Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Confidence: the writer's crucial asset, by David Thorpe

What is the most important thing a writer needs? I would argue that confidence is a strong candidate.

Confidence is an elusive, brittle property, which represents a combination of trust and self-assurance. It is not at all the same as over-confidence or recklessness.

Losing confidence is easy, finding it is much harder.

The most successful writers, while having confidence in abundance, combine it with a sense of self-critical doubt. They are also able to access the vulnerable parts of their natures in order to represent them in the characters they depict.

Our young readers need to discover that the characters with whom they identify in our stories have the confidence and abilities to overcome the obstacles that we put in their paths. These characters also need to have vulnerabilities so that the readers can identify with them.

Where else can these psychological attributes come from except from their creators?

So, in turn, we as writers need to be honest about our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, because true confidence comes from being completely candid, and facing up to our deficiencies, particularly as they relate to our writing.

Only then can we overcome them.

In order for our writing to be successful we need to be able to identify its imperfections, be scrupulous in attending to them and, in a way, merciless (without fear) in doing so.

Let's look at the two components of confidence.


Trust is about having faith in the ideas that pop into your mind. You must never censor them because you think they may be unacceptable to some readers, or because others may think them stupid.

This is another way of saying what Heather Dyer said yesterday about Beginner's Mind.

If Roald Dahl had thought that his critical depictions of parents would have meant that his books would not be bought by adults, we would not have such wonderful stories as Matilda.

JK Rowling could have thought that stories about boy wizards have been done before, and given up before she started.

But it’s not what you do but the way that you do it.

The book 'Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre' by Keith Johnstone, which has helped to help train two generations of stand-up improvisation comics, contains many useful tips for writers as well. In the exercises within it, where trainee improvisers are told to engage in spontaneous conversations which have particular rules, he demonstrates how important it is to trust the first thing that comes into your head, and not hold back for fear of disapproval.

Failure to do so leads to audience (and reader) disappointment, because it nips in the bud the potential exploration of what could be a really interesting seam of subject matter.

Often, it is precisely the most apparently transgressive thoughts and ideas which readers demand. Readers, and not just of vampire tales, want the stories they devour to contain daring and outrageous behaviour by characters, shocking ideas, or unspeakable jokes, whether to take them beyond the confines of their own lives, to provide a vicarious thrill, or (guilty) pleasurable giggles.

Equally, the writer must try not to temper their style to make it more anodyne or less quirky in the belief that this will make it more acceptable. Nor do they need to be 'quirky' for the sake of it. Each writer needs to be confident in their own voice.

Every successful writer possesses a style which is instantly identifiable, whether we might consider it to be 'good' or 'bad' prose. Just compare a sentence by Alan Garner to one by Enid Blyton, or one by Maurice Sendak to one by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. A regional accent is no less valid than a BBC one.


This leads to the second quality of confidence: assurance. When we meet an assured individual, who is at the same time sincere and possesses an enquiring mind (as writers must have), we are immediately attracted to them.

Assurance includes a sense of style, panache or élan.

There is a generosity of spirit which comes from a lack of fear in a person that they will make a mistake. Their generosity of spirit is seen to compensate for any other deficiencies, which, after all, we all have.

But as writers we have an advantage: we are insured from failures in expression because we have the luxury of being able to correct ourselves and refine our words before they reach the public, unlike, say, politicians who are constantly in the public eye.

That process of refinement in editing should sharpen the wit of the writing.

The assurance of writing style comes from practice and only from practice.

This is because it is necessary to have mastered the technical aspects of writing such that we do not need to concern ourselves with them while we articulate our stories.

Our attention can therefore be fully on aspects of nuance, emphasis and emotional impact as expressed in sentence structure and content.

As an actor needs to be able to see themselves as others see them, as politicians need to be presentable, so writers need to see their prose as others do. Not as what they intended to mean, but what the words actually imply.

So assurance is a product of trust combined with practice, applied with style.

Gaining confidence

Losing confidence is an occupational hazard for writers. It can be a result of a writer's block, a negative review, or letters of rejection from publishers or agents.

Getting it back again is far harder than losing it.

Often, this confidence is inextricably linked to a lowering of self-esteem generally. Regaining this self-esteem about writing is a specific case of the general techniques given to repair psychological self-esteem.

This will be the subject of my next ABBA blog post on 4 July.


Heather Dyer said...

Wonderful post David, couldn't agree more. I also rate Impro by Keith Johnston, what a great book!

David Thorpe said...

It is, isn't it? I have used exercises within it many times in my creative writing workshops to get students to loosen up.

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you, David - well and clearly put. I look forward to the second installment!

Anonymous said...

Very inspiring and true for a 'young aspirational writer'!
Confidence is vital, and also very hard to keep! There is always the fear of not being good enough, or of failing, especially at school, where for me it is a very real, very prominent fear. Confidence in yourself is needed. IF no-one has ever made a mistake, they have never lived. I don't know who said that, but they are right! Loved the post x

David Thorpe said...

Thank you Katie. It would be interesting to know a little more about yourself: are you a school student intending to, or actually writing books for children now? What do you get from reading this blog and how did you find it? Certainly, I believe making mistakes is often more important than doing things right because you learn more.