Writerly Doubts by AJ Kirby
Under cover of darkness they come, stealing into your room on whispering feet, slipping under your duvet without the merest of rustles, hunkering in next to you and seething into your ear. These are not sweet nothings they whisper, but terrible prophecies of doom. These are not promises but threats.
They are your doubts.
In the dead hours of the night they thicken, take on greater substance than they do in the light, when they are reedy and insubstantial.
In the wee small hours they become big as houses.
And you try, desperately, to screw your eyes closed.
And you try, desperately, not to listen to them.
But their icy fingers wrap around the softness of your brain and they squeeze and squeeze. And their voice seethes and seethes.
And then you sit bolt upright in bed, the cold sweats on you, the clearest possible image of page 54 in the book you have just sent for publication alive in your mind.
Yes, that is the very page, says your doubts. Look three paragraphs down. See what you have written. IT IS WRONG!
And suddenly you know you have made a terrible mistake. Suddenly you want to dash to your laptop. Power it up. Slam in a password. Recall your email submission.
Because you have – most definitely – sent in something which contains one massive, gigantic sore thumb of a mistake in it.
You know that feeling, don’t you? As a writer, you’ll know it well.
After all, we all have our doubts (I picture mine as looking remarkably similar to the incarnation of a ‘Chest Bug’ which sits like a gremlin on the man’s stomach in that advert). As a fiction writer I am used to dealing with them. And at least as a fiction writer mostly everything you write comes from your imagination and hence you can argue you’ve never made a mistake in your life, even if you have, even if you’ve written the moon is made of green cheese.
But when you’re writing non-fiction and your mistake is regarding something factual; something which can be looked up online just as easy as it is to turn the page on an electronic reading device, then your doubts intensify. You worry you’ll be found out. You worry how you can possibly change what’s been done and is now set in stone.
You worry that your readers – who are at least as intelligent as you – will pick up upon your sore-thumby mistake and then dismiss the whole book because of it. Because once you’ve made one mistake your whole authority is called into question.
The night before my most recent book – the sports book ‘The Pride of all Europe: Manchester United’s Greatest Seasons in the European Cup’ – was published, I was assaulted by doubt. It came on me stronger than Man Flu. It gave me the sniffles. A sore throat. Cold toes.
A terrible sense of impending doom.
I thought, right there in the middle of the night, that I had made a blunder the magnitude of which would see me drummed out of the Manchester United sportswriting fraternity for good.
I was so utterly convinced by my doubts that I began to wish I’d never written the book in the first place. I began to wish I’d never had the arrogance to write about Manchester United from before I was born. Because I’d written something unalterably wrong about the 1968 European Cup win which EVERYBODY would notice, even the most fair-weather of supporters.
I wrestled those doubts until near 5am. Then gave up. Got up. Switched on my laptop, drummed my fingers and waited until the system booted up. Then checked the file I’d submitted.