Confidence for writers is such an elusive creature. Why’s that? Because we are working in a profession where rejection is often a part of the deal. We frequently work without a structure, sometimes without colleagues, relying on our wits and in many cases not getting enough feedback. I’ve worked with enough writers over the years to know that insecurity can go with the territory. Even published writers experience this, as they go through the publication mill. ‘Will I get enough publicity? Will anyone notice my novel has even appeared? What are the reviews like? How are my sales?’
If you’re a confident writer reading this and thinking ‘speak for yourself, I’m confident as hell’ then by all means, skip to another post on this site. But it seems to me that insecurity is a part of the human condition and in the many years I have spent working as a coach and mentor to writers, I’ve not met a writer who doesn’t experience it in one form or another.
Recently, in my regular drama class at City Lit we were playing a character-based ‘status game’ that got me thinking about confidence in a new way. I’d like to share my insights, but first, a simple question:
Confidence for writers? Shouldn’t we be thinking about talent first?
In truth, I think the two go hand in hand. In order to develop talent, we need to work hard at our art. If we wish to develop as a writer, for example, it’s necessary to spend many hours reading: to absorb the skills and the technique of those who have gone before us. We need to work hard at our writing desks too, developing our ideas and our style – and we need to get feedback from others, to get a sense of how readers perceive our work. We need to read other writers on their processes (the Paris Review interviews are fantastic for this), perhaps attend writing classes or meet with fellow writers to learn more about our craft. All of this takes time and dedication. But where are we to find this time and dedication if we do not first have confidence that we can DO THIS? And if we produce our masterpiece, how are we going to ensure that we maintain our confidence for long enough to persist through possible rounds of rejections? (JK Rowling had twelve before Bloomsbury accepted the first Harry Potter book; George Orwell endured “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA” for Animal Farm and why not take a look at the blog “One hundred famous rejections” for more.) It seems to me that writers need confidence to inspire their talent and confidence to match their talent as they take their work out into the world.
I have written in the past about “creativity and despair” in my post on the life and work of Sarah Kane “4.48 Psychosis: creativity and despair”. I also wrote about this theme in my novel Bluethroat Morning. Creative despair is the flip side of creative brilliance and my work here at the writing coach centres on how we can use our creativity to inspire positive growth and how we can avoid the creative tendency for harsh self-judgement, especially in a success-driven world. (See my newsletter post on ‘success’ too)
So what’s this ‘playing a ten’ business?
In an improvisation class, our tutor suggested that we play with the idea of status. If every character had a ‘status’ from 1-10, she suggested (where 1 was extremely timid and 10 was super-confident), how would that affect our playing of that character? We were asked to pick random numbers from a hat and to walk into the room and say ‘hello’, demonstrating that number via our stance and attitude. If there wasn’t a strong consensus about what number we were, we had to adjust our playing accordingly and try again until people ‘got’ our status. What was interesting to me is that sometimes we had really differing views of what a ‘4’ or a ‘8’ might look like.
This is, of course, interesting from the point of view of characterisation too. Our teacher pointed out the fact that ‘status’ in this respect has nothing to do with job. ‘My cleaner is a ’10’,’ she said. ‘If he’s cleaning the communal hallway, he takes over the place and I find myself saying a quiet ‘excuse me’ if I want to get past.’ This exercise reminded me of another drama exercise I’d undertaken in a previous term where a teacher asked us to focus on different parts of our body as we walked. We discovered through that exercise that ‘confidence is in the chest’. When you walk with your chest thrust forward, you inevitably feel more confident. (If it’s useful for character development profiles, we also discovered that age is in the hips and gender is in the knees, in terms of the way one walks…)
In the class on status, we then played various improvisation games where characters interacted with each other in different status positions. (I was a gallery attendant meeting a gallery-goer who had a higher status than me.) We discussed how our status can change, depending on different circumstances and relationships (one might be a ‘9’ at work and a ‘3’ at home for example). And at the end of the class, we discussed the way in which anyone who is feeling like a ’10’ on a particular day can walk along the pavement in such a style that almost everyone will get out of their way. We were asked to leave the class walking ‘like a ’10’ to see if this is true. (It is. Try it!)
But does ‘playing a ten’ actually make you more confident?
When taking part in this exercise, I was reminded of how the physical body affects our mental state. I once heard the coach Aboodi Shabi talk about how the body affects the self and his ideas remained with me. When we walk with a focus on our chest, for example (our teacher suggested walking as if there was a small glowing golden ball in your chest), then something in our physical self shifts – and this can result in a mental shift too. As we begin to walk more confidently, so we feel more confident and happier even. It struck me that if we can simply ‘decide’ to shift our confidence physically, then a mental shift is also more likely to occur.
Equally importantly, I was reminded of the work of Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, via their book The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. Benjamin Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and in the book he talks about how he improves the outcomes for his students via the practice of ‘Giving an A’. He starts the term by telling his students that he will give all of them an ‘A’ if they will simply write him a letter, as if from themselves at the end of term, telling him what they did to deserve their ‘A’. In Zander’s words, ‘This A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into.’
Zander’s students excel because they are not therefore constrained by self-doubt. One of the reasons that I’m interested in this theme is the fact that I have worked with writers who are effectively ‘getting in their own way’: not writing at their full capacity because a lack of confidence is stifling their creative potential and growth.
I want to be clear about this. I am not saying that increased confidence will turn you into a genius. I am saying however that if you learn to allow your creative potential to flow (via a state of confident experimentation) then you have a chance of writing something good and inherently true to you (and maybe even amazing). I have witnessed many times how increased confidence leads to better work. Confident writers are more open to creative accident, are more likely to access moments of creative brilliance, are more productive and have greater verve in their work.
How does one play this elusive ‘ten’?
To be honest, an eight or a nine would do! The best advice I can give is to approach your work with a sense of curiosity and openness. When you are writing, don’t ask yourself what the ‘right’ way of doing this is. Rather, aim to get honest words down, focus on expression rather than on your self. Too many writers approach their desks with self-consciousness. You need to get past this if you are going to write well. Some people find meditation helps. I like to play Bach’s Cello Suites (the Pablo Casals version is my favourite) to get past myself and into a more relaxed state. You can also try simple breathing and postural work: close your eyes, breathe slowly and deeply, relax your knees a little, stand upright, as if a thread is pulling up the back of your head, draw your breath in deep and focus on the present moment. You might like to look at the book ‘Presence’ by Patsy Rodenburg (Director of Voice at the National Theatre) if you want to do the physical work that will lead to greater confidence. What would happen if you approached your writing desk with a real sense of presence?
For ‘confidence’ you could even substitute ‘truth’. Tell yourself ‘I’m going to focus on writing something which I believe to be true or something which seems real and true to me’. Confidence is about openness to process and about the messages you give yourself. An unconfident writer would approach his or her writing desk thinking ‘how the hell am I going to write anything good? Who am I to think I can write a decent sentence let alone a novel?’ A confident writer, by contrast, would go to the writing desk in a spirit of enquiry. ‘What am I going to find out today? I wonder what my character is going to reveal to me. I want to try to write about my childhood home in precise sensual detail and I have no idea where that will take me, but let’s play with it…’
We live in a world where too many people play small and stifle their creativity. Each one of us is unique and we only have one life in which to express our personal truth.
I would love to hear what happens when you experiment with the idea of ‘playing a ten’. Why not ask yourself the following question:
What makes me feel confident? What can I do to increase this feeling? How would my writing improve if I allowed myself to believe that what I write will have real value?
Do share how you get on in the comments below – or if you have any ideas on how to increase the feeling of confidence, I’d love to hear them.