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.