Notes from the Writing Trenches: Dealing with Self-doubt

By Anna Marcus

As any writer can attest, one of the hallmarks of the writing process is a sneaking self-doubt that creeps up on you somewhere around the halfway mark of your manuscript. This is when you feel like everything you’ve written up to that point is complete and utter crap. I have hit this bump many times over the six years I have been working on my novel. Each time it happened, I went back and tried to fix things, but it just got worse. Soon I’d rearranged the plot, changed the point of view, and rewritten the beginning so many times, I couldn’t even remember what the original idea of my story was. Months of work would go by with nothing to show for it. The ending of my novel never seemed farther away than at page 250. I started to think that I would never finish this book.

The Law of Three

I wanted to know, why was I losing all confidence in myself so close the end of my project? This repetitive pattern was really bumming me out, but then a friend of mine told me about the early 20th century philosopher and mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, and his Law of Three, which helped me reframe my views on the entire creative process and learn to embrace my doubt.

Gurtjieff’s Law of Three

Gurdjieff’s Law of Three states that every phenomenon in the universe is due to the interaction of three separate forces: Active or Affirming, Passive or Denying, and Reconciling or Neutral. Force One is the active/affirming stage, which we most often feel at the beginning of a creative project when we are excited and enthusiastic about an idea. This active force carries us along for a while, but then inevitably that force meets with resistance, which is Force Two, the passive/denying force, most often experienced by writers as crippling self-doubt. You may be wondering, how does anything get written if we are always stymied by Force Two? Well, according to Gurdjieff, when Force One and Force Two, the yin and yang so to speak, interact with each other for a while, a strange alchemical process occurs. Out of their cosmic dance, a third force comes into being, which is the reconciling/neutral force. This is the most mystical stage of the creative process, and it’s very hard to pinpoint when or how it happens. Through my own experience, I have come to believe it occurs through an act of surrender.

The Hero’s Journey

Writers and storytellers will find the Law of Three very familiar, because it closely mirrors the archetypal story structure of the Hero’s Journey. In almost every story there is a protagonist who starts out very gung ho on their mission to achieve some lofty goal (Force One), but then they get stopped by an antagonist who finds all sorts of devious ways of undermining them (Force Two). Then, just when the Hero has given up all their original ideals and stops thinking of themselves as any sort of hero at all, they figure out a new way of solving their problem, and prevail in the end, although their success may not look at all how they imagined it would at the beginning (Force Three).

I was elated when I learned about this Law of Three. Everything started to make sense to me about what I was experiencing in my creative process. Like the protagonist in my story, I had to battle my own antagonistic forces. After banging my head against the wall for a while, I finally gave up some aspect of my original idea and started to look for a third way. This happened over and over again with every chapter, every scene. The more I went through the cycle, the better I got at recognizing what stage I was in: Force One, Force Two, or finding Force Three.

The Third Way

I remember the point in writing my novel, when I let go of my grand notions of how my protagonist would solve her problem. I thought she would go on an epic road trip and find things along the way that would bring about her reconciliation with her dead mother, but instead she hurled herself off a roof, almost died, and I had to find a different way for her to make peace with her past. It was really hard, but once I accepted the new situation and embraced it, my ending came into view, and I was able finish the damn thing. Even though it had a misshapen head, was jaundiced, and colicky, I loved my novel anyway. It didn’t turn out to be the type of story I thought I was writing, but that was ok.

If you are stuck in the terrible self-doubt phase about your writing right now, take heart. This is only natural. Everything in the universe, including humanity, and all structures and processes, must go through the three forces to come into being. You can count on it, and when you feel the most in doubt, you are actually very close to reaching the reconciling energy you need to finish your project. Trust in this, and let go. A third way will come to you very soon.

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