Saturday, January 24, 2009

Confidence: A Scam?

It's a mercurial thing, writing, fraught with complex dangers. You want to write something good, or even something great... but how do you go on, day by day, to get there?

I think confidence is part of the key, but confidence for writers can be a tricky thing. Writing, by its nature, is an act that, in many ways, is cut off from the world. We hide away to write, touching the world only in memory and thought... and that world rarely touches our words. And when it does it's often with a critique, a rejection. How do you persist in the face of doubts, in the face of the void that always hovers, seeking to steal your words? How do you keep confidence when pressed on all sides?

Luckily, confidence is an irrational thing. Ain't it grand? I've been thinking about confidence the last few days, ever since I read a survey on literary agent Nathan Bransford's blog, where he asked his readers if they were better writers than his average blog reader. Two thirds said they were... and I'm guessing some of those who voted no were, in their kindness and decency, merely being modest and secretly thought they were better (oh that heart of hearts...). So most of the writers thought they were better than average (defying the mathematical odds), and the same holds true for most socially affirmed abilities or qualities.

Part of this, in the case of writing, might be on account of the secret, hidden nature of writing. In a sense, we writers are like Saramago's city of the blind, all lost in our own isolated landscapes. It's hard (and subjective) to determine what's average, and who's above (or below) that line. Cognitive scientists call it the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where ignorance more often leads to confidence than a lack of it. And part of it may simply be that we'd rather not think we've been wasting our time. To spend all those hours, all that effort, just to find out we're less than average (or even less than average amidst a sample of talented and committed writers)... better not to think about that.

I have a feeling, though, that there's more to it than this. I think there's a wilful element to the irrationality of confidence, for I think a writer's drive, a writer's hope, often leaks into their confidence. It becomes a sort of faith. It's self-belief in the face of lacking evidence... or even in the face of contravening evidence.

I often think this is necessary. We need a bit of ferocity in what we think we can achieve. It's that ferocity, that willed confidence, that lets us write through criticism, through rejections, through "this isn't right for us". We measure others by what they are, and ourselves by what we might be. In our own words we see the shadows of a future ideal, something we can strive and reach for, something we can attain, for in our hearts we've already attained it.

Now, I don't think we need to leave rationality entirely behind. Indeed, we shouldn't. If you're a beginner who has trouble with basic spelling, grammar and syntax it probably doesn't do you much good to think you're a genius and the second coming of Cormac McCarthy (becuz he spells things funny too). But a healthy belief in your talent will take you fairly far, I think. True arrogance will only impede you, blinding you to your faults, the areas where you need to improve. Your confidence should be less like an unpassable barrier and more like a wide-spreading light that opens the road before you.

In the agent's poll I voted yes, I voted that I was better than the average writer. I didn't make that vote out of anything that I considered arrogance. Indeed, it was hard to press the Enter key. I believe in humility... but I also believe there's a danger in false modesty (whether conscious or unconscious). And making that vote, of course, doesn't mean I am better than the average reader/writer of that blog. But I think I have a need to think so, regardless of the truth.

Studies have shown that people suffering mild depression actually see themselves more accurately than those who aren't (though they also rate others higher than they should). It's interesting, and not a little disturbing: most of us are deluding ourselves, at least a little. But to me it's also confirming. Human endeavor is about moving forward, about what might be rather than simply what is. Human advancement is often based on a sort of blind faith, even if only in ourselves, in what we migth do or become. It's a matter of self-belief.

So if confidence is a scam, it's a trick we pull on ourselves. And happily so.


Sarah Jensen said...

Beautifully written.
I have to say, that when I started writing, I loved my story. I thought it was good. A friend read it and cut out chapter upon chapter of throat-clearing drivel. Instead of taking offense, I listened to what she had to say. I learned from the knowledge she had gained from others.
In writing, as with life, if you can't learn and grow watching others, taking advice, you are destined to the mistakes others have faced.
I love to learn. That is a part of writing. It is also a part of where my confidence comes in. Am I any better than the other writers of Nathan's blog, who knows? Did I say that I thought I was? Yep. :)
And I believe for the same reasons you expressed so eloquently here. Because of faith and belief.
My husband often tells me that I don't live in reality. That my head is stuck in the clouds. I understand that bad things happen. I just chose to not focus on them. At least not for long. If belief in myself means living in the clouds, then I don't mind.
Come join me, the air is clean on fluffy Cloud 9.

Ink said...

Yeah, Sarah, I totally agree. I think one of the reasons I love writing is because it's bloody hard. :) Seriously, though, I'm the sort of person who gets bored by easy things. For example, I know someone who plays videogames over and over again at the same level... because that's the level he knows he can win at. To me, though... that's boring. If there's no risk of losing, what's the point? Winning loses its meaning.

And writing is hard to win. :) I like the challenge, I like the complexity and variability of the task. There's no repetition, it's always new and different. As soon as you think you have it mastered something throws you for a loop. This is something worthy of life devotion, because you know when you've been doing it sixty years you'll still be learning, still be exploring. It may not be for everyone, but that's the sort of challenge that makes me happy.

Sarah Jensen said...

Yes! If you're not learning and growing, what's the point? Many hate the research, I love it. I decided to write a detective book, because I knew nothing about that world. I've written maybe 20k words, and I'm doing loads of research. It's taking me much longer than anything else I've written, and I love it. It's a challenge.
I write stories that just come to me, and love them, but those I have to work at I believe will be more enjoyable in the long run.
I research on every project, but this is long, hard core work. :)

Ms Kitty said...

Confidence is a requirement to get to the ladder so you can start moving up. Without a certain amount of confidence I would never put fingers to keyboard.

As a kid, I loved to read, so I wanted to write. However, I needed a job, so I took computer classes. I knew how to type, and I learned wordperfect. I did business and technical writing for many years. I spent those years perfecting the basic skills of grammar and punctuation. (Spelling too!)

It wasn't until I hooked up with other writers online that I got an idea of how I stacked up to other writers. I think the critique process, both giving and receiving crits gave me a big leap forward.

But what constitutes "an average" writer? Or a "below average" writer? I'd like to see some kind of criteria otherwise it is subjective. (G)

I think that there are so many books on the shelves that are poorly written that we can all say: "yep, I'm a better writer than so-n-so."

There is so many poorly written books because getting published is difficult unless you know someone.

I can see that changing with things like and print on demand. Before the publishers didn't know how the readers felt about the books. All they knew were the critic's reviews.

Until then we must look around us at things like books, movies, advertising, magazines and websites, saying in our hearts: "I can do better than that."

Bookworm1605 said...

Confidence? Is that what you call it? Somehow it seems more mystical than that. Faith, perhaps? The hope for something unseen? Yeah, Ink—you said it.
The writing life is a race run in the dark, for the most part, requiring not only stamina but also the strange ability to forge on toward dubious and uncertain goals. If you are fortunate, there are voices occasionally shouting words of support from the sidelines, but even those can be misleading—family and friends who are reluctant to give you much needed critical advice. Crit groups can be helpful, but here there be dragons as well. Sometimes writing groups can devolve into self gratifying support structures that enable unproductive behavior—a groupthink perpetuating the myth that everyone is destined to be published in due time exclusive of any learning and improvement on the part of the writer. Having said that, I believe writing groups are the best way to go for new writers and can honestly say most of my best friends live at online writing forums.
All this is to say that writers live most of their lives in a maelstrom of conflicting information and I believe it's that irrational sense of confidence you talk of that helps us to keep our sanity. How many biographies of great authors describe a time in his or her life when they were being beat down by detractors who told them to change what they were doing? Or that they'd never make it?
One of the most difficult things I've encountered is the interpretation of critiques and what advice to take or leave. I think you have to get to a stage where you can look at someone's comments and say to yourself, "no, I think they are wrong and I am right." Of course, sometimes they are right and you are wrong. In time, you develop a level of discernment that allows you to recognize truth in the feedback. But first you have to have the self confidence to examine everything and measure it against the proper perspective.
Yep, well said, Ink.

Pan Historia said...

Great ruminations on confidence. I realize that I probably spend so much time on collaborative fiction writing for the very reason that it removes the element of writing alone without feedback and sort of sidesteps the confidence issue.

My very lack of confidence in the solo traditional endeavor could be why, even though I write reams and reams of fiction, I have no novel yet.

Ink said...


I've always said that what you do with a critique is more important than the critique itself. A great critique is useless if you can't apply it, or if you misapply it... and bad crits are damaging if you let them be. So... I think you're right in saying that confidence plays a part in that discernment process, too. You have to have faith in your ideas, enough to hold firm in the face of conflicting opinions... at least when those opinions aren't valid for your story goals. And yet you have to be flexible enough to adapt, to turn down an unseen path if necessary. First you need to see your story clearly, but after that you need to have the faith to hold to what you want.

Pan Historia- that's interesting. I've always been sort of fascinated by the idea of co-writing... mostly because it scares me. :) I am, shall we say, rather wary about letting someone else inside my process. I guard that writing brain-space pretty jealously, I guess. But I can totally see how that idea of comradeship can be beneficial, even if it's alien to me. Lots of things to work out, though...

Ms. Kitty-

I'm guessing a lot of us are partly motivated by the feeling that some of the stories we want simply aren't out there... and if we want them we'll just have to write them ourselves. I wonder how prevalent a feeling that is?