Thursday, June 30, 2011

Confidence For Writers


Where do writer's get confidence? Success and praise. Success: we are published; we win an award; a lot of people visit our blog. Praise: we get good feedback; people compliment our work; a friend encourages our gifts. Generally, some combination of these is involved in the development of confidence. Some people's confidence is naturally frail: one rejection, or one bad comment, sends them into despair. They resolve never to pick up a pen again. Others glide along, and against all odds, persevere.

Yet, what we are ultimately after is what Leslie Newbigen, in another context, called "proper confidence." We don't want to be overconfident, and think of ourselves -- or our gifts -- more highly than we should. Also, we don't want to be under-confident, and devalue our gifts and abilities. I'm of the school that, if a person works hard, they can be a decent writer. So, I would never discourage anyone from pursuing a life of writing. Yet, when it comes to gifts, some individuals are gifted "off the scale." Here's the rub -- some people who are very gifted don't know it. Then, they don't write because they lack confidence.

I came across this fascinating interchange between Bill Simmons and Tony Kornheiser. It illustrates just how frail even a good writer's confidence can be.

From Kornheiser's show on ESPN 980:

Simmons: “You’re a much bigger issue, because when you sit in front of your computer and stare at an empty Word document, you actually break out in a cold sweat.”
Kornheiser: “That’s right.”
Simmons: “So I have to rehabilitate your confidence and keep talking you up, because I know you have stuff to say still.”
Kornheiser: “I don’t know. I mean, these fingers don’t type....”
Simmons: “You are a good writer. You’re a great writer.”
Kornheiser: “I was good. I’m no longer any good.”
Simmons: “Well listen. Your e-mails are entertaining, so it can’t be like you totally lost it.”
Kornheiser: “No, but I will happily send you e-mails and happily chat with you, but writing....You know, Tony LaRussa gets shingles. That could happen to me.”
Simmons: “Here’s my theory, and I think you and Goldman have the same issue. I think you both think you still can write, but there’s like a 20 percent thing inside you that’s saying ‘No, I’m gonna start typing, and nothing’s gonna be there, and then I’ll know definitively that I’m not a writer any more.’ So you don’t even want to try. So in your head, it’s like ‘I can still secretly write, but I don’t want to.’ ”
Kornheiser: “I watched this happen with people I respect. I watched it happen with two people, and I will mention their names. Roger Kahn and Gay Talese. Gay Talese was about the greatest newspaper and magazine writer I ever saw, and then I read stuff when he hadn’t written in while, I read some stuff that wasn’t quite as good as it used to be. The same was true with Roger Kahn. And I was faking people for years. I mean, I know I stink. I just don’t want to go out there and let everybody see it.”
Simmons: “But you still have, like, five or six things per year that I think you could write that would be original and interesting and be something that only you could write.”
Kornheiser: “Well, the only thing that I could write definitely that nobody else can say is ‘My name is Tony Kornheiser.’ And other than that....I don’t know. I don’t know, Bill.”

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