Freedom (and climbing Self-Doubt Mountain)

Beneath the Floor - July 2021
Wallpaper forest

I suppose, on reflection, last year was quite productive for me. From May 2020 to May 2021, I managed to write a short story every month, as well as an ‘Item report’. Then I made the images I needed, and slapped it all into a newsletter, followed by a VIP newsletter with sneak peaks. All whilst writing the two books that were the original focus. And (hopefully) without tooting my own horn too much, this was on top of a full time job and the rest of the chaos that life dumps at our feet.

So when I took a break from short stories and all the admin things, I expected to quickly wrap up the books. One month, I figured, and I’ll have ‘Tales from Floor Fifty-Four’ finished. I had it all outlined, after all. A nice, steady format - one story of a victim finding a horrific object, one story of that same object being studied on Floor Fifty-Four. Six Items, twelves stories. Bookmarked by an introduction and ending narrative to tie it all together…

It was all supposed to be so simple.

And for a while, it was. I breezed through some stories, struggled on others. But I made it through. Even figured out a way to hint at the next book, and have fun whilst I did so. But then I hit a snag. A single thought, that I couldn’t shake free.

“Are people going to understand this?”

I’m not sure when it hit exactly, but it quickly multiplied. “Am I introducing too many concepts?” “Am I including too many characters?” “Is this too complex?” Suddenly, I couldn’t budge. Every single time I sat down, those same thoughts smothered me. I tried to write, but I hated it. Write. Delete. Write. Delete.

At the same time, the United Kingdom was unfurling into social freedom. We could go to the pub again. We could see friends again. We could play outdoor sports. We could eat out. We could go to the cinema. We could go to the gym. The sun was peeking out. There was an (ultimately doomed) chance of England winning the European Championship.

It’s a strange time, so I suppose I’ve got to be forgiving to myself, but when progress is slow on a personal project, it can really throw me into a spiral. That makes the writing process intimidating, and suddenly the challenge to finish a chapter gets harder, and harder, and harder. It can feel like a mountain. Self-Doubt Mountain. Impossibly high. Completely out of reach. The air gets so thin, it’s difficult to breathe, and that primal monkey part of your brain is telling you to turn back.

I’ve been writing as a hobby for almost five years now. Without question, the hardest challenge I’ve faced is self-doubt. It’s so easy to convince ourselves that what we’re doing isn’t good enough. Isn’t good at all. What an imposter we are! And over the last two months, I once again found myself slipping into that quagmire. It might be hard to understand if you’ve never experienced it yourself, but imagine somebody sitting next to you, very loudly bellowing “THIS IS TERRIBLE!” (and giving detailed reasons why) every time you write a single word. It can be paralysing, but the only way to get through it is to keep going. To know when the voice is helpful, and things need changing. To know when the voice is fearful, and holding you back.

This has been true for most creative pursuits I’ve tried. I used to make animations, and self-doubt almost made me delete my first major success before anybody could see it. It took me around three months, and after playing back every single second of progress… I hated it. The jokes weren’t funny. The animation was terrible. But I showed it to my best friend and comedic partner at the time, who couldn’t comprehend my fears. He convinced me that it belonged on the internet. That it was hilarious. That if I wasn’t going to upload it, we might as well call it a day right there and then. So I ignored that fake voice in my head, listened to that real voice in front of me, and I uploaded it.

It became our most successful video ever. To date, it has 3.7 million views on YouTube, 886k views on the animation portal I grew up on, briefly became the top voted animation on that same website. It still gets comments and views today, despite being 10 years old.

Once every year or so, I read the comments from that video. Here are just a few from the last four months:

“This is the first YouTube video I ever watched.”

“Thanks for being part of my childhood.”

“What a classic.”

“I love this series so much!”

I suppose the lesson I need to remember, and should tell anyone else who shares that voice… That voice doesn’t know what the hell it’s talking about. It’s dripping with fear of failure. It wants us to do nothing. To give up, tow the line, and not put ourselves at risk. “If we try, we could fail!” screams the voice. But the flipside is... if we don’t try, we’ll never succeed. It’s a lesson that, apparently, I need to keep learning over and over.

I’m not where I wanted to be with either of the books yet. Progress has been slower than I wanted, or expected. But if I’ve uploaded this, it’s because I finished the chapter I was stuck on for two months. On to the next.

Maybe one day these books will get the same comments as the cartoon. Maybe they’ll give people the same joy, the same entertainment and fascination. Maybe not.

But all things considered… isn’t it worth finding out?

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