Our doubt is our passion

A couple of days ago I wrote about the process of beginning to write again after a break. Bobbie Darbyshire commented on the importance of doubt and it made me realise that the epigraph I have for this poetry sequence is also about the importance of doubt:

We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.

Henry James

Then today I received a blog post from Richard Gwyn (an excellent blog to follow) about the self doubt of William Carlos Williams:

In his autobiography Williams claims that what drove him to write was anger – somewhat like Cervantes – and his anger was clearly kept warm by his self-doubt and insecurity, his dislike or loathing of certain contemporaries (especially Eliot, of whom he claimed, late in life, to be “insanely jealous”) and his fear that he was not considered an ‘important’ poet.

How terrible the tribulations – real or imagined – of the poet, how fragile the music.


I’m not in a state of anger or loathing and have no illusions about important poet-hood, but I can empathise with ‘insanely jealous’ and this post and other offerings on doubt set me thinking about the line between healthy doubt and crippling self-mistrust. The music is fragile and it’s so easy to be overwhelmed. The key, I think, is in that quote from Henry James.
Healthy doubt recognises that we are trying as hard as we can in the dark; that the results will be flawed, but it does not paralyse us, on the contrary it drives us, it is our passion. As Samuel Beckett put it:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Doubt, after all, isn’t the death of faith. So this week I’ve been trying again and it’s been a fantastic week. I have one more day left and I’m looking forward to being home, but a concentrated week has given me lots of research material, a whole batch of short prose poems for the first section and three new sections in first draft. I remain full of doubt, but I think I’m failing better.



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13 responses to “Our doubt is our passion

  1. Sue Vickerman

    oh, brilliant timing Jan, while I’m here, now, in my solitary writer’s retreat, failing some days, doubting some days, but actually having no raison d’etre other than to persevere with this life’s task, with all my insecurities.

    Glad you’ve had a positive week. I have 13 days left here…

    • I do love my own home, but a long period away is really investing for the moods it will take you through and the concentration on the writing — looking forward to the results. 🙂

  2. Mavis Gulliver

    Thank you for this, Jan. It resonates with me and the place I’m in at the moment. I’m struggling to catch all the different aspects of the stark slate islands, and am so looking forward to my next visit there in March – and to meeting up with you again on the 24th.

    • I know what you mean about all the elements. I thought I’d settled on the numb of sections and then found a whole load of new material including references to the inhabitants before the slate mining, or at least large scale commercial mining. I think I just have to let it take it’s course.

  3. Heartening to get your thoughts on not giving up. I keep trying and failing to give up writing. I write so much and send out so little, yet come back to it over and over – despite constant indecision and self-doubt. Probably because I don’t know what else to do – but it is painful and I often wobedr if the pain is worth it. I know the key is not caring about whether it’s any good or not but the ego keeps getting in the way of the story. I’m currently trying to write some kind of book (Memoir/fiction/commentary? – indecision again!) about place – Manchester – the city I used to live in, stories based on particular marginal spaces. If I forget myself then the place and its stories sharpens into form, life . . . it’s the forgetting that the hard thing.

    Will look forward to reading the poetry sequence on Cmorthin very much. The blog I write is based in the place I live now (Brassington, Derbyshire) is also haunted by mining ghosts like Bleanau – Lead mining in this case – this combination of rural/industrial cultures – seems to produce an undercurrent of a more radical and edgy kind of culture and politics – here too, under the rural surface – even though the mining is long gone.
    I would love to read the Cmorthin poems when they come out. Will look out for them.

    • You are right about the ‘forgetting’ Heather- I’m so used to editing day to day that I find it very hard to let the writing get out onto the page before I’m already editing it. I think that being in a different environment has been part of the answer this week, but where we we are we have to find a different space inside to write. The other key for me is reading — constantly immersing myself in good writing of any genre always makes a diffenence.

  4. Full of doubt about novel A just finished. Trying to stay positive by starting to rework Novel B that was completed, rejected, abandoned ten years ago. Weirdly, I find myself ‘insanely jealous’ of the gusto of novel B, a quality I fear may be (is it? is it?) lacking from novel A. But also I’m cheered by the craft-creakiness of Novel B, a sign that, in some ways if not all, I may be failing better… or am I? Aaargh.

    • Just make sure it’s positive doubt, Bobbbie — I for one am confident that the next book will be even better than the great stuff that’s gone before.
      Interesting to go back to old work — I went back and forth to Stale Bread & Miracles for ove ten years till a long and miserable novel became a sequence of narrative prose poems — some things just don’t let us go.

      • Thank you, Jan. Your confidence means a lot. I’m just looking at early drafts of the opening paras of the novel just finished, seeing that I’ve bled some of the gusto from them with rewrites and revisions… hey ho, on we go…

  5. omar sabbagh

    remember weber’s immemorial insight: doubt or (scientific) scepticism requires just as much a leap of faith (in scientistic reason,) as any other metaphysical faith…if you discard meta-physics, even if as regulative, you become a prison of the way things are…speculation, that is, metaphors beyond the (verificationist) five senses, are nec to any conception of ‘society’ or ‘the unconscious’…otherwise one ends up saying, with evil consequences if not intent, that theres no such things as individuals, that there’s nothing pertinent to personhood but whats explicitly conscious

    omar s


    omar s

    • Thanks for this Omar

      That’s a really helpful thought. I like regulative metaphysics – I’m a fan of Tallis and this resonates with his emergent metaphysics that refuses to reduce personhood to brain from a non theistic and scientific background. And agree about evil consequences… Thank you.

  6. menna elfyn

    I rarely reply to anything on-line but thanks for these — how uplifting as I stumble on … I always love Wislawa Szymborksa’s words that poets if they are honest must always say ‘ I don’t know’. That’s my mantra when things get tough as they are at the moment.
    But thanks for all this.. and for the ‘hesitant hope’ …

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