Friday, May 14, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Are you faking it or are you giving up?

It's one thing for me to tell you that all successful journalists and writers are insecure. It's another to hear it from their high-achieving mouths yourself. So I've asked some writers I love and whose work inspires me to answer some questions about professional confidence. We start with Elizabeth Stark, a novelist and writing craft coach whose online writers community, Book Writing World, just launched. This is just a preview. Elizabeth had such amazing things to say that I'll continue her Q&A tomorrow.

I chose you for this q&a because you are a successful novelist--or at least I would qualify you as such: You've written a book,
Shy Girl, that I loved and that was nominated for two book awards. You have an MFA from Columbia and have taught writing and continue to teach creative writing through your site, Write Angles. From the outside, I'd guess that you're very confident in your craft and your career. How true is that?

This is going to be a more challenging interview than I originally thought. My public persona (authentic but only one part of a contradictory whole) is confident. And I would say that I am most confident as a teacher. I've practiced editing, responding to and guiding writers more extensively than I've practiced my own writing, and as a result, I've become most confident in those areas.

No matter what, creative practices are harder to master. I strongly feel that I am always a beginning writer. When I wrote my first book, the novel Shy Girl, I told myself that this was my "learning-to-write-a-novel novel." Imagine my surprise when it turned out that each book must be imagined from scratch, and learned from the beginning.

This is the curse (and blessing!) of creativity: you can't rest on your laurels, your experience or your knowledge. You have to flail around. So just like everyone else, each day I face the blank page, I face the terror that I do not know what I'm doing, that I will fail. And in a way, a first draft must fail, so there is no escape, no reassurance. You build upon the failure, improve the mess . . .

I find that I am less confident when I am in the middle of writing--but I am happier. The distance provides a veil; I can remember a set of skills without putting them to the test.

What parts of your career are you most confident in?

See above: I feel good about my ethics and principles in how I respond to others' work and guide them through the process of writing a book. Of course, even here I have moments of doubt, because, again, the creative process requires adherence to a set of guidelines ultimately created from within. I cannot dictate these for other people. With publishing in crisis and a million writing courses out there, I want to be sure I am offering something valuable and meaningful to my clients and students.

Where do you feel like you need more confidence professionally?

I've just undergone a radical shift. For a long time, I would say, "I don't want to be a Julia Cameron." She's the author of The Artist's Way and many other books to guide creative folks along the path. I had this idea that to be known as a teacher rather than as a creator was a sort of failure or carried some sort of shame associated with the crass world of popular success. Hmmm . . .

At any rate, I looked more deeply and learned that Julia Cameron is actually a very productive writer of plays, fiction, screenplays. It's the fault of the market that her teaching books are more widely read than her other work--but she is living a balanced life. And also, now that I have kids, a family to support, I feel like I'd be incredibly lucky to make an impact like Julia Cameron has made.

This shifted my confidence. I used to feel impatient that my work as a writer seemed to inspire others to jump into the fray. Now I acknowledge that this is a gift. And I am learning more about outreach, about marketing--for my own business and to help all my writers to promote their books. My biggest challenge is fitting in my own writing with the nurturing of The Book Writing World (my business) and taking care of my kids. Juggling. I need confidence to say I am doing enough in each area, when each one could happily demand all my time and attention.

What has increased your confidence as a writer and an instructor?

Practice, practice, practice. You really do have to do anything that's important to you every day. Writing. Reading. Teaching. Being with your kids. There are successful writers who do not write daily--but very few.

I think it was easier for me to take myself seriously as an instructor much earlier than I took myself seriously as a writer. When you take yourself seriously, you make time and put in the practice.

You take the next step--practice and promotion.

You ask to be taken seriously, by people in power, by your family and, most importantly, by yourself.

You ask not only in words but in actions.

Now I'm creating an online membership site for writers: coaching and craft for folks writing book-length narratives (fiction, non-fiction, memoir). This is a giant step. I am also writing what my writing group (and secretly, I, too) thinks will be a "break-out" book. It's big and ambitious and risky and exciting. I have had the idea in mind for fifteen years! I've been too scared to just do it. Now I've committed to write this big book.

It's not so much that I have more confidence--I'm just committing to take myself and my occupations seriously, to "fake it until I make it." I think even people with a ton of success have that feeling of faking it often. The difference is: are you faking it or are you giving up?

More tomorrow!

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