Monday, January 9, 2012

Crisis of Confidence

I don't usually have writer's block. I have so many different ideas running through my head--and sometimes they come one after another. Sometimes I can't think clearly because of all the ideas. It's almost like having writing A.D.D....

My problem isn't in figuring out what to write--it's writing in a way that does justice to the vision in my head of the finished story. My real problem is that I sometimes lack the confidence to transmit the ideas into words.
Do you have those days--those times when you are crippled by the fear of being dishonest when you call yourself a writer? Surely I'm not the only writer who goes through this. There are times when I feel like a complete fraud; I convince myself that I am the worst sort of poser (my Canadian heritage popping out...sorry), and it can be a crippling fear that compels me to question everything.

I make my living as a musician. I play in several different bands, and I also teach piano. Sometimes I have the same crippling fear when I'm playing or teaching--but there's a difference because I have more of a resume as a musician. I've also played music my entire life, and I usually get more immediate feedback when performing music.

There are obvious differences between music and writing, but there are also common elements. Music is a form of art, but it is also a craft that can be mastered with hard work and discipline. Writing isn't much different, and in some ways writing is more of a craft. Writing is all about that aforementioned hard work and discipline.
Good musicians learn their craft--but great musicians have extraordinary gifts...perfect pitch, or what I call "relative" pitch--the ability to instantly discern the interval between two different notes, or to know right away whether a note is sharp or flat. Some people have a highly developed ear for music, and some don't (even though almost everyone has a better ear for music than they long does it take for you to figure out that a singer isn't any good?). It's the same type of natural gift as a photographer's good eye for composition. But talent isn't everything, and I know I would be a better musician if I practiced more. I'd be a better teacher if I studied more...and that's a goal of mine (it is the new year, after all!).

Writers vary in talent just like photographers, or musicians. But everyone can learn to be good at some form of writing. We can't all be poets, and not everyone has the ability to be a great storyteller, but there are many different ways to make a living with the written word if you master the craft of writing.We are not all destined to write something as brilliant as "To Kill a Mockingbird", but we can all improve, and that's the thought that invariably pulls me out of my funk when I have my moments of terror--I can work my way toward legitimacy.

My crisis of confidence is real, and I never will be able to fully escape its crippling effects, but I know a few things now that can help me fight back. I don't think I'm unusual--I think all writers deal with the same demons I endure, and the secret is in working through the fear and trusting that the work will lead to a good result.
I know I will always be better if I allow myself to be me--I can't be Harper Lee, or Ken Follet--I just have to be satisfied with being J.D. Currie. Beginning writers are often told to imitate the style of their favorite writers, and it might be good advice...but eventually writers have to develop their own voice.

I get into trouble when I try to predetermine the destiny of my stories, and that's a sure-fire sign that I'm not confident. My best work always grows from within itself. I don't over-think my writing when I'm going good--I create an interesting character, and then I put that character in a tough situation and allow the character to lead me through the story. It might not work for everyone, but it always works for me. There's nothing wrong with a strong plot, but the characters shape the plot when I'm writing my best.

That's why I write from beginning to end. Maybe someday I will craft a great ending to a novel before I write the rest of the book, but it doesn't seem to work that way now. I start at the beginning, and I go on to the end, and then I stop (sorry, Lewis Carroll). And that's another lesson--it is tough to admit that you started a book in the wrong spot. Is the beginning of your book or story really the beginning? Or did you just write forty pages of fluff before getting into something that will hold your reader's interest? If you screwed this up it's okay--just make sure you understand that you haven't written a book at this point--you've written a first draft of a book. Don't be afraid to admit that you made a mistake. Starting a book in the wrong spot is a sure sign that you aren't listening to your characters. They write the story.

That's my epiphany--I'm flawed and I know it. I'm not Harper Lee, or James Joyce (thank God!). I'm just me...and I can only succeed by working hard, staying positive, and by learning the lessons my writing is trying to teach me. The rest of it--the degree of my success, is out of my hands, and it is silly to fret about it. I don't always keep this in mind, but at least now I can read this blog post when I feel like a poser.


  1. Jeff, thanks for admitting that you feel like a poser at times. I publish a regular column, yet still have to convince myself that I'm a "real writer." You are so right that all writers suffer such crises of confidence.

    You fiction writers are a special inspiration to me. I have heard about this phenomenon you mention, wherein the characters create the story, yet as a nonfiction writer I have never experienced this. It sounds like pure magic to me.

    How exciting to learn that Judgment Tramp is on Kindle! Guess what my latest gadget purchase is - a kindle! Guess what my next Kindle purchase will be!

    Best to you!

  2. Thanks, Pegs! I'm thrilled you want to put my book on your Kindle--please put a review up on my Amazon page.



  3. Jeff, it's a fact that every writer faces a crisis of confidence at some point in time, if not on a regular basis. I know I have. It's normal and I even think it's part of the way we challenge ourselves to keep writing and be better and better with every word.

    You're definitely a writer, Jeff, because if you weren't then you would have given in to that insecurity years ago. Instead you carried on and persevered in spite of it, and look at how you're around now to share and help others with your experience. You're a role model.