Becoming a More Confident Writer

This article originally appeared on Blake’s personal website here.

Writing is not easy. At all.

Just think about it for a moment. First of all, most people write because of urges that come from a very personal place. That means that often when we sit down to write, we’re tapping into our own vulnerability. We strive to capture a full-range of emotions, running ourselves through the gamut of joy and sorrow in a single sitting.

The emotional strain can be draining enough. But on top of that, writers also tend to make their own lives even more difficult without realizing it. As if we’re begging to add insult to injury, we then start to compare our writing to that of others. We call our validity into question, convincing ourselves that we should leave all the writing to the likes of V.E. Schwab and Angie Thomas. We listen to others’ tales and experiences and wonder if our stories even deserve to be told.

Quite quickly, it all starts to add up. We stop wanting to write. We delete what we’ve written.

If you’re like me, you may even spiral into periods of intense self-doubt in which you wonder if your mother was right all along and that you should have gotten a medical degree instead of a BA in English. (Forgive me, English department faculty, for even letting such a sinful thought cross my mind.)

So why would anyone want to write in the first place?

When you get past the self-doubt and insecurity that plagues creative types, the reasons why you would want to write become pretty evident. After all:

· Writing gives you a creative outlet.

· You enjoy the process of telling stories.

· For a stressful activity, it helps you relieve other kinds of stress.

· You’ve always wanted to be an author.

· It’s nice to get lost in a fantasy world.

· It gives you an outlet to process difficult emotions.

And the list goes on.

In my opinion, the benefits of writing far outweigh the drawbacks that come with the territory. That’s why even when I have my doubts that I’ll ever sell even my first book, I don’t doubt that I will continue writing books.

That then begs an important question: if we’re determined to write, how do we do so with confidence?

What does it mean to be a confident writer?

A good place to start is to define the goal. Far too often, I get the feeling that people think being a confident writer is about producing stellar first drafts and knowing that you have what it takes to be the next Elizabeth Gilbert or George R.R. Martin.

While those may seem like good aspirations to have as a writer, thinking that way is only going to set you up for failure. It sets impossible expectations for yourself and relies upon making comparisons between yourself and others.

Perhaps, then, it would be helpful to define what being a confident writer isn’t before diving into what it is.

Being a confident writer isn’t:

· Being as good as (or better than) others.

· Being able to write excellent first drafts.

· Flawless grammar skills.

· Having 100% never-been-seen-before, new, shiny, spectacular, innovative, experimental ideas.

So if your self-concept or ideas about what it means to be a confident writer (or even a good writer) relies upon these things, it’s time to do some house cleaning. Throw those ideas to the curb and open the windows of your mind, letting it air out.

To me, being a confident writer is about being brave enough to listen to your muse and having the fortitude to show up, even when your self-doubt is at its worst.

Listening to your muse

Let’s break things down even further. What does it mean to listen to your muse?

In contemporary culture, we refer to our muses as anything that inspires us, but that doesn’t quite capture what I’m talking about.

Instead, I think the classical idea of the muses is a bit more accurate, because there is something magical — supernatural even — in the process of creation. At times as a writer, you’ll be faced with the overwhelming sensation of a new story that is waiting to be born. It takes over your thoughts, vibrating through your chest. Your showers become longer and longer simply because you can’t stop thinking through a plot point. You’ll bolt out of bed just before you fall asleep so that you can write an idea down.

In those moments, the story is there, shoving and kicking, waiting to get out. The modern usage of a muse simply being an inspiration doesn’t cut it. The feeling of a story trying to break into this world is something purely divine.

In her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert gives a beautiful description of this sensation. If you haven’t read this book yet, it is time to do so. It’s a must-read for any creative person, and it’s one I’ll reference quite frequently on this blog. Early on in Big Magic, Liz recounts a time when her partner told her the real life account of a construction project in Brazil that was “swallowed up” by the Amazon rainforest. Hearing this tale, Liz writes:

“When he told me this story– especially the part about the jungle swallowing up the machines– chills ran up my arms. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up for an instant, and I felt a little sick, a little dizzy. I felt like I was falling in love, or had just heard alarming news, or was looking over a precipice at something beautiful and mesmerizing but dangerous.
I’d experienced these symptoms before, so I knew immediately what was going on. Such an intense emotional and physiological reaction doesn’t strike me often, but it happens enough (and is consistent enough with symptoms reported by people all over the world, all throughout history) that I believe I can confidently call it by its name: inspiration.”

This sensation Liz describes is the voice of the muse. Just as she goes on to explain, when you have this recognition of (divine) inspiration, you then have the choice to either work with it or not.

Either way, the first step to becoming a more confident writer is to learn to listen to this feeling. When chills run up your spine and you don’t know if you’re in love or about to fall over, stop what you’re doing and listen. Keep a notebook handy or just use your phone to take notes.

That feeling is a sign from the divines to pay attention, and learning to embrace it will allow you to tap into the raw material from which stories are mined. When our muses knock down that first domino, if we let it continue to tumble, it will cause a chain reaction.

Unfortunately, we often ignore our muses. Self-doubt and the feeling of inadequacy are like a pair of earmuffs when our muses speak. If we convince ourselves that we are unable to write a story, we won’t. The idea will travel on to someone else, someone who is more open to the muse’s suggestion.

When your muse speaks, act. Otherwise, the story will pass, and someone else will mine the raw materials we need for the alchemical process of writing.

Having the Fortitude to Show Up

Once again, I think understanding this step requires us to reframe the way we think of fortitude, strength, and courage.

Much like bravery, courage comes from action, not emotion.

If we think of having fortitude or being courageous as describing a state in which we have no fear, we’re yet again setting ourselves up for failure. Fear is something we have to learn to live with, not something we should try to live without. People who don’t experience fear are what we call sociopaths. Not the brave, the courageous, or the daring… sociopaths.

As writers, we have to recognize the fact that as we write, we may uncover powerful, painful emotions. We may be compelled to write a story that our friends and family don’t understand. Our words may make us the target for judgment or anger. Perhaps even scarier for writers is the fact that once our work is out there, it’s going to be judged, maybe even ripped to shreds, for whatever merit it has or lacks.

These are all very unnerving experiences. It all comes with the territory, and if you’re not a sociopath, it is probably going to make you uncomfortable.

But, if writing is important to us, we have to learn to write anyway. That is fortitude, and the power that will enable you to create.

Once you decide that writing is more important to you than your fear, the next step is to lean into that discomfort. When the nagging voice of doubt tries to tell you that you’re not good enough, shake your head and keep writing. When all you want to do is check Facebook because it’s easier than writing, turn off your Wi-Fi and keep writing.

Leaning into vulnerability and embracing discomfort can be quite the battle to fight, but to write confidently, it’s one that we must win. The only way to get better at this is to practice it. As you show up to write and begin to squirm with discomfort, stop and take a breath. While breathing in, locate the discomfort in your body. Is it in your chest? Your gut? Your mind? All of the above? Wherever you feel the sensation of vulnerability, let your attention linger there for a moment. Without judgment toward yourself, observe those feelings. Then, let them go. Exhale, relaxing your muscles as you empty your lungs.

This won’t cure your discomfort, but it will help. And the more you practice it, the more effective it will be. Don’t waste energy fighting your fear and discomfort. Just recognize it for what it is, and then decide that you won’t let it limit you. Let it go.

(And, if you want to read more about vulnerability, I highly recommend both Brené Brown’s Daring Greatlyand Pema Chödrön’s The Places that Scare You.)

Don’t Wait to Feel Like a Confident Writer. Just Be One.

99.99% of the time, telling someone to “just do it” is a cop out.

With writing, I tend to think we’re in the 0.01% of the times when it actually works as advice. The thing about writing is that the only way to get better at it — to feel more comfortable and confident in your abilities — is to do it.

When you come to terms with the fact that writing will be uncomfortable, but decide to do it anyway, you’re taking the first step toward getting in necessary practice. You’re telling yourself that it is more important to listen to your muses than your fear. In doing so, you’re putting out creative energy into the universe. The muses will see this, and they will continue to respond, giving you more and more raw material to use so long as you continue to put your pen to the paper, fingers to the keys.

When you stop waiting to feel confident before you write, you are actively cultivating and finding your confidence. In time, the feeling will come too, but it doesn’t change the fact that being a confident writer will always require the work, not the feeling.