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Strange Bedfellows

Flickr Creative Commons: Vic [1]
Flickr Creative Commons: Vic

I. Confidence

Consider the swaggering Ernest Hemingway. Even those who despise the man he was will credit him for introducing a vivid, muscular prose to the art of storytelling. You might hate the insulting misanthrope he could be but admire his keenly drawn characters, the emotional insights, the robust themes in his work. Here was a man with no shortage of confidence and a long list of accomplishments and a literary reputation that will live on well past our own lifetimes. This would seem to suggest that confidence = success. And perhaps great confidence = great success.

But most of us, no matter how expansive our egos, are not going to break new ground in the art of fiction. We are unlikely to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Few if any of us will see our novels adopted into the English canon. Schoolwork essays relating to our stories won’t be available for purchase on the Internet.

Still, every one of us who puts a story on the page and then submits that story for publication is able to send it out it only because we believe we’re pretty good at this writing thing. We might even be better than other aspiring authors—which, when we get published, becomes a self-evident truth, given the stiff competition. The thinking goes like this: Someone published me, ergo I am a talented writer. It only stands to reason, right? The same kind of logic applies to the successful self-published author: Gobs of people are buying my book, ergo I am a talented writer.

From that first success, we labor anew for months or years over the next project, continually moving toward a goal of being read again, and the bigger our imagined audience, the more confidence we have that the product of our effort is going to be worthy of that audience’s time and attention. Big ambitions = big ego. I don’t say this pejoratively. Ego is not in itself bad.

[pullquote]Big ambitions = big ego. I don’t say this pejoratively. Ego is not in itself bad.[/pullquote]

II. Terror

When I began to draft this post, the proposal for what will be my fifth novel was on submission. My agent had been in love with it before I’d even written a word. When she read the first hundred pages, her response email began with “Wow!” Other early readers were similarly enthusiastic. Yet, the moment I turned in the final, polished materials—those hundred pages and a detailed outline for the rest—I was instantaneously certain that no one would love it, want it, publish it. On the day after my agent sent the materials to interested editors, I woke up feeling convinced that those editors who’d responded well to the pitch would have an opposite response to the materials, and now it was just a matter of waiting for my agent’s inevitable call explaining, gently, that this was one of those rare times she’d gotten it wrong. Just anxiety talking, you say? Maybe—but a version of this happened to me in early 2006. It began with excitement, then submission, then rejection, rejection, rejection… You really don’t ever know que sera.

But, all right, say your book is being published (traditionally). It stands to reason that it must be at least pretty good. A publisher picked it and paid you, after all. All is well, yes? Not so fast. Now it’s time to sweat the reviews. In traditional publishing, advance copies of the book are sent to the trade publications for review, i.e. in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus. These are supposed to be professional, objective assessments of a book, done with a view of its intended audience.

But. “Supposed to be” ≠ “are.”

With my first published novel, which had sold at auction in the US and multiple other countries (so how bad could it be, right?) PW eviscerated it—at the very same time LJ gave it a starred review. I thought my head might explode. Was the book awful, or excellent? Was I a good writer or an untalented hack? The experience left me with review-based PTSD, and now with every book I sell for publication, I practically twitch at the thought of reviews. When my most recent novel, Z, won a Kirkus star, I considered having that blue Kirkus star tattooed on my forehead.

I know of writers whose publisher pitched then as “The Next (insert blockbuster or award-winning author name)” only to have the critics and marketplace soon after emit a collective “Nah” that drained that writer’s confidence dry. I know of writers who, due to bad experiences with agents/editors/publishers/critics/readers got so bruised and disheartened that they gave up writing for less emotionally damaging work. I know of writers who produce whole novels but lack the confidence to let anyone else read them. Anyone. Ever. Some days we suffer attacks of itotallysuckitis that are so crippling we want to delete or burn the work and never attempt it again. In extreme cases, that’s precisely what some of us do.

You may scoff. Thin skinned, you’re thinking. Toughen up. But the terrors are real. Rejection by agents, by editors, by critics, by readers—it takes a toll; criticism from any/all of the above is a tangle with needle-sharp barbs; snark, disdain, misapprehension, indifference—these provoke defensive outrage; promises made by publishers but not kept can sink careers; lies told and later revealed can destroy trust; disappointed expectations can kill creativity and ambition. All of this is out there waiting for us the moment we dare to press SEND.

It’s not a matter of whether a writer will experience the terrors, but when. When, and in what form, and to what degree.

[pullquote]It’s not a matter of whether a writer will experience the terrors, but when. When, and in what form, and to what degree.[/pullquote]

III. The marriage of opposites

Here is my theory: every writer who has (or is likely to have) a satisfying writing career inhabits this perpetual confidence-terror tension—call it “conferror,” a state of being that fluctuates in degree but is otherwise constant. Conferror = publishable, saleable work.

An author cannot survive, let alone thrive, in the publishing world (be it self- or traditional-) without this writers’ superpower, but it mustn’t be allowed to grow too far in one direction or the other. Too much confidence, too great an ego, and eventually the tide of readers’ patience and agent/editor/publisher tolerance will turn against you. You might stay in print, but you’ll shed readers like skin cells and rack up so much bad karma that it’s likely you’ll come back in your next life as fishing bait. Too much fear and all you’ll have in your future where writing is concerned is a perpetual flashing cursor.

Is conferrer inherent? Do you have it—and if so, would you say it’s part of your nature? Even if it is for some of us, can it also be learned? What strategies have helped you develop confidence? How have you managed ego inflation when things were going really, really well? What kinds of strategies do you rely on for comfort or support when troubles come?

I’m traveling today, but I’m eager to know your thoughts on the matter and will check back in tonight.

About Therese Anne Fowler [2]

Therese Anne Fowler [3] is the author of the New York Times best seller Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and three prior novels. Her essays have been published internationally in newspapers and magazines such as Psychology Today, the London Telegraph and Harper's Bazaar, and her novels are published in seventeen languages worldwide. Though she writes fiction full-time, she does on occasion teach creative writing workshops, as well as classes at North Carolina State University--most recently in spring '14. She has a BA in sociology/cultural anthropology and an MFA in creative writing. A native of a rural Illinois town no one has heard of, she transplanted herself to Raleigh, NC in 1995 and currently makes her home there with author and professor John Kessel and their three mostly agreeable cats.