Monday, July 11, 2011

The Secret Ingredient: Confidence

"The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt." -Sylvia Plath

This is one of my favorite quotes, and time and again, I feel the strength of it. If I wrestle with the path I'm on, self-doubt creeps in and my ability to write takes a hit. While there are many things that can cripple your confidence, there are only a few that can truly build it.

Effort.
Experience.
Accomplishment.

In my book, Life, Liberty, and Pursuit, David goes through confidence training in boot camp. As a sailor recruit, he trains on emergency exercises including a gas-mask drill that leaves him with lungs full of tear gas. It's called confidence training, because only by experiencing it first hand can you avoid panicking when the real emergency comes.

Experience = confidence.

At some level, you must have faith in yourself as a writer. The navy recruits had faith in themselves enough to enlist in the first place. This is fundamental, and something I expressed to the teens in my Writing While Teen workshop this weekend: You are unique. Your take on the world is valuable. Bringing your stories into the world is worthwhile.


Note, this is not saying "you have talent." I think telling someone they have talent is akin to telling them they are smart. Rather than instilling true confidence, it actually limits their ability to have a growth mindset that leads to actual improvement, which leads to real confidence based on experience.


Faith in yourself as a writer is the start, but it will not give you the confidence to take risks, whether with your storytelling, or in offering up your work for critique, or daring to publish (whether traditional or self-publishing). Confidence has to be grown, through effort, experience, and accomplishment. The sailors' confidence was grown only by sucking in great gulps full of tear gas and surviving.

(Sounds a lot like querying to me.)

When I look at writers who break the rules (whether in craft or in publishing), I see people who are confident. They may be fearful as well (the two are not opposites), but their confidence carries them through the wall of fear to the other side, where experience can help them learn. John Green is brilliant and funny and fun, but all of that would be nothing without the confidence to post 900 vlogs and share them with the world. John Locke is irreverent and prolific and possibly a genius salesperson, but all of that would be useless without the confidence to break all the publishing rules and do things his own way.

I want to be one of those writers.

No, I'm not changing my name to "John" or starting a vlog or adopting Locke's hyper marketing plan. I'll learn from them what I can and make it my own. But most importantly, I'm going to try to hold onto the confidence that I'm unique, that I have stories worth telling. And grow that confidence bigger, through effort, experience, and accomplishment.

That confidence will free me to write my books and share them with the world.

UPDATE: I'm hip deep in work, so I'm taking a pass on my Wednesday post this week. See you Friday!

40 comments:

  1. Confidence is key. At the same time, I think all the confidence and marketing in the world won't help if the writing isn't there. John's marketing works b/c people like his books. But I guess that comes back to the whole chicken and egg thing.

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  2. Ha! Querying is like being hit with tear gas. I like that.

    And confidence doesn't necessarily get you through the door, but it might get you through the front gate, up the walk, and ringing the doorbell.

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  3. @Laura In John's book, he talks about how many people told him his writing was awful. It wasn't until he actively sought his audience (the ones that liked his writing), that his sales took off. I think the real arbiter of how good your writing/storytelling is, is how many people say they like it. Others will say that if a lot of people like something, that doesn't mean it's any good.

    @Bryan Yeah, confidence will help you get the experience of trying - and that experience will help you learn how to do better the next time. Which will give you more confidence ... :)

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  4. Oh I loved this post! I have nothing to add except my cheering! Will RT this one!

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  5. Love these words, Susan:
    "I'll learn from them what I can and make it my own. But most importantly, I'm going to try to hold onto the confidence that I'm unique, that I have stories worth telling."

    You pinned it. We have to take what is useful to us as writers, and build on to that. A great Monday post!

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  6. These words ring so true. I've tended to chalk up my struggles with self doubt to experiences of being crushed, but I think in fact it's the wishy-washy concept of talent that has been more confidence wrecking. I've survived and thrived despite some major setbacks, and that ought to give me hope! And surely each new experience of progress and accomplishment should keep that hope alive.

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  7. @KarenG Thanks for the tweetage! :)

    @DG I have to keep repeating those words for them to keep hold of me. :)

    @Laurel Thriving after setbacks is almost the definition of success - that should absolutely give you hope! And while I know "talent" exists, just like "smart" exists, I think it's a concept that is non-helpful in the world, indeed even crippling in some ways. I see "smart" kids hampered from success by the expectations that "being smart" sets up (and it's not just me that believes this). I try hard not to tell my kids they are smart - I tell them they have to work just as hard as anyone else in order to be successful. And that allows them the freedom to strive and fulfill their potential.

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  8. Confidence also helps to get you through the hard parts, when you're feeling like your writing is crappy. It IS so important to remember that your stories are worth telling.

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  9. If self-esteem could be sold in cans and marketed on the shelves of super markets, the person doing so would make a billion dollars.

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  10. @Andrea It's funny - my writing doesn't change (that much) from one week to the next, but my attitude about it can change dramatically in an hour. :)

    @Michael No kidding! And people try to do just that, but really there's no substitute for the hard work of earning it through experience.

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  11. Well said, thanks Susan. And boy, tear gas compared to querying? That's terrifyingly apt, that is.

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  12. @Matthew Yup. I'm pretty sure that querying makes you stronger, or at least better able to hold your breath. ;)

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  13. I totally enjoyed Life, Liberty and Pursuit. I think all good writers are experience self-doubt at some point. Otherwise, where's the motivation to improve?

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  14. @Moonlight I'm glad you enjoyed LLP! I think healthy self-doubt is fine. After all, we don't need to be raging megalomaniacs. But when self-doubt keeps you from moving forward, that's when it's a problem, not a positive force. Thanks for the comment!

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  15. I love the quote, and I love this post. You can't be confident without a certain degree of experience. I remember how nervous I was to read one of my chapters at a critique meeting. It got easier each time. Sometimes we have to take those risks and be willing to fail and learn from it. Taking risks, having those experiences, and persevering all help boost our confidence.

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  16. Great post!! Confidence is a mixture of all those elements. It's difficult sometimes to feel it, but really important if we want to succeed in this business. :D

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  17. @Lyn Thanks! I had the same reaction to my first face-to-face group, even though I had already had zillions of online critiques. But I went anyway. And it was awesome. :)

    @LisaGG It surprises me that I can still grapple with it, but I do. And I suspect most writers do at various points along the way, even very accomplished ones. Especially when the situation on the ground keeps changing.

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  18. It's totally true that confidence is everything! I tell my kids all the time, "Just own it." Because you can pretty much pull off anything if you just own it.

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  19. @Peggy And THAT'S what I'm talking about. :) Thank you!!

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  20. You left out encouragement! It a huge confidence builder when you have friends who encourage you to overcome all obsticles.
    I agree that experience can be a major confidence builder, but I disagree that experience = confidence, not all effort or experience builds confidence. Some effort really seems to come to naught. Being rejected repeatedly and realizing there's more and more things wrong with your manuscript are common experiences for writers and aren't exactly confidence boosters. (The 1st one I've heard about a lot, but am not yet to that stage. The 2nd I've been experiencing myself a lot this past year.)
    When my confidence is lacking, I fall back on my my determination and resolve which keep me pressing on.

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  21. @lighting Experience that is unpleasant can be a confidence booster. Let's go back to the tear gas example. Were there sailors that lost their lunch in that exercise? Yes. Were there sailors that washed out of the program after that exercise? Yes. But the ones that survived and kept going? They knew they could endure a gas attack and not panic (where panicking on the battlefield can mean death, not only for you, but your fellow soldiers). The analogy is a bit of a stretch, but all the encouragement in the world would not prepare those sailors for a real world gas attack. Only the experience of it could. And that experience gave them solid confidence. If someone came along later and discouraged them, telling them they could never survive a real-world tear gas situation, the sailors would laugh (or probably say, "No, Ma'am"). Because they would know that they could.

    Back to writers...I'm a huge proponent of encouragement and sharing information with my fellow writers, because that's about all I can do to help them. The journey is a solitary one, still. Being rejected repeatedly and realizing all the things that are wrong with your MS - if you've gotten to that point, you've lasted longer than a lot of recruits that have washed out. Getting through that, to the point where you are fixing your MS, takes all your determination, resolve, and the support of fellow writers doesn't hurt. But the confidence will come when you do that (again and again) and survive.

    This is all my 2 cents, of course. Based on my experience. :) Thanks for the great comment!

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  22. How did you know that this is EXACTLY what I've been needing. *sigh* THANK YOU! :-)

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  23. @Shannon Because it was what I needed, and we are not so different? :) I'm glad it helped!

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  24. Wow. This is a fabulous post, Susan. I just got a handful of rejections today and have been feeling . . . well, you know. I so needed this. I've gotta kick that doubt to the curb and have faith that my experience will pay off in the end.

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  25. @Ali I have no doubt that it will! Hang in there! :)

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  26. You're so right about confidence. It's when I'm at my lowest point that I don't succeed in things, whether it's in writing or non-writing endeavors. But once I charge with a goal in mind, feeling good about myself, things happen.

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  27. "That confidence will free me to write my books and share them with the world."

    I have to keep repeating this to myself when I want to stab my laptop with a pen. Thank you for writing such an inspiring post!

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  28. Great post, Sue! Attitude is everything.

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  29. @Medeia Isn't amazing how that works?

    @Sarah You are most welcome! :)

    @Sharon Turns out Mom was right after all. :)

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  30. Amazing as always, Susan. Such a good reminder! And I remember that scene in LLP VERY clearly (my lungs hurt while reading it.)
    I have to force myself to channel some deep well of confidence every time I send out a manuscript, chapter or heck, even a tweet. But you're so right, confidence = experience. I love that. As Emerson once said, "That which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the task itself has become easier, but that our ability to perform it has improved."
    Thanks for the post! Hope the week of work goes well!

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  31. @Marie I think it's universal for everyone to need to gin up that confidence, but somehow we always assume that other people don't do it - it's just us. But it's not true! Thanks for stopping by! :)

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  32. Terrific post, Susan. And I needed it. Thanks :)

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  33. Absolutely agree. What you put out into the universe, you get back. The Little Engine that could, did.

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  34. @Tara I'm so glad it helped! :)

    @CLee I'm a big fan of the little engine. :)

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  35. @Everyone Great quote from Jane Friedman I stumbled across:

    Jane: Everyone fails. That’s not the important part. What’s important is what you do next. Are you learning? Are you growing? Is your experience making your heart grow bigger? Anyone who is frustrated with change in the industry, or with how they are being treated by agents/editors, needs to remember these words from Joseph Campbell: “Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes?”

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  36. Great post! I agree that confidence can come from accomplishment. I recently finished the first draft if the first novel I've ever written and it's made me feel more confident as a writer. :)

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  37. @Ghenet Congrats on finishing your first draft!! That is some serious accomplishment, one many, many writers never reach. *hands you a glass of wine*

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  38. Ha! I love the analogy to querying! Great wisdom here - there is a big diff. between saying you have talent vs. saying "you have something valuable to bring to the world" !!! need to remember that with my girls.

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  39. Confidence can be a transient beast sometimes. I think that's where supportive critique partners can really help. I also save personal positive query rejections that have some specific compliments in them. Peeking back on those give my confidence a perk up.

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  40. @Margo Affirming someone's value in the world is always an important thing to do. And not just for kids!

    @Leslie I have one of those I've saved, because it said such nice things! Just goes to show, it's all in the writing.

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Erudite comments from thoughtful readers