Opinion » John Rember

The Confidence Demon

And other creatures of the literary dark

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When do you know that you're a good writer? When do you know that you can relax, secure that when you put words on paper they will be worth your readers' attention? When can you stop listening to that small, still voice that suggests you give up writing as a bad deal and satisfy your artistic hunger by gluing small pewter figurines and tree moss to pieces of driftwood?

As far as I know, never. The blank screen looks the same, no matter how much you've published and how many times you've read your work to conference applause. If you've achieved fame and fortune with your first book, you'll feel in your soul that subsequent books need to be better. If your subsequent books are better, you'll start worrying about the inevitable minor work that will mark the inexorable decline of your talent.

It's a darker version of the actor's nightmare. You're onstage but you don't know what play you're in. You need to entertain the audience with a brilliant performance, and you haven't yet written your lines. Restless people are waiting out beyond the curtain, and it's rising.

Every writer I know worries about these things. What looks like confidence in a lot of accomplished writers is a bravado easily punctured by a raised eyebrow, an unkind word or an Amazon review that suggests your work combines mediocre intelligence with genius-level pretension. When a manuscript that's taken years of your life is rejected by an agent or publisher, it's even worse. If you're actually trying to make a living writing, supporting small, trusting children and a long-suffering spouse who once loved and believed in you, the pressure requires metaphors involving fusion reactions at the centers of stars.

It could be worse. The advance for the book you haven't written could have been spent on friends who disappeared once the private dancers went home and the gin and cocaine ran out.

I've probably disappointed those of you who depend on this column for a once-a-week reduction in artistic anxiety—as when the other small still voice asks, "If Rember can do it, how hard can it be?" So a little damage control is in order:

Item: You don't need confidence to be a writer. You need the ability to put in an hour or three every day in a chair, with your hands on a keyboard and the willingness to put down something, anything, even if it's wrong. What looks like confidence in many successful writers is a willingness to dance and clown and laugh in the face of more-or-less certain failure. Writers are not homo sapiens, or they wouldn't be writers. They are homo ludens, "man the player."

Item: Knowing your audience and your characters, and having a passion for the story can make confidence irrelevant. They allow you to climb out of the fetid swamp of self-obsession.

Item: Finding your True Subject makes things a lot easier. Much has been written on the True Subject, so much that it's tempting to assume that there are as many true subjects as there are writers. That doesn't mean they're easy to find. In my experience, you can't find yours without a deep and brutal honesty about what you see when you look in the mirror, a willingness to stand in the shoes of people less articulate and less fortunate than you are, and courage enough to challenge the imperfections of this world.

Item: We live in a hierarchy, and no matter how much lip service we pay to egalitarianism, once we get in a group we always ascertain who is above us and who is below us. For example, the first order of business of any newly-formed group is to establish a pecking order. Having led writing workshops for 30 years, I can say that this process leaves an unattractive soapy residue on writers after a workshop is over. It manifests as their willingness to spend lots of time defining themselves against other writers. It's a terrible waste of creative energy, and tends to make you—and them—meaner and nastier over time.

Workshops can teach a great deal, but sometimes they become prisons, with the emotional realities of prisons. A painful emotional freedom comes when you recognize that when you're writing, you are not part of any group. You are alone. Really alone. If a workshop can sometimes be a prison, writing is always solitary confinement. The good news is that no one else can write what you can write because no one else knows what you, in your solitude, experience.

Also, after a while you begin to hallucinate companions. These are better known as your characters.

Item: 10 years from now you'll be 10 years older. Twenty years from now you'll be 20 years older, and so on. You can spend your time writing or not writing. You'll still spend it, and when you're done spending it, it will be gone. No saving dessert for later in these matters.

Your legacy, even if it's found scrawled on sticky notes in a dusty trunk in the attic, will either demonstrate that you lived, breathed, thought, laughed, cried, loved, felt anger and joy—in short, knew what it meant to be human in your place and time—or it will demonstrate that you didn't. That's the gentle pressure on the first word of your next sentence, and it requires no confidence at all.

Adapted from John Rember's MFA in a Box blog, mfainabox.com.