It’s the first Wednesday in the month and for once I’ve remembered to be insecure. I have to remind myself these days because I’m not half as insecure as I used to be. I care a great deal less about what people think of me, and agonise a good deal less about whether they publish me.
So what – I hear you cry – has brought about this extraordinary state of affairs? Well, it started with a pancake. We used to have soya pancakes due to my daughter’s egg allergy, but since she’s left home we’ve reverted to the eggy variety: and as I was mixing, some thoughts were churning in my mind about Lent. I have often in the past given something up for Lent but we are now so hard-up that the kind of things I used to give up (chocolates, TV, meals out, having a car, etc) I have perforce given up for good. So the thought of renouncing yet another luxury did not appeal: take away my chocolate digestives and life is just not worth living. And as the first pancake frazzled in the pan I had a brainwave: why give up something nice? Why not something negative? That, after all, is the idea of Lent: not spurious self-sacrifice but giving up those addictions and attachments which hold you back. Like, say, insecurity and self-doubt.
So that was my decision: for six and a half weeks I would give up self-doubt. The little voice that undermined my confidence and poured cold water on my dreams, would be shown the door. But how? I hear you cry.
Well, there are various methods, but I chose to write affirmations. Every day I would write at least 108 affirmations focussing on positive things (Why 108? I’ll tell you in a minute). I would write, for example, ‘I feel secure’ or ‘I am a good writer.’ (I mostly phrase things in the present tense to make them seem more real.) After a while you start to feel it working – but then the doubts creep in – so to combat this I created a ‘doubt cloud’: I squiggled a cloud-shape on the page and imprisoned all the niggling doubts inside it.
Writing – or repeating – affirmations is a technique I learned from yoga. Traditionally yogis repeat a mantra; a word or short phrase in Sanskrit; and instead of counting they use a mala, a sort of longish rosary containing 108 beads. The number 108 is held to be significant because it has so many denominators: it’s divisible by 3, 4, 6,8, 9 and 12.
Self-doubt and insecurity are the plague of the artist. We need the critical voice but it comes in much too soon – at the start of the work rather than towards the end. We need it when we’ve finished the first draft, but it pops up when we’re just beginning – and sometimes before, filling the blank page with dire prognostications. For example, when I started writing again in 1981 I wrote a sentence or two and then underneath commented ‘too wordy and Dickensian.’
Consider the difference between these two poems: