Slaying Self-Doubt

Response to In Between the Spaces has been overwhelmingly positive, and I couldn't be happier. Especially since until recently I had no intention of releasing a full-length record, let along having nice things said about it. A big part of my musical hiatus before then had to do with self-doubt.

Allow me to explain.

Since releasing the album a few months ago, I’ve been working on songs for what will be my next EP. I’m quite happy with the first one I completed, since it’s very much in my wheelhouse of big-sounding, melodic pop rock. 

But then, as it happens, fragments of a new melody started bubbling up. As I started fleshing out the chords and lyrics, I realized this song wasn’t like anything I’ve ever done before. It was soft and delicate, like something like Jack Johnson would do (ummm...)

I wasn’t sure where this was going, but I started recording some basic tracks anyway, including vocals. When I played it back, I was kind of horrified. Not only did I think the song was terrible, I was also worried I wouldn't be able to make it sound decent.

This is what my self-doubt looks and feels like during the creative process... on a good day.

This is what my self-doubt looks and feels like during the creative process... on a good day.

Here’s the kicker: Even though the song is a bit of an anomaly for me, I’d say I have this initial feeling of This one is going to suck for about 90% of my work, before I start baking the song in the recording process.

This is self-doubt rearing its ugly head. By now, I'm used to it. And I’ve found that it usually just needs to be ignored and plowed through.

That’s not to say you should ignore feedback or even your own sense of self-awareness, let alone your nagging inner-critic to keep you from creating something that's just plain bad, even if it's by your own standards. Rather, I’ve learned to just accept the feeling as part of the creative process, at least for me. It's critical to have a vision (sonic or otherwise) to start with after the initial inspiration. After that, creative work always entails experimentation, trying new things, and fumbling around in the dark until you find the solution—be it the right color palette in a painting, the right lens for a sunset, or the right pace for the edits in your film.

Getting back to my current song, I’d say that as of today, I’m at the 20% completion mark. That’s not too far in, and there’s plenty of room to continue disliking it until the 75%-80% mark, when things start coming together and I feel a huge sense of relief. When it turns out OK and I’m not ashamed to play it for people other than my immediate family, I know I’ll have succeeded. Even then, long after I finish certain songs, I'm prone to doubts about them. And again, that's OK. Putting myself out there, and getting solid work done, is my priority.

Reaching this point—overcoming this ugly hump of self-doubt—often comes at a price. You’ll lose some sanity. You may lose sleep. You lose some self-respect, at least intermittently. I think you have to be a bit masochistic to be a creative person, because the process is often so ugly, daunting, and painful, it’s a wonder artists even try most days.

The victory is coming through to the other side with your project done, and the satisfaction in its completion. 

And here’s the moral of the story: facing that feeling, completing your work, and keeping at your craft day after day, year after year, takes practice. It takes discipline. And honestly, it doesn’t hurt to be a little nuts.

What kind of doubts do you have with your creative projects? Please share in the comments.