100 Things Challenge (#3): Confidence and the Wimpy Writer
I've often thought about writerly confidence and its relationship to skill as a writer. I was once the wimpiest of wimpy writers; I still am wimpy in some ways. And in working with other writers in the capacity of a peer and as an editor, I've made my share of observations about how wimpiness and confidence seem to relate to skill and success, however one chooses to define the latter.
Writerly wimpiness, for me, coexisted beside a tiny flicker of hope. It had to, or I wouldn't be here now. After all, one has to overcome one's wimpiness just long enough to throw a piece of writing out there, whether to LiveJournal or a workshop group or a publication. For me, those first early flickers of hope that I didn't suck as a writer and had some potential were so brief as to be self-defeating. My first attempt to publish something was via my university's creative arts journal, Bartleby, when I was a freshman. I saw the fliers around campus and just happened to have a story that fit the specifications; the story, incidentally, had won an award in a writing contest when I was in high school. But this was university, and I was certain that the bar was so much higher here. Still, the possibility of the writing context nagged at me, and on the last day submissions were being accepted, I climbed the stairs in the Fine Arts building to the English office and thrust my manuscript into the Bartleby mailbox and scampered back down the stairs before I had a chance to think better of it. Although the journal asked for all manner of contact information, I included only an email address, one that I happened not to check. Ever. This was so stupidly self-defeating that I'm shaking my head at myself even now, but I was convinced that there would be no occasion for the journal's editors to use the address; I wanted confirmation of my lack of suckiness but I also really didn't want to know what I was convinced was the truth: that I was unremarkable as a writer.
Lucky for me, the fiction editor was persistent enough to track me down via the registrar's office and leave a message on my parents' voicemail for me. The story was published, and the editor liked working with me enough that she brought me on as her assistant the next year, and I inherited her editorship the year after that. But I was still wimpy.
I was a writing minor in university, which meant regularly submitting to the process of having one's work workshopped by peers. I remember very little about the workshopping of my own writing; those memories faded into the stress-induced haze that accompanied them. But I do remember some of my classmates and my perceptions of them. University writing classes--at least at my university--had a more equitable gender balance than fandom but was still largely a woman thing. Most of the students and most of the professors were women. But every class, it seemed, had One of Those Guys.
Intro to Fiction: He was the sort who wore skinny jeans and a leather jacket and long hair dyed jet black, who lingered till the last minute before class sucking cigarettes outside the Social Sciences building where class was held, surrounded by a small harem of admiring female literati. He put up his hand for everything, and he never lilted the ends of sentences because everything was stated, never asked. He wore the look of brilliance, and he exuded confidence. He stood out against the backdrop of wimpy, largely woman, bookish classmates with our shoulders rounded inward and our drab hairstyles and our eyes always focused on the tops of our desks.
When it was his turn to be workshopped, I awaited reading his story with a mixture of eagerness and dread. Eagerness because it is always fun to read something by someone brilliant; dread because I'd have to find something intelligent and, ideally, at least a little bit critical about it. But when I settled down with the story, I found something quite different. The story was ... bland. It didn't have any of the sparkle that a good writer can put into prose, and the ending was a predictable gotcha of a twist that felt empty and disappointing. I finished the story, half-convinced that I wasn't astute enough to pick up on what he was trying to do with the story, but now I know that, no, the story just sucked.
Advanced Creative Essays: One of Those Guys sat behind me there, an older guy with receding gray hair and the kind of glasses that seem like they belong on a computer programmer from the seventies. He spoke with a slightly gravely voice that exuded confidence and authority. He also never asked, only stated. He seemed to belong in a cramped study, pounding out stories on a typewriter with Hemingway spilling off the bookshelf behind him.
But, this time, I knew better. On the first day of class, while doing introductions, when he said his name, I couldn't even bring myself to turn to meet his eyes. Anyone looking at me from the front of the classroom might have thought that I'd been suddenly and painfully bitten by a spider lurking under my chair by the way my eyes popped out suddenly. By this point, you see, I'd been on the Bartleby staff for a couple of years, and I was familiar already with this guy's work. While I was still Karan's assistant, she called me to meet her at the office one day because she had some stories she wanted my opinion on. She came in with the thick stack of manuscripts. All by one writer, she said, and she wasn't sure she wanted to ask the fiction staff to read them, but she wanted my opinion first. She took half and I took half. They were all pornography. Bad pornography. The protagonist always had the same name as the writer. Page after page was filled with overblown onomatopoeia: "Ooooooooooooh, John! Oooooooooooooo!" There wasn't much of a story; just a setup to "John's" sexual escapades. It wasn't even hot. He insisted on calling, in every one of his pile of stories, female genitalia "the garden." He was always entering someone's "garden" amid much moisture and humidity. Yech. I don't think Karan and I got through two before deciding that, no, we would reject them outright and not subject the staff to trying to read them.
In working with writers in a beta relationship, I've often worked with those who self-identify as very delicate about criticism, who want to improve their work but admit that they are terrified of--and sometimes lash out against--critique. I try to be gentle but have borne my share of lashings. Most of these writers are brilliant.
It's certainly not universal by any stretch of the imagination, but it does often seem, in my experience anyway, that the overly confident writers don't have the skill that the wimps do. I've had this conversation with other writers, who recognize the self-destructiveness of their terror of criticism or putting their stories "out there," whether for comment or publication. I recognize it myself; I can muster myself perhaps once per year to send a manuscript out. I'm much better about putting up my fannish work, in a large part because I have come to know fandom as a safe space where it is unlikely that I will be mercilessly shredded. Writers will lament to me how they wish they could be tougher. But I sometimes wonder: I sometimes wonder if their fragility--our fragility--is part of what makes them perceptive enough to write the way that they do and isn't part of what makes them self-critical and always shaping themselves, in the absence of critique from an outsider, toward perfection.
But it's a catch-22, of course: These same tender feelings mean one tends to hold back one's writing from potential opportunities. Those Guys, of course, with their swagger and their voices unable to form questions, don't similarly hold back, as evidenced by the pile of awful porn that has probably long since been recycled into newsprint.
I find myself evolving in recent years. I am able to admit things that would have stricken me with horror to say even three years ago. I'm a good writer. Even now, I want to BACKSPACE those words away. It feels unacceptable to say that, like I'm bragging. Or jinxing something. It's not even that I fear becoming One of Those Guys; I'm not a guy, after all, and yes, I do think that's part of it but maybe a can of worms for another post. I can admit that I'm a good writer compared to most other people. Writing is the thing I'm best at. But compared to my standards for myself, I have a long way to go. I think of the stories on my hard drive, some of them years old that should have been sent out to magazines years ago but never have, and I think, Gods no, they're still not ready. Maybe I haven't evolved so much after all. Maybe I don't want to.
This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!