The role of confidence in writing, February 2016

Confidence is generally described as a state of being certain either that a hypothesis or prediction is correct or that a chosen course of action is the best or most effective. (Wikipedia)

It’s relatively easy to see how confidence can be important in something like sport or a physical challenge. If you ask someone to jump over a ditch, they’ll have more chance of succeeding if the believe they can do it. They will fully commit to the jump, which means running as fast as they can and then putting as much effort as possible into the leap itself. If they lacked confidence, the temptation would be to run less fast and put less effort into the jump, because if it went wrong and they didn’t make it, the fall would probably be less hard. Or, if they really lacked confidence, running less fast would mean that they could more easily pull up before the jump and just not do it at all. So, someone who was physically capable of making the jump could fail to do so because of a lack of confidence.

It’s less easy to see how confidence can affect a writer, yet most writers will tell you it does. I’ve been fortunate to win a few writing prizes – fortunate because I think the process involves narrowing down the field to a relatively large group of pieces the judge feels are good and then choosing their favourites. So the difference between winning (or being shortlisted) is as much about whether judge likes the poem or story as about whether it is the ‘best’ or not. I’ve also of course not won many competition that I’ve entered. And despite the fact that the difference between winning and losing has a lot to do with luck, I’ve found that winning definitely boosts your confidence and losing undermines it and that affects your writing for some time afterwards.

I think the way it works is that writing – like leaping over a ditch – involves an act of faith to some degree. No matter how much you plan out the piece (and I’m on the less rather than more planning end of the spectrum), you don’t know if it’s actually going to work in the writing. Whether the story will ‘take off’ (a phrase that is entirely useless as a way of objectively defining stories that work but that very effectively describes the feeling as a writer when they think it’s working) is unpredictable. That feeling, the sense the writing has taken off, is something you have to believe will happen when you start writing, which is where confidence comes in. If you are feeling confident, you’ll be prepared to give it a go even if it doesn’t at first seem to be working. When you’re not feeling confident, it is easy to stop at the first sign of trouble, or to give up on an idea before even starting.

Though it’s dangerous to try and reconstruct how a piece of writing was written from its end product, I think that the poem ’29 April 1989’ by Sujata Bhatt is the result of very confident writing. The poem begins by setting up the situation, the poet’s infant child has gone to sleep for the afternoon and the narrator is free to do what she wants. However, she is not sure what she wants to do, and so looks outside at the rain, makes a pot of tea and idly goes through books and papers without any intention of reading or dong anything to the papers.

It’s a clear but not necessarily interesting account of not knowing what to do when you suddenly find yourself with some spare time, but there is nothing particularly memorable about it. I imagine Bhatt sitting down writing the first part and not really knowing where it was going, though feeling that there was something ‘there’. The poem then finishes with a wonderful set of images in the last five lines:

but there’s a rich round fullness
in the air
like living inside Beethoven’s piano
on a day when he was
particularly energetic.

The image of being – living – inside Beethoven’s piano, and the added detail of him being particularly energetic (and therefore particularly brilliant, him being Beethoven) is wholly unexpected and magical. Bhatt is comparing a very quiet atmosphere to what would a extremely loud one, yet it brilliant conveys the hidden magic of both a child with all its potential and a writer with all their creativity, both just waiting to be tapped. It also transforms the first part of the poem, from being fairly prosaic to giving the impression of skating over the surface of something huge and important yet unspoken.

This poem could be the result of many weeks of writing and refinement, but I imagine Bhatt finding that final image as she wrote and only because she was prepared to take the risk of carrying on writing when the material didn’t seem to be especially remarkable. The question of course becomes, can you make yourself into a confident writer if you are not a confident one? You could try waiting to win prizes, but I don’t think that is a very efficient strategy. I’m not sure there’s a magic trick to it, but I think that writing often and working on a piece of writing until it does take off, can set up a virtuous circle of good writing leading to confidence leading to good writing.

Paradoxically, for me, sometimes this means abandoning (or taking a break from) writing something that I don’t think is working, in order to work on an idea that I think will work. There’s obviously a balance here, because that could be a recipe to always give up when the writing gets tough and therefore to never finish anything, but for me it’s more important to produce writing that works than to finish any one particular piece of writing. Generally, if I’ve done something that I think does work it leads me to be more confident writing the next thing (or going back to the thing that wasn’t working). Having said that, like all writers after I finish something that I think is good I still live with the terrible feeling that maybe that was the last time I’ll ever be able to write something that does work. But I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done about that.

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