Friday, November 04, 2011

Authorial Self-Confidence (Part 1) or Why writers are a little crazy (it's the voices in our heads)

Today I want to write about something which is all tangled up with who I am as a writer and which is, I think, intrinsic to the writing process: authorial self-confidence.

Even as I write this, I look at that statement: ‘authorial self-confidence’. In my head, this sounds like what I mean, but is it technically correct? There is a little flag in the back of my mind which is suggesting that ‘authorial confidence’ would usually be used within a stylistic context, to denote a particularly deftly managed voice for example. Someone cleverer than I am, more learned than I am, will pick this up in a heartbeat. For that matter, ‘in a heartbeat’ is clearly a cliché. What does it say about me as a writer that I have resorted to this over-used phrase rather than a fresh, new metaphor? And this is exactly what I mean. As writers, we become hyperaware of the words that we use and the way that they will be received by others. This can come to the point where you are afraid to write anything at all.

One of my tutors once said that to make it as a writer, you need an equal balance of arrogance and humility. There is a lot of truth to this, although I wince at the suggestion that arrogance among writers is something to be condoned, is even an essential part of the writing process. Replacing ‘arrogance’ with ‘self-belief’, however, describes in my view exactly the weird dichotomy that both plagues and strengthens most writers. To be a writer, you have to get this balance right or, forgive the dramatic but I think it’s true, it destroys you.

The humility is vitally important and is part, I think, of a constant desire to learn, to understand better and deeper the complexities and contradictions of the world around us, the things that have happened and the things that might happen. To ask ‘what if?’ or ‘why?’ requires both humility and determination: ‘I don’t know the answer, but I am going to write to find out, for myself, and so I can share what I’ve learned with you.’ Writing isn’t for me a matter of saying ‘look how much I know, now I’m going to teach you, lucky reader’ but ‘look we’re asking the same questions, and I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to finding my own version of an answer, so please, have a look and see whether this resonates with you too.’

Along with this, humility pushes the necessary constant drive to be better than you are. If you believe that every word you write is perfect as it is, that stories fly fully formed from the genius of your brain to the page, that criticism is just from people who ‘don’t get it’ and that’s their fault, not yours, you’ll stick forever in stasis. You won’t improve because you don’t believe that you need improving and, 99.9% of the time, that’s wrong. Part of the transformative nature of writing is the moment when this thing you’ve written suddenly pulls together into the thing you hoped it might be able to be. And that’s rarely ever in the first draft.

This is where the self-belief comes in. Some people come to writing as a vocation quite late, but I am one of those who believed in me as a writer almost before I could actually write. One of my clearest early childhood memories is of standing beside my dad’s chair at the kitchen table, dictating a story and making him write it down. I’m not one of those naturally gifted with telling stories in public, to a crowd, but I was always compulsively driven to write them. And for the twenty or so years since that moment when I thought to myself ‘I am a writer, this is what I want to do with my life’, that inherent self-belief has been consistently and thoroughly battered.

And it has to be, that’s part of the process. Because being a writer is a public process, it involves constantly and relentlessly putting yourself and your precious work out into the world and, particularly I think if you are a creative writing student, putting yourself out there sometimes when you know you’re not ready. The self-belief is the little voice, buried rather deeply in a lot of us, which whispers ‘You are good at this. This piece of work may not be perfect – even if you thought it was and have just realised it isn’t – but you are capable of something really good. You know your craft, whatever anyone might say, and you can do this.’ This last bit is important and sometimes overlooked by beginning writers, you do have to get to a point where that is part of the self-belief voice, where the basics of how to tell a story well are both instinctive and understood.

The self-belief voice, in a lot of us, is a quiet one and it suffers under a mind-battering barrage of much louder self-doubt voices which, on a bad day, judge and analyse every word and every comment and take every criticism to heart. These are the opposite of arrogance, they are the crippling self-doubt which means that every single time someone ‘doesn’t get it’ it is always your fault not theirs. It’s the part of you which keeps saying, very reasonably, lining up lots of evidence for your perusal, that you’re deluding yourself if you think that perhaps, in this case, your story just hasn’t worked for that person. This self-doubt voice tells you that you’re just like those arrogant people who think they’re perfect – you just don’t want to accept the truth that you’re not good enough.

I will, on this blog and elsewhere, talk confidently about my writing process, myself as a writer, etc. The writing self-belief voice is quiet but pretty strong in me, mainly because it’s been there for a long time, it’s been tested harshly and just managed to survive so far. But that self-doubt voice is, if anything, even a little bit stronger, always at least jostling confidently for space, and it threatens to obliterate every shred of self-belief every single day. I won’t talk about it too often here for that reason – giving it too much blog-space isn’t interesting to anyone else but is also one of the surest ways to kill the self-belief.

I am aware that all of the above may sound a bit mixed up and contradictory and confusing and consist of lots of run-on sentences full of ‘ands’ like this one. But that’s what it’s like – in my head anyway. Being a writer for me is not just about putting the words on the page, it’s about constantly managing that conflict between self-belief and self-doubt every day, subduing it enough to allow me to put the words on the page.

What do you think? Does anyone else have the same experience (or am I just crazy – I am aware this is a real possibility)? How does this self-confidence war manifest itself in other art forms?

In a follow-up post, maybe next week, I want to talk about this conflict in the context of formal creative writing study, in particular this idea of presenting your work for judgment when you know that it and you aren’t ready. I should be posting to this blog much more often (I know I always say that) over the coming months – I will tell you why next time!