When it comes to inspiration, we think of the usual suspects: love, nature, emotions both positive and negative. What we seldom think of, but have ample reserves of, is self-doubt.
Unless we are megalomaniacs who think we’re the greatest, we tend to question ourselves frequently. We are our own greatest critics. Why? Because we know ourselves better than any outsider, warts and all. This is why we often love mates who are opposites of ourselves. This is why we loathe people who are mirror images of ourselves (despite not realizing it).
Watch how Jeffrey Harrison mines the endless reservoir of self-doubt in his poem, “The Day you Looked Upon Me as a Stranger.” His self-doubt flourishes in the Petri dish we call marriage. You know, the old flower petal trick: “She loves me, she loves me not.” Read what I mean:
The Day You Looked Upon Me as a Stranger
by Jeffrey Harrison
I had left you at the gate to buy a newspaper
and on my way back stopped at a bank of monitors
to check the status of our flight to London.
That was when you noticed a middle-aged man
in a brown jacket and the green short-brimmed cap
I’d bought for the trip. It wasn’t until I turned
and walked toward you that you saw him as me.
What a nice-looking man, you told me you’d thought—
maybe European, with that unusual cap …
somebody, you said, you might want to meet.
We both laughed. And it aroused my vanity
that you had been attracted to me afresh,
with no baggage. A kind of affirmation.
But doubt seeped into that crevice of time
when you had looked upon me as a stranger,
and I wondered if you’d pictured him
as someone more intriguing than I could be
after decades of marriage, all my foibles known.
Did you have one of those under-the-radar daydreams
of meeting him, hitting it off, and getting
on a plane together? In those few moments,
did you imagine a whole life with him?
And were you disappointed, or glad, to find
it was only the life you already had?
What rings truest in this poem is the way the narrator first experiences a bout of vanity when his wife confesses to not recognizing him briefly. But then he thinks too much, and nothing encourages self-doubt more than thinking too much.
Thinking is bad, then, you ask? Yes and no. It can lead to self-doubt, which is bad, but it also can lead to writing inspiration, which is good. What is poetry, after all, if not thinking too much? Looking at something from every angle? Trying to suss it out from angles no one has before you.
Think about that next time you’re driving yourself crazy with doubt. Instead of getting worked up about it, take pen to paper and think it through. Inspiration hides in the strangest places, for one thing. And readers will relate, for another.