Creative Confidence

Sunday Letter | #347

I spoke virtually with a group of students in North Carolina this week, and when I got one of my usual canned responses about my writing routine, I found myself talking about it in a new way—in terms of confidence.

For a long time I’ve felt that my morning journaling builds momentum for the “real” work of fiction writing and revising (which it does!). But lately I’ve also been noticing that momentum, in this case, refers specifically to confidence—to my confidence in my own ability to write good sentences.

When I journal before I write, I get some of those bad sentences out of the way. It doesn’t mean I don’t still write bad sentences; it’s more that I trust myself to write better ones, and that trust becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I suspect this is why I tend to have more productive revision days when I start by reading earlier scenes that I feel to be in good shape. Eight solid pages followed by two garbage ones are a lot less disheartening to work on than ten garbage ones (see also: one sentence, then the next).

Maybe this is a reason that for some authors, their first book comes preternaturally while the second becomes a slog. When you’re naive to the full stakes of what you’re doing, you’re also naive to everything that could go wrong. Your confidence (or overconfidence) pushes you to try things beyond what you’re capable of; you take risks not knowing they’re risks.

For other authors, it’s reversed; the first book builds confidence in your ability to write the second, which rolls into your third and fourth and so on. Your biggest obstacle might be feeling that you’re not immediately good at something, but once you get over that, you’re on the flywheel to James-Patterson-esque prolificness.

I think I just wrote a pair of Buzzfeed quiz descriptions.

Anyway, confidence seems to me a more useful frame than the oversimple binary of blocked vs. unblocked. I can more precisely remember the times I’ve been most confident in my writing, and the conditions around that confidence—my mood and lifestyle, my exercise routine, etc. I can remember the times when my competitiveness contributed to this confidence; when I read a published novel or story that I thought I could write better (or at least just as well).

And I think this is a (if not the) chief benefit attending a workshop or conference, or learning from a coach or teacher, or sharing your writing with trusted readers—particularly when you find yourself stuck. To help you remember that you’ve written good sentences in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. To help restore confidence in your own ability to write.