For many writers, confidence can sometimes seem in short supply. I’ve been a writer long enough and been around enough writers over the years to know that self-doubt is an undeniable part of the writer’s life. Perhaps it is not possible to be creative and never experience uncertainty about one’s work. I’d go so far as to say that if we never doubted ourselves, we would be the poorer for it. Brash, mindless confidence is worthless and doubt can be an essential tool that enables us to examine our creative work carefully, find what’s not working and make changes that move the work to the next level.
But let’s be honest. We could all do with some of the energy that this little superhero in the photograph so clearly possesses. We could all benefit from such gusto and joyful certainty; every writer needs an inner superhero.
So how can we cultivate such confidence? And how can we learn to differentiate between the kind of confidence that is good for our creative growth and the confidence that does us no good at all?
Negative confidence is confidence born of arrogance; it is not built on a firm foundation of study, hard work, persistence, humility and talent. If I were to describe a writer in possession of ‘negative confidence’, I’d say it was one who believes they have talent but where that belief has no basis in any experience. The writer does not read widely; has never consulted his or her peers; writes an entire book without considering whether anyone might want to read it and markets that book brazenly, regardless of the fact that they haven’t even paused to get a copy-editor. Sometimes such writers prosper. More often, they trip over their capes.
Positive confidence is something else. When you’re in possession of positive confidence you can leap out into the world fist first, your cape flying behind you. When you have this kind of confidence you can do it all: you can make a regular writing habit and stick with it; write with passion and spend more time ‘in the zone’ and less time in a state of panic and angst; you can know just when it’s the right time to approach an agent with your work and you’re not afraid of the publishing world – after all, you’re about to take it by storm…
In my ebook Get Black on White: 30 Days to Productivity and Confidence for Writers, I elaborate on the subject of how you can get confident as a writer in the long term. But for those who are looking for a quick fix, I had a chat with my own inner superhero and asked her for just ten reasons why any writer can choose to be more positively confident – and why this would benefit a writer’s work, deepen its impact and allow us to live more sustainable and successful writing lives.
Here’s what my mini Wonder Woman said:
- Any writer can be confident when they decide that they will dedicate their creative energy to their craft in the long-term. We can be confident because we know that we are reading widely and constantly striving to be the best writer we can be. If we take a decision to question our work and employ self-doubt in a constructive way, rather than letting it eat us up, then we are also deciding that we are determined to be good at what we do.
- Once we take the decision to employ positive confidence, we also devote ourselves to constant improvement. We do what we need to do to consistently grow as a writer. We read books on craft and books that we aspire to write. We may attend writing classes or ask writing colleagues to give us constructive feedback on our work. We know that we haven’t ‘arrived’ yet, but we are confident in the process and the progress we are making.
- We can afford to be confident because the opposite – crippling self-doubt and writerly angst – is just pointless and will never lead to us doing our best work. We create best when we choose confidence. As Shakespeare himself wrote: “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”
- We can be confident when we cultivate a writing community. I know from experience how a writing community has helped to keep me buoyant when I might otherwise have succumbed to uncertainty and fear. Many fellow students on the creative writing MA at UEA kept me inspired at a time when I felt uncertain of my abilities. In later years, I found a group of fellow women writers who I’ve been meeting with on a regular basis for nearly ten years, sharing our work and the vagaries of the writing life. I’ve also seen how members of The Completion Club have supported each other through a writing year and I’ve seen the members’ work flourish as a result: two members have gained literary agents in the last few months! I have no doubt that the members would not have been so productive if it weren’t for that group support.
- We grow confident as we develop an understanding of the writing process. When we allow ourselves to fully understand and experience each step of the creative process – from how to write freely without fearing the blank page, to writing a very rough first draft, to developing our characters and plots, to refining that work through careful editing, to taking our work to the marketplace – then we know that at the end of this process, we will have produced a book that we are proud of and we know that we will find a place for it in the world.
- We can be confident because self-publishing is a more powerful tool than it has ever been. Even if our goal is to publish traditionally, the knowledge that the stigma of ‘vanity publishing’ is a thing of the past can be an enormous boost. We no longer have to rely on literary agents and traditional publishers to deliver our status as published author. This is not an excuse to produce substandard books! Rather, I believe it is our duty as authors, should we choose to self-publish, to prove to the literary establishment that self-published authors are every bit as good as traditionally published authors. So often, banal books make it through traditional publishing because the author has established a name or is already a celebrity or the book fits a convenient genre. That’s not to say that many amazing books aren’t being traditionally published. But good stuff gets missed. It doesn’t matter so much now. The author Barry Eisler turned down a $500,000 publishing deal in order to self-publish. Find out more about that story here or read a longer conversation about it on Joe Konrath’s blog here.
- Confidence comes when we write what we are passionate about. I learnt this one from hard experience. I once heard Martin Amis speak and he said that it is vital to “write from the throb”. Over the years, I’ve written books that have drawn me deeply into their world and I’ve also struggled with projects that have simply failed to keep me engaged because I was trying to write for a market rather than from my own fascination. My work has always been best when I’m in touch with that “throb”. I’d advise every writer to take this one seriously. Put your fascination first. Worry about genre later.
- Conversely, understanding the marketplace gives us an edge. This may seem like a kind of double-think, but my suggestion is that you practice market-awareness, even as you follow your throb. If you can at once write what you are passionate about and also gain an idea of how you will market that to a publisher, so much the better. Write what you are drawn to and then think about where it fits. Study that marketplace too, so that you gain a clear sense of how your book can be seen to appeal to a market – yet also, how it has a unique quality that no other book in that genre possesses.
- You can be confident because with confidence comes persistence and with persistence comes success. The more you persist – both in improving the quality of your work and in learning how to market that work and create connections with readers and the industry – the more opportunities you create. The more opportunities you create, the more likely you are to stumble across a lucky break. Nassim Nicolas Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable gives his Top Life Tips in an interview in The Times here . (The tips are on page 5 of the article if you want to skip to them. I also want to thank Stephanie Zia for putting me in touch with Taleb and that article in the first place.) I love Taleb’s second tip in particular: “Go to parties. You can’t even start to know what you may find on the envelope of serendipity. If you suffer from agoraphobia, send colleagues.”
- Be confident because it’s the responsibility of every creative person to prove that the myth of the doomed artist is just that, a myth. I wrote about Creativity and Despair in an article on the work of playwright Sarah Kane and in my own novel Bluethroat Morning (Bloomsbury paperbacks). Even Plath wrote: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” When you choose positive confidence (like the little fellow in the photo), you gain access to your most brilliant self. In a confident state, we produce our best, most insightful work. We owe that to ourselves and to our readers.
I would love to hear your experience of how being confident has affected your creative life and your reflections on the role of confidence in creativity. Do feel free to share your thoughts by commenting.