Doubt

I have become accustomed to the online life; even those things I thought I would hate to attend virtually – like an online book festival – it turns out I rather like. Last month, I joined some talks by writers organised by Liverpool’s Writing on the Wall annual festival. One speaker was Ben Okri. There he was, up close to me, sitting in front of a vast wall of books, chatting in his cheerful, relaxed, and usual inspiring way about his new collection of poetry. He speaks in poetry. I listen and I write it down. Everything he says, it seems to me, is flawless: the perfect words, in the perfect order. I was astonished, therefore, when he spoke about doubt. Doubt in himself and in his work. Really? “Doubt is important,” he said, speaking slowly as he weighed his words, perhaps doubting them. “Keep digging, shaping, taking apart, compressing. Look at the words with love. See the holes, the gaps, the soft places. Stand outside of yourself, and, to quote Yeats, ‘cast a cold eye’ – but do the work. The darkness never goes away. You have to believe in the value of art, of poetry. It is, in the end, a triumph of doing over doubting.”

See what I mean? Even in talking about doubt, even in his hesitation, even in describing the unevenness of the creative road, Ben Okri says beautiful things. Beyond the beauty of the shape of his words and the rhythm of how he spoke them, there is deep truth in what he says. It had not occurred to me that he would doubt himself, but of course he does; it is only the fool who is devoid of doubt and the only courageous who keep going despite it.

A week later, at the same festival, I attended another talk by Jeff Young, a Liverpool writer who was reading from and discussing his memoir, published last year. Ghost Town is a journey through the Liverpool of Young’s childhood, he resurrects memories of people long gone kindled by places and buildings still standing. And suddenly, during a question-and-answer session, Young said it too, the same thing as Okri, but in a compressed format. He said he was beset by doubt; doubted the creation and writing of his memoir the whole way through: Why was I writing it? Who was ever going to read it? Did it hang together? Then he read a page or two aloud and I wondered how he could ever have doubted it.

For both Okri and Young, recognising the presence of doubt but containing and working with it, is clearly something that enhances them, it is a dose of humility that acts to improve, prompts them to ask: Is this any good? Where is it subsiding? How can I shore it up? Crucially, though, the doubt was not overwhelming to either of them, as, in both cases, they finished their projects, got them to print, and people read them. It has made me think that they must have other papers in a pile that they doubt; work that awaits a cold eye to be cast upon it.

I appreciate this re-framing of doubt, as doubt is often seen in negative terms. Thomas – the most famous doubter of all (show me the proof!) – was someone who looked for the evidence-base before he was going to sign on, and you can understand him, aren’t we all obsessed with the evidence? Yet there is no evidence when you start out on a creative process, no evidence that your finished work is going to be any good or embraced, you just need some faith in it, along with, it turns out, a healthy dose of doubt through which you shall dig.

In Edinburgh, the good weather has arrived at last. Some days, however, the sun is obscured by the haar, that cold sea fog that creeps up the firth, sucks its way into the land, and grips the coast, invades the part in which I live. I have come to view the haar as something akin to doubt. When it descends, it feels as though it is here to stay, but despite my doubt, it will dissipate, burn off, lift in time. The sun will triumph over my doubt.

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