Hello, Mr. Doubt

A hand waved from the back corner of the room. Then the question: “Do you have ‘anyone’ else in the room with you when you write?”

The quotation marks framing “anyone” are important. The questioner wasn’t talking about a real person, rather an imagined real person.

Ron Carlson replied with, “Oh, yes—”

In a moment I’ll finish his response.

When many of [Jesus’] disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” – John 6:60

Once upon a time, for a week in August, I lived in Squaw Valley USA. It’s the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. Nestled at 6,200 feet near Lake Tahoe, this Sierra hint of granite-ribbed heaven is also a slice—or maybe many slices—of commercialism. Come the snow, skiers flock here. There are fancy restaurants, luxury hotels, and mansions dubbed cabins.

Since the summer of 1969 it has also hosted the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a group dedicated to encouraging and developing the written word. Here, under Squaw’s surrounding peaks like Granite Chief and Snow King, poets, screenwriters, memoirists, essayists, and novelists have gathered. Once, I joined them. The only way to get “in” is by having your writing accepted as “good enough.” The published mingle with the unpublished. Experienced authors inspire fledgling, hopeful writers. Amy Tan (of The Joy Luck Club fame) attended. She first came before her success. Ron Carlson—who was asked the opening question above—led workshops. Though less known than Tan, Carlson’s short stories have garnered numerous awards and I dare you to read his novel Five Skies and not admire its simple (but not simplistic) story and relatable characters.

It was a heady week, filled with exhaustion, learning, and intimidation. Everyone seemed a better writer than me. What did old Apostle Paul claim about his “ranking” with the other disciples: I was the least of them (I Corinthians 15:9). Yeah, that’s me at Squaw. But there were other times . . . well, in a moment I’ll finish that thought.

The unpublished asked the published endless questions. During a Q&A session, the hand I mentioned above signaled from the audience. The question was asked: “Do you have ‘anyone’ else in the room with you when you write?”

Which is to say, when a writer settles into a chair, glaring at the blank screen or empty scrap of paper, is an imagined someone nearby? Is there a deceased parent, a spouse, an “unknown” reader in Kansas, or a mentor the writer is hoping to please? The writer is always the first audience. But you want readers; you want people who’ll keep eagerly turning the pages.

Ron Carlson, a successful author and writing teacher, grasped the microphone . . .

“Oh yes. Every time I sit down to write, Mr. Doubt is there. That’s who I write to. Been there since the beginning of my career. He still shows up. Mr. Doubt’s a big guy, and sits close to my chair. I used to hope he’d leave. Now, though, I welcome him. But I tell him he has to stay for the whole thing, from a story’s start to the finish.”

We writers laughed.

Nervously.

Carlson grinned. “And sometimes I ask him about that silent ‘b’ in his name.” Gotta let Mr. Doubt know you can get under his skin. More laughter.

The author of Five Skies spoke a truth. About writing. And, at least for me, about my faith.

Hemingway supposedly ceased the day’s work with an incomplete sentence. Afraid he’d have nothing for tomorrow, he knew he’d at least finish one sentence. Moses, invited by God at the burning bush to lead the Israelites from captivity, hemmed and hawed. Welcome in Mr. Doubt. Does the big fellow ever bid farewell?

In the fourth Gospel (John 6:56-69), where Jesus spoke about the “bread that came down from heaven,” every word seems written without a smidgen of doubt. Still—it’s my failing—I read between the lines. I don’t think the “best-selling” author of John’s Gospel shut the door on doubt. Faith is through a narrow gate on a steep road. Faith becomes fascinated with the fruit on that one tree in the garden’s center. Doubt lurks. And yet still, I revel in Jesus’ words: “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Isn’t that what the best words do? Inspire! Enliven!

Yes! Words do that, even when Mr. Doubt clears his throat. Words heal and dare and comfort, even with Mr. Doubt frowning.

At Squaw, I felt the least of the ones present. How could they have let me in? But on one evening I joined other writers for a potluck dinner. Literally, we shared bread. Some were published, some not. Some I didn’t know, others I’d spent time with in workshops. We gathered around a table, a score of us, the outdoor picnic chairs shoved next to the formal dining room chairs. We ate. Wine glasses clinked. Talk ebbed and flowed. For part of the meal, for I am always a tad shy, always the observer, I watched others. And yes, because I so love the Jesus who propped elbows on Capernaum tables and ate with sinners and outcasts and probably even writers, I realized I was little different than any of my companions.

All of us are fools and foolish. All flawed. All settle into our essential places—a writing desk or a classroom or a kitchen or wherever your most life-giving location may be—and soon Mr. Doubt pays a visit.

John’s Gospel noted that some of disciples abandoned Jesus. Who said the “bread from heaven” would go down easy? But I’ll stay. I’ll struggle and rejoice in my faith as I cast forth words and foolishly minister. Often, Mr. Doubt will arrive. Good to see you!

And now let me tell you a story about the bread of life. Even with doubt, let me share words to inspire and enliven and . . .

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