How can we deal with the whispering voices of doubt?

‘You’re doing fine. Keep going. You’re nearly there. You’ve got this.’

I remember repeating this to myself on a long walk in the Lake District a few years ago: having climbed Scafell Pike and Great Gable, I ran out of energy on the descent with three miles to go. It took sheer willpower to drag myself back to the carpark.

Developing a supportive voice inside your head, imitating the soothing, coaxing tones of a parent or a best friend, is something perhaps we all need to do from time to time to keep ourselves balanced. Often, the face we present to our friends, the confident one with the positive thoughts and attitudes, is not the same face as that of the anxious individual who sometimes doubts his or her own potential. It’s no surprise that we often hear how people who show a self-assured, cheery exterior are, in reality, quite vulnerable and alone in their darker moments. Think Robin Williams, the most ebullient and talented of comedians. Apparently, even Lady Gaga suffers from low self-esteem.

It is interesting that, often, when other people appear so assured, they have all the answers, they seem to understand the world, say the right things, make all the right moves, it’s no wonder that we sometimes feel isolated, exposed and less capable of doing what is expected of us. The inner voice, less welcoming and supportive, tells us we will mess up, we don’t deserve success: it’s the voice that says we are impostors, we have taken a place we don’t merit and soon we will be found out as frauds, with embarrassing consequences.

I only heard the term ‘impostor syndrome’ relatively recently and, on hearing it, I had one of those moments when things seemed to click into place. It explained exactly what I’d felt on several occasions and, all of a sudden, there was a name for it.

As a child in the playground, joining in with all the others, I knew my family were ‘different’. At grammar school and beyond, surrounded by many lovely people, most of whom were very privileged, I often felt that I had no right to be there, I didn’t really belong and, at some point, someone would jump out from behind a curtain and explain that to everyone.

As a teacher of theatre, my central impetus was for every student to achieve their best, more, if possible, and I was always aware of the injustices that might hold the less privileged kid back. It was something I sought to identify and change.

Now as I writer, I’m still occasionally revisited by the familiar voice that asks me what I’m doing here. I have a smart and brilliant agent; my publishers are wonderful; the editors are kind, astute, cool people who are so self-assured. Everyone is glamorous, talented, warm and friendly and they all have every right to be where they are, bathing in the soft light of well-deserved success. The negative voice whispers in my ear that I must be an impostor.

Of course, the friendly voice in my head takes over at this point. I’m not out of place; I work hard; I can write and my books are selling well. I’ll be ok if I just keep going.

Then realism kicks in; these beautiful, talented writers who publish brilliant books that drip from their fingertips like magic spells are really just like the rest of us:  they sit at the laptop into the early hours of the morning, writing and editing and searching inside their heads for the right phrase, the clever ending, the smart plot points. They wake up in the morning with a head full of stories and they lurch for the black coffee before stumbling towards the laptop, not even having brushed their hair. They have moments of self-doubt which happen on the day before their new novel is released, wondering what will happen if no-one likes it; what will happen if this is the one where everyone thinks ‘Why is she even here?’ Then the sweet voice whispers to be calm:  all this anxiety is completely normal and will fade away soon.

Nowadays, I’m so much better at positivity. Equality, inclusion and fairness are my priorities and I’ll go out of my way to encourage and support others. If I’ve ever experienced impostor syndrome, then other people will have experienced it too. Moreover, there are so many talented people who don’t know or believe in their own potential or have something holding them back, so others should be more often  the focus of my energies.

Of course, self-doubt is normal; we’re all vulnerable, flawed, imperfect, human. That’s what makes us ultimately better at what we do. It’s the very nature of being human that makes us want to Improve our own skills and, at the same time, to reach out, to support and encourage others, to remind others that we deserve to be where we are, that we can aspire beyond the present moment. And, I have to say, my agent, publisher, editors, fellow-writers are all blessed with the ability to inspire and reassure: I couldn’t be luckier.

So, back to the voice in our heads, the one that soothes and cajoles, the one we should listen to more often, and the other voice, the one that criticizes and says that we are impostors who have no right to be here, the voice we should mostly ignore: I have developed the ability to switch them on and off. I know which one to listen to and believe, and which one to discount, to use as the voice of criticism which is there simply to keep me on my toes.

When I sit at my laptop and begin a new novel, the voices are quiet: I’m utterly consumed with a brand-new idea. I can hear conversations between characters; I can imagine settings, feel emotions. I’m off and away when I’m writing. There’s no time to stop and doubt what I can achieve. Hard work and rampant enthusiasm are brave companions.

But it is the quiet time, the time alone, the moments of emotional vulnerability when things are not going as well as they might or the biorhythms have taken an almighty dip that I have to be vigilant. It’s then that the doubt can arrive, the underlying feelings of being an impostor. We are all the same: we all feel similar emotions and suffer similar insecurities. Everyone understands both the feeling of strength and surging confidence and the opposing feeling of self-doubt.

We need to remember that whatever it takes, with the help of friends, family or our own sheer bloody willpower, we can reach our goals. Let’s replace the ‘impostor’ with ‘I deserve to be here.’ Let’s change the sense of being out of place with a sense of equal entitlement. Solidarity is so important. As we join hands and support each other, we realise that together we are stronger, whatever the journey. Let the voices of doubt whisper what they will, we can shout louder. We’ve got this.

 

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Whatever music you need, Escapades hits the right note.

I know some people like to work in silence: writing a novel, a dissertation or doing homework means that concentration must continue uninterrupted and they prefer no noise at all. Others like the buzz of a radio playing music in the background, or the friendly hum of a voice on Radio Four.

I like the pace, the ambiance and the motivating mood of loud music.

I wrote an entire novel while listening to Rory Gallagher playing the blues. Another novel was written with Planet Rock constantly bustling in the background. Once, I changed the music I was listening to as I changed the mood from chapter to chapter; Gogol Bordello for the lively moments, Nina Simone for the tender moments, the scenes of pathos.

At the moment I have started a novel set against the backdrop of the Scottish lochs and that’s where Jack Gardiner’s Escapades comes in. I’ve discovered his album and it’s perfect for when I’m writing.

Jack is from Liverpool, only twenty-six years old, but he’s been playing guitar since he could sit up in his cot. A consummate musician, composer and technically-brilliant teacher, he cut his teeth playing guitar with China Crisis and he has toured with many more maestros in his short but productive time.

Now he’s made a solo album and it is heaven to write novels to. Jack has fingers that spider across the frets at a speed you wouldn’t believe, producing spiky atmospheric sounds, ideal for me when I’m imagining dawn over Loch Ness or the winding roads of Skye. But there’s so much more to Jack’s music than that.

From a musical family, (Jack’s father is a consummate bass guitarist, his brother plays a mean bass and drums and his mother has published articles as a music journalist,) Jack was always destined to perform. The track, 1993, which I guess is named after the year of his birth, is rhythmic, celebratory, with a spacy atmosphere, the guitar playing of a virtuoso. But Jack is no flash-in-the pan exhibitionist; his music comes from astute intelligence and empathy. There is a melodic, echoing tenderness in track 6, Until Next Time; track 4 Lark Lane, is mischievous and funky while track five, Cereal Killer, is more heavily percussive.

Jack is a huge talent. He wouldn’t be out of place playing in any band, and he has the potential to become a big name alongside Bonamassa and Page. He would wow in a traditional rock band with bass, guitar and vocalist – he has done this many times before – and he has the skill to stun in a duet with another musician or a singer, but it is this solo album that currently steals the show, that surprises in its confidence, a maturity beyond his years, credibility and the sheer impact of one man and his guitar creating a range of skilfully-played and produced tracks.

Escapades is great for me as a writer; it bubbles in the background like a lively stream as I match the pace and mood with my own ideas and words. But the album offers so much more. I’d listen to Escapades with the lights on low, lying on soft cushions; I’d fall asleep and wake up to it; I’d serve the music up with a meal for my best friends; I’d use it to cheer people up and to soothe the troubled soul.

It is an album that satisfies, that draws the listener in and that impresses. Jack is a young man who will go far; I believe one day his name will spring to the lips as quickly as Clapton’s or Gilmour’s when people are discussing great virtuoso guitarists. And this new album is a gem. Listen to it for yourself and you’ll see what I mean.

Listen to Jack’s album Escapades on Spotify or buy it here: Jack Gardiner Official Bandcamp

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Six books that inspire me to be a better writer

I spend a great deal of my time writing.  My latest novel is out! The Old Girls’ Network was released several days ago and I’ve started to edit the next one, which is very exciting. I’ve also just finished writing another – the life of a novelist is all go! – and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. But in the middle of coming up with a new idea, writing it down, editing it, tweeting about it, and talking to radio hosts, I must still make time to read. 

It’s so important to read widely, not just in order to stay constantly familiar with good writing and good ideas, but also for inspiration. I’ve read a few books by some brilliant fellow Boldwood writers. I’m so impressed with the quality of current novels by Fay Keenan, Jina Bacarr, Shari Low, Emma Murray, Gemma Rogers, Jennie Bohnet, Ross Greenwood, Mary Grand, Beth Moran, Frances Evesham and Jessica Redland, just to name a few (and there are many, many more).

But I’ve selected six books I’ve recently read, below. They each have a specific reason for being inspirational and helpful to writers, offering their own unique skills: they demonstrate how to create character, style, storyline, effective writing. It’s all here, a masterclass for authors to read, reflect and learn.

The Wheelwright’s Daughter by Eleanor Porter

This novel uses language so well to evoke place, time and character. It’s the story of Martha, who is accused of being a witch because she is adept with herbs and remedies and, when a landslide occurs, she is blamed.

The opening is incredibly gripping in its clever use of language to evoke time and place and the whole story is a perfect example of how to sustain tension and hold a reader’s interest through the quality of the writing. Characters and tension are superbly handled; it’s a well-written, well-shaped novel about a woman who is outspoken and strong in a community where small-mindedness prevails and small-minded people are eager to judge.

Twopence to Cross the Mersey by Helen Forrester

Helen’s story is autobiographical; born in 1919, she came from a middle-class Birkenhead family, used to privilege, who fell on hard times in the 1930s and lived in poverty in Liverpool. It’s a brilliantly told riches-to-rags tale, compassionate, humorous and without self-pity, in a style that is firmly rooted in days gone by but it still feels pertinent. The author’s voice is authentic: the use of language is, in fact, fascinating, as Helen uses many phrases and words now seldom used, and the world she creates is one we’d never be able to access without the primary evidence and the powerful way she evokes her story. It’s a very lucid account that reveals so much about the early twentieth century and social change, but the novel is in fact far more than that.

I know  Liverpool well and I thought I understood a little about its poverty in past generations, but the world and the lives Helen Forrester evokes in her novel are a real lesson to us all: the story she tells is very moving. Poverty has always been a part of society and it is heartbreaking to read Helen’s experience and to remember that, although times have greatly changed,so many vulnerable people continue to be let down and children still go hungry today. It’s an important and well-written series of stories about the past that still resonate loudly.

Milkman by Anna Burns

I love this book because it’s so brave, challenging and fresh. Set in an unspecified time and place, the community that unfolds as the story develops is both credible and terrifying. The writer has taken a chance with this book and it has worked so well. It won’t be everyone’s idea of a good read: it is a story of tribalism, patriarchy, religion and conformism and the Milkman himself is an incredibly scary character. 

It’s a gripping tale that is an excellent example of the writer taking its readers outside their comfort zone and making the story sing so loudly that it resonates a shocking truth about our own lives and our futures. I imagine the style and the concept won’t be for everyone but it’s the sort of book that will make many readers sit up and reflect.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

This novel is successful because of its style, panache, protagonist and its political energy. The writer is not afraid to be a little subversive and it is the strength and courage of Queenie that shines through. It is about race, straddling cultures and the experiences of a twenty five year old Jamaican-British woman, told in a breezy and humorous style. This story pulls no punches, though, as it deals with the title character’s journey as she splits up with her white boyfriend and attempts to navigate the modern world and all the prejudices and difficulties that it brings in terms of relationships, experiences and self-worth. It is strong, moving and superbly written from the first page to the last.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Not only is this book excellently researched, but it is also a strong cleverly-told tale about a character who defies others’ restrictions and expectations. This is a beautifully constructed and written story, which evokes character and place so well and is powerful in its ability to draw the reader in and to create empathy. Circe is a nymph, she is immortal but she is a woman who is scorned and isolated because she does not fit the mould others dictate for her. She learns to become a witch – it doesn’t happen by magic – and she develops power, strength and independence, which makes her a force to be reckoned with. A cleverly written story which is gripping and inspirational in so many ways.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

I had to include this book. It’s an interesting read for its wisdom, its logical arguments and clarity. As writers, we are always trying to make what we write accessible and meaningful to readers, and not to overcomplicate what we are saying, but to explain thoroughly and accurately. This book is very well-written, but it is so much more. In a time when a ‘white lives’ banner is flown over a football stadium and some Facebook posts demonstrate that there are people who don’t understand the issues at stake, Eddo-Lodge explains her perspective perfectly: it’s not just about discrimination and prejudice, it’s also about power and institutions and the meaning of privilege. This is an important, powerful and relevant book, and it offers a necessary dialogue to be continued so that we can thrash out the best way to end racism.