You see it all the time when people say they are writers, that hesitant, slightly embarrassed hitch in the voice, a certain shiftiness in the eyes, as if they are claiming to have just eaten the Eifel tower while no one was looking. It’s a lie, says the voice, or at very least a kind of half-joke. Of course, I’m not a real writer, say the flitting eyes. That would be absurd.
This isn’t just something you get from newbies or from writers who haven’t yet been published. It’s rampant among perfectly successful authors (including myself and my esteemed MW colleagues), that nagging anxiety that however much we managed to land a book deal and even rack up some sales or awards, we’re frauds.
David talked about this persistent concern the other day but I want to push it into a slightly different area. Where do these insecurities come from and how do we deal with them so they don’t hamstring our productivity, our careers?
One of the problems with the novelist gig is that there’s no clear training program, creative writing courses not withstanding. Plenty of authors make it without MFAs from Iowa. But that merely compounds the problem: the fact that people can make it without specific qualifications means anyone who can finger type a handful of words can claim to be a writer. The result is that the metaphorical line of authors waiting to be the Next Big Thing starts to look like American Idol, the real talents lost in the crowd of wannabes, some of whom have no more than strictly comic appeal.
So how do you know which you are?
The short answer is, youdon’t. Even the great ones don’t. They can rack up awards and sales records, but I think at the heart of really good writers who want to keep being good is a nagging anxiety that they need to stay on their toes. We can all think of authors for whom success has led to relaxation and mediocrity.
But excess humility, though admirable as a personality trait, can be a serious problem for writers.
The other day, David talked about needing to be ambitious. Let me add another necessary but much maligned word: arrogance. Writing requires a little of that too. I realize that plenty of writers are fairly shy, retiring types who relish the quiet and solitude of a glowing computer monitor, but I’m not talking about being an extravert in personality terms. I’m talking about the kind of arrogance that says “I have something to say: a story to tell: a way with a phrase.” I mean the arrogance which is required, which is NECESSARY to say to friends, family and (ultimately) the world in general “I’ve written this and you should really read it.” It takes courage to start writing a book, but it takes a certain monomaniacal arrogance to finish it.
It makes me wince to put it as baldly as that, but it’s important to have enough faith in yourself that you can say such things to yourself, even if you whisper them and still struggle to keep your face straight. Because we’re not just talking marketing and publicity here, people, we’re talking about the conviction to write in the first place.
If it helps, couple the word “arrogance” with “athletic” as you sometimes hear sports commentators do. Athletic arrogance is the confidence that allows that wide receiver to dare to try and make the seemingly impossible catch. He may go down in flames, but he might just pull it off and win the game in one play. Without that total and faintly absurd faith in himself, he won’t try. I’m not saying that kind of confidence won’t make that player hard to stomach personally. The trick is to leave your athletic arrogance on the field. For writers, it means switching it on as best you can when you need it at the keyboard, and off when you get up again, or when you need to be less confident (when you edit, say). Easier said than done, perhaps, but something to shoot for.
Several of us have talked lately about the need to be more creative, more daring in our work. This also requires that literary arrogance, the decision to be different, to strive for boldness and originality. Asper ad astram, as the old Latin tag has it: reach for the stars. Be better than you have to be, better than anyone–including you–believed you could be.
I’m all for self-scrutiny and being your own worst critic, but if that gets to the point where you no longer believe in your project or—worse—your basic ability, then you’re done. Self-criticism is, after all, only useful for urging you to be better. Indulge those nagging doubts in your head too much and you fail before you start, and certainly before you finish. The world is crowded with people who (with good reasons and without) will line up to criticize you and your work. Think of how disappointed they’ll be if you never actually finish it. So put your self doubt on hold and get that first draft done.