A Writer's Greatest Fear

I’m still studying Of Human Bondage by William Somerset Maugham. As I said in my first article about the book, great writers are those who write stories that are relevant throughout time. They expose universal truths that apply to our lives no matter what century we live in. Of Human Bondage is full of such enduring revelations.

In the first part of the book, we witness the main character, Phillip, and his crisis of faith in God. At the next crossroad in the story, we see Phillip battling self-doubt when he pursues his wildest dream.

After being fed up with a dreary accounting job, Phillip goes to Paris to become a painter. He does well, but never creates anything extraordinary. After the suicide of a classmate, who for all her passion for art was a lousy painter, Phillip reevaluates his reasons for becoming an artist. He wonders what his future will look like if he continues to pursue his dream.

Phillip finally works up the nerve to end the subject once and for all by asking one of his painting masters to give an honest opinion of his work. The teacher is perplexed by his request.

Monsieur Foinet: “I don’t understand.”

Phillip: “I’m very poor. If I have no talent I would sooner do something else.”

Monsieur Foinet: “Don’t you know if you have talent?”

Phillip: “All my friends know they have talent, but I am aware some of them are mistaken.”

In this world of indie publishing, anyone and everyone is writing a book, but should they be? I might be a jerk for bringing this up, but I’ll say it.

I see a lot of crappy books out there.

It makes me wonder, especially when watching writers who are endlessly enthusiastic and confident in their shoddy writing, if they have any idea that they suck. Should someone tell them? (Writing buddies, please note: I’m not referring to anyone in particular. Those who work closely with me know that I am completely honest when it comes to writing feedback).

This line of thinking takes me down an even darker road. If all these writers think they are good, and I am just as optimistic about my abilities, could I be a hack too?

After Monsieur Foinet sees Phillip’s work, he tells him he will never be anything other than a mediocre artist. Phillip decides to give up painting and go to medical school—just like that—the whole Bohemian dream trashed.

Unlike Phillip, despite my fear of sucking, I can’t give up writing. Although I would feel foolish pouring all of my energy into something I lack the talent for, whether anyone likes my writing or not is for the most part inconsequential. Phillip’s friend and fellow painter, Clutton, puts it perfectly earlier in the book:

“What happens to our work afterwards is unimportant; we have got all we could out of it while we were doing it.”

That doesn’t mean I don’t care if I suck. I’m still learning, and like Phillip, I sometimes fear I will never be any good.

There is the possibility that, with enough hard work, anyone can be a great writer, but I don’t think so. Certainly, practicing and studying will improve a writer’s skills, but as with most art, writing has that “either you got it, or you don’t” element.

I read scores of writers who create beautiful prose and use perfect technical execution but whose writing is devoid of passion. Then there are those who are great at coming up with characters and plotlines but lack the ability to make it all mean something. They are just missing that “it” factor that makes great writing.

I don’t know whether I have “it” or not, but I’m not ready to quit anytime soon. I say it is better to try and suck than to not have tried at all. Do-i-suck-a-phobia be damned. So I will practice writing for my own pleasure with the hope that one day my work will give others pleasure too. I will continue to learn more about grammar, composition, and plot structure. I will cultivate my creativity and devote time to daydreams. I will collect my life experiences, like mementos in a curio cabinet, so I can use them to touch on those universal truths in my future novels.

Even if I never become a Maugham, I believe that if I’m truly a writer, it’s in my blood and bones, and I must be willing to make a fool of myself. I must ignore that voice of doubt and keep going. If I suck, I will do my worst and pity all those I ask to read my writing—those family and friends who, with a forced smile, say, “Uh, yeah, it was good. I liked it.”


How do you deal with self-doubt?

Would you want someone to tell you if you had no talent?

Are you honest with your peers about their work? 

If you knew you’d never succeed at doing what you love, would you still keep doing it?


Feel free to throw your tomatoes below.


Edited by Change it Up Edit