Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bigger 12 -The Confidence Factor

I have confidence in confidence alone!
Besides Which you see I have confidence
In me!
-- Richard Rodgers

This morning, I woke up with a country song, complete wiht lyrics I never knew I'd memorized, running through my head. When I write speeches, quotes from Abe Lincoln, Hunter S. Thompson, or Seneca show up at just the right time to clarify a point. I never know what useful or instructive snippet will pop up in my mind, but I've learned to pay attention.

The lyrics above, about confidence, arrived as I was reading a self-published novel. While the back of my mind was pointing out formal errors in spelling, grammar, and structure, the rest of me was lost in the story. It isn't unusual for this to happen if the plot has me hooked. I'm often sucked in when the author has taken time to build a minimal amount of empathy for the character, the need is clear, and there are a few surprises.

None of this was really happening in the work I was reading (though, I'm sure from the author's other work that all will be well eventually). What kept me turning the pages was confidence alone. Absolutely nothing about the work was tentative. I could tell he knew he deserved my time.

My favorites works of art and the stories that entertain me most seem to glow with self confidence. The artists, whether they are writers, actors, directors, or contributors in less obvious ways, like lighting, are all in. They bet everything, knowing they'll win. And I can't help but go along.

Where does such confidence some from? I'm not sure. I've put together a tentative list, and I'd love to see additions from readers:
  • Mastery - With some writers, you can tell from the first sentences that they have taken the time and effort to learn the techniques and approaches of storytelling. In particular, they have an array of tools to choose from. They use the right one, and they execute flawlessly.
  • Warts and all - Does it seem to be a contradiction to say the confident writers have humility? I've found the best are willing to expose their weaknesses -- prejudice, bad judgment, ignorance -- on the page in a matter-of-fact way that grounds their strengths. You know that, like you, they are flawed, and that makes their hard-won wisdom all the more valuable.
  • Attitude - Confident writers seem to approach their work with a sense that they will succeed. That bleeds through on every page.
  • Bona fides - I love it when writers have done their homework and understand their subjects in detail. They don't need to bury me with facts to prove they know what they're talking about. They may only expose ten percent of what they learned, but it is the right ten percent.
  • Respect - I have confidence in the writer if the writer has confidence in me. Don't talk down or get overly explicit, or I'll walk away.
  • Voice - Confident writers don't sound like anyone else but themselves. It may even be that confidence is what we mean when we speak of the writer's voice.
  • Courage - When a writer goes someplace difficult -- when he or she takes a risk in the story, in exposing a sensitive issue, in sharing a dark moment, or in speaking truth to power -- don't you want to go along?
As a clarification, I'm not talking about charm. That is another way to lure people in. It may have confidence included, but charm relies mostly on sensual appeal, the ability to reflect back attitudes and emotion, and deception (such as telling us what we want to hear). Charm is to confidence what infatuation is to true love. A charming person's impact is likely to fade after they leave the room or when you discover your wallet is empty. Beware of Prince Charming.

Also, confident art may include less than confident characters, and usually does. I saw play Philip Seymour Hoffman play Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway. No one could imagine that Willy is confident, but the actor playing him inhabited the role without hesitation. He commanded the stage even as his character's weaknesses were exposed. "Attention must be paid?" No kidding.

I am coming to believe that you can't write a bigger story without confidence that shows through. Mastering the tools is a requirement, and writers should never stop working to perfect their craft. Some people also find pep talks useful. And I know people who keep a worthy adversary in mind when they sit down to write -- often with "Screw you, [editor or other worthy adversary]" scrawled on Post-It above their writing space.

Writing fast helps. It shuts down the inner critic. A "What the hell?" attitude enables confidence. I've seen the difference with my students who have jumped in and decided to have some fun. They may (usually) end up with horrifyingly crude pages, but the text is engaging in ways their more considered work isn't. Rewriting, not drafting, is the best time for doubts.

How does confidence affect your writing? Have you found ways to instill it? What are your favorite approaches?

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