin, thank you for your kind and very useful ideas about handling and preventing self-doubt. I'll keep this all in mind as I go forward in life. Unfortunately though, I tend to be one of those people who thinks of the perfect rejoinder hours later and never when I actually need it. Ha! But I'm learning. Thanks for your comments and encouragement.

  • Katie Greulich

    I have to coax myself each day to keep going. Thank you for an extra reminder today! It's amazing how much courage it truly takes to write. I don't often think of that. I enjoyed reading your story!

  • Diana Y. Paul Writing

    It is so hard to imagine, Irene, that anyone (publisher, agent, fellow author) would make such a soul-crushing comment to an author who has to have tremendous courage to put herself out there for others to react to her creative spirit expressed in words.  This certainly reflects on him, not you--and I'm so happy that you and your sister became reinvigorated to move on after that unfortunate incident!

  • Delin Colón

    It sounds more like you ran into a very unprofessional, emotionally disturbed publisher than failing at your pitch. It takes guts to pitch in front of an audience. I don't allow myself the luxury of self-doubt (especially not based on the rants of one angry person). It wastes too much time. I have to believe that I can fix whatever issues are pointed out in an honest critique. But you had no cause to feel shame and should have handed that sentiment right back to the publisher, shaming him for his lack of professionalism. You may even have gotten a round of applause for standing up to him. It sounds like he made everyone uncomfortable.

    You are blessed to have had such a wonderful relationship with your mother and sister. My condolences on your sister's passing.

    Go forth with confidence and determination, and disregard any naysayer who may block your path. Their desire to squelch your passion is their issue, not yours. (Sometimes we just need a good editor so we don't get derailed on our projects.)

    All the best to you!

  • Irene Allison

    Michelle, thank you for your kind words and vote of confidence. (BTW, I'm getting excited waiting for the release of your book!)

  • Irene Allison

    Veronica, thank you for sharing such a beautiful and touching story about your mother. I am sorry for your loss. It sounds as if your mother will always be in your heart and, when you need it, your voice of inspiration and encouragement. How truly precious. 

    I've got a very close and special relationship with my mother too. She's ailing now. And it is heart-breaking to go through this with her. But I am hoping that she will stay well enough to see the birth of the book that the two of us have worked so hard to manifest.

  • Irene Allison

    Marcia, thank you. I'm glad you found the post inspiring. I'm sure I'll find your memoir inspiring too!

  • Irene Allison

    Laurie, thank you. And thank you for your kind words!

  • Michelle Cox

    What a beautiful, past, Irene.  So glad you didn't give up; the world would be less!  

  • Your story is incredibly touching, Irene... it brought tears. I do love a happy ending though. :-)

    Doubt, shame, guilt... oh yes, I've had my share and it has always been my mother who brought me through those times.

    I begin writing about seven years ago. It began as therapy to help me cope with an ordeal that began when I was still in college.

    My mother passed away eight years ago, after a long battle with breast cancer. I wasn't there for her (another story for another time) but I know that, although she was alone, she faced that battle head on. She never gave up, never backed down. Mama was not a quitter!

    And now, whenever I am facing something, whenever I have doubts... guilt that I am pursuing something that I am not good enough for... shame that my words are not good enough... that I am a fraud... that I can't write...

    I think of my mother. What she went through... not just the cancer, but before that... and I know what she would say. I know what she would do.

    And what she wouldn't do. Quit. Give up.

    And I won't either. We've both been through too much for me to surrender now.

    I am after all... my mother's daughter.

    Thank you, Irene, for your words of courage and inspiration.

  • Marcia Mabee Bell

    Irene, you are inspiring.  Thank you for sharing this painful memory and your success in moving beyond it.  

  • Laurie Prim

    Thank you, this is lovely, touching, and encouraging. Compassionate indeed. I'm sorry for the loss of your sister, who certainly sounds all these things as well. xo

  • Irene Allison

    Alonna, thank you! I am very touched that you were touched. (I cried a lot writing this piece and remembering my sister's courage).