Confronting the Mountain

I recently destroyed my journals. Thirty of them. Tore them apart by hand, recycled them, let them go. It was time. It was cathartic.

But first, I re-read them.

Talk about reflection mode.

I was struck by the similarities between how I felt while writing the dissertation and writing my first mystery. Pages and pages of angst about being completely immersed yet not able to see the light at the end of the tunnel! Wondering why I am even trying. Confessing that I honestly don’t think I can do this. Suspecting that I probably should just quit.

And yet, in both cases, I managed to keep going until I crossed the finish line. I’ve heard other writers describe their experiences the same way, which suggests that, for some of us, the horrible, painful, devastating Mountain of Doubt is simply part of the process. And that until you’ve scaled the Mountain of Doubt, you cannot see around it. The only way over it is to keep climbing, with your idea in one hand and faith in the other, until you’re on the other side. You simply must refuse to give up.

Here, culled from my journal, is one such moment of desperation. Can anyone relate?


I adore my topic.  Really, two years of reading and writing on it have been a pleasure, aside from the eye strain and isolation and obsession and depression and breaking into a cold sweat every time I come across someone dancing in any sort of proximity to my topic.  The need to finish the dissertation has invaded my life to the extent that sometimes I feel like a robot, completely incapable of human response to normal things, and other times like some overly emotional Whitmanesque character storming around campus beginning every sentence with “O!”

The more I work on this, the more difficult and impossible it all seems.

Hard to describe the lurking suspicion that I’m not doing it right…too often, it feels like trying to lay sod by throwing it up into the air for some reason rather than laying it out neatly square by square, and instead of creating a tidy lawn, I end up with a jumbled pile of dirt with glimmers of green peeking through.  I know the lawn is there, but it’s buried and I’m going to have to sift through and reconstruct before it fits together correctly. (Or insert any overly complicated Rube Goldbergian machine analogy here.)

Also suspect—given the elaborate juggling act that I’m doing with theory, criticism, and texts—that I’ve written several dissertations within the main dissertation and that I need to pull one thread out and make that my new primary paradigm (which means the old chapters one and two will be discarded altogether or broken up into bite-sized chunks…how deflating, after all that work).  What happens if I throw away those chapters and I can’t write any more?  What happens if, in the interests of unifying everything, I choose the wrong thread?  What happens if I only make it worse?  Gah! Feel a mere ghost of my former self, flitting around trying to make things develop a substantial form. Lest I drive myself mad, I must remember that writing takes a strange sort of leap: one must summon the courage to believe that you have something worthwhile to offer and the bravado to articulate that in public.  So my new mantra is to just say it — to let go of the fear of saying it wrong or of being corrected or even of screwing up in some huge, wheezing, painful-to-watch kind of way.  If those things happen, then at least I’ve tried my best.  And that’s all I can do.  Yes, I am bleary-headed from reading the same dang pages over and over again, so I’m rather petulant but still weirdly hopeful. Something is happening. Cogito ergo sum, and to all a good night.

10 thoughts on “Confronting the Mountain”

  1. Oh boy, can I relate! And I think every writer feels this way; the old “the magic is gone” feeling at the start of a project and then “this is all terrible and what was I thinking?” feeling in the middle. Yet we all persevere and get there in the end, don’t we? I read recently that the feeling of “it’s all just crap” is part of any creative endeavor and we must make peace with the crap. Congrats on making it through!


  2. How wonderful to be able to see what your journey felt like, and thank you for sharing it here. I think, regardless of what we’re individually trying to say, we all feel this way at one point or another!

    Hank Phillippi Ryan has mentioned that she keeps a writing journal for each of her books. Five lines about the project, every day. I’m trying to stick with that on the book I started yesterday. Something to let me know when I’m in love with my plot and when I’m frustrated that I have such a long way to go.

    This post has the dual achievement of pointing out that the mountain is very, very big, and that you’re very, very smart 🙂


  3. Mary, I adore that: “make peace with the crap.” Maybe I need to make a sign and post that over my desk! You’re a genius. And congrats to you, too, for making it through your various projects (I am in awe of how fast you write).

    Diane, that is so very kind, thank you. And I’m glad you’re keeping a writing journal–is it in a composition notebook? (I remember in one of our Twitter chats, we discussed our longstanding affinity for those, LOL). I hope you write down lots of wonderful love notes to your plot upfront so that you can refer back to them later and be bolstered. Good luck on the new book (if it helps at all, I can’t wait to read it eventually).


  4. I love this. Your marvelous voice and sense of humor comes out most strongly when you feel bereft of hope. I loved the “Whitmanesque character storming around campus beginning every sentence with ‘O!'” I love your description of the chaos of a draft and the feeling of being overwhelmed by it all. I love the “Mountain of Doubt.” But my favorite line is “You simply must refuse to give up.”


  5. Can I relate? Woman, this is my every thought. And not just about the thesis and the book. This is my thought about life. About the “well, I didn’t plan this or that but they came together for a bit and now look like a mistake, so if I am going to start over and chart a path, what do I keep and what do I toss?”
    Oh, boy, yes.
    But now I want to go finish two doctorates before I reengage with the novel, which is a sure sign of procrastination and fear.

    Awesome post.


  6. Nap, thanks! You know I am cheering for you, always, whether re: your multiple doctorates or your wonderful novel. You’re amazing.

    Sue, I did! That’s incredibly nice of you to say about the writing, though…so very nice.


  7. ” Lest I drive myself mad, I must remember that writing takes a strange sort of leap: one must summon the courage to believe that you have something worthwhile to offer and the bravado to articulate that in public.”

    Oh so true! I think you have spoken to and for every writer with those words.

    @Diane, I came in on the end of the Hank thread. So that’s what she does. Sounds like something to emulate.


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