Recently, a friend mentioned that writing a novel must take an enormous amount of confidence. He said it like it was a given, and I was stunned by the concept. I have published two books, I’m editing the third, and there’s another I’ve been working on in stolen moments for several years. But if you asked me to list words to describe myself, confident would not be in the top ten, or twenty, or even the top hundred.
I should probably only speak for myself, but I always consider writing to be something of a consolation prize (a beautiful, glittering, wonderful consolation prize) for being the sort of person who was always picked last for kickball in gym class. I got a particular thrill one day when it dawned on me that us quiet types — the wallflowers, the observers, the odd ducks — are the ones who get to leave stories behind. We get the final word on how things happened. We’re the ones keeping the record. I carry that thought near and dear, but I never considered the writing of those stories to be an act of confidence.
In fact, my first book started after my confidence had been ripped to shreds in a writing group I’d joined just after graduating from college. A woman in the group went off on me with spectacular cruelty. Or at least that’s how it felt at the time. I have to admit that the space the incident occupies in my mind is thick and partially blank, but I walked away believing that she’d said my main character didn’t have any redeeming qualities and quite frankly, the same could be said for me. At twenty-five, I was an older college grad, but a new writer, and while I’d never taken a class with the woman railing against me, she taught at my alma mater. I felt like she would know. That her thoughts were somehow more important than mine. She was a grown up. I still felt like a kid. She had a PhD. I had dropped out of college and worked at a biker bar before I finally hauled myself back to school. There were gaps in my education. There were clearly gaps in my ability, and maybe even in my validity as a human being. Why else would she say that? I remember when I walked to my car, two people from the group told me not to take her seriously and not to give up. But I did. I quit writing, certain there was no point.
For the past few weeks the idea of confidence and writing novels has been bouncing around in my head. When I look at it objectively, it makes perfect sense to think that spending a year, or years writing at least eighty-thousand words about one thing would be an act of confidence. You have to believe it’s worth your time. That it might be worth a reader’s time. You have to, in some way, believe you are entitled to tell stories. So where does confidence come from? How do you pick yourself up when it’s been smashed and smushed and tracked across the pavement?
For me, confidence came from a character I couldn’t quite shake. She lived in a flawed short story I’d written in college. Even after I’d given up writing, I carried the vague and lingering sense that I could fix those pages. About a year after I quit, I got an invite to join another group. I brought the story along, straight from the drawer, because the idea of writing something new was too painful.
The group was tough and careful and kind. The constructive feedback inspired me. The character grew. My confidence in myself didn’t. I was still getting knocked around by life like an odd duck in a bad storm. I didn’t know how to believe in myself. But I believed in Savannah Leone, unfailingly, and she needed me. She was an imaginary person who would only exist if I wrote her. So I did. I wrote and rewrote for five years. I loved her, and I wanted to tell her story the best I could because she was a character who deserved that. I gave Savannah Leone fictional life, and she lent me confidence that didn’t bruise too badly in the face of rejection and criticism. She made it easier to put myself out there, because I was doing it for her.
I still believe in Savannah Leone. And I learned to believe in the next character, and the next. Because of them, and the process of bringing them from idea to finished book, there are parts of myself I have learned to believe in without fail. I believe in my ability to create characters I will adore. I know once I have a good character in my grasp, I am a workhorse who will eventually pull the entire story together. Even if it’s a tortured and tedious process, I will finish what I start. I will do the research. I will delete with abandon, and revise for as long as it takes. I will make it work. But I know that I don’t necessarily have to be at a place where I feel strong, or even good about myself, to write. I don’t have to like myself on that particular day. I can feel worn out and ripped to shreds, schlumpy and frizzy and awkward and dumb and still sit down to write good pages. Because my character is none of those things. Or she’s all of those things, but the story will be about how she pulls herself out of the muck, and I will fall in love with the ferocity of her heart. She’ll pull me out too, if I play my cards right. She’ll be the front man, and we’ll get it done.
So yes, it does take confidence to write a novel. But we can cheat if we need to. We get to borrow it.
I asked some friends how they pick themselves up and muster the confidence to write.
Cassandra Dunn – Something I used to say to my daughter when she was feeling anxious about something was “Being brave doesn’t mean not being scared. It means being scared but doing it anyway.” For me, confidence is the same. It doesn’t mean never doubting myself. It means feeling those doubts, acknowledging them, and persevering despite them.
Greer Macallister – If I get a bad review or suffer a setback, I always remind myself that *I* am not being personally judged and found wanting. These people don’t know me. They’re not making decisions based on my abilities or my potential. Even if it’s someone who does know me, like my editor or my agent, it’s still about the book and not me. We just all want the book to be good and do well.
Liz Fenton – This isn’t universal, but this is one instance where it really helps to have a co-author to help build you up when you are feeling insecure.
Michelle Gable – When I’m knocked down, I just retreat into researching or writing the next thing. During the 5 years my agent shopped manuscripts that repeatedly failed to sell, I told myself that’s okay because I’ll just write the next book, and the next book, and the next book after that, and if I’m 85 when my first book comes out, then that’s fine and I should be an AMAZING writer by that point! I guess that’s a long way of saying “head down, push forward, everything else is noise.”
Karen Katchur – I have a quote I keep next to my desk to “pump” myself up on the days I need it. I have no idea who to credit for the quote though. You can find it everywhere. “She Believe She Could, So She Did”
Catherine McKenzie – When you’re alone and writing or even sharing with close friends and editors, you get to a place (hopefully) where you are certain the book is the best thing you can do at that time. And then someone writes “Confusing!” on Amazon and you’re like, but I made sure it wasn’t confusing! I did, I really did! The best remedy is to get busy writing. But it’s easier said than done.
M.J. Rose – When I get knocked down, I stop writing and read for a few days. Every time the story that I’m telling relentlessly jabs at me… until I’m so black and blue from avoiding the truth that I only write for me – for my own sanity – for my own need to tell stories – that I realize confidence or lack of it is irrelevant.
Where do you find your confidence?