The Muse, if you like
Cold Friday morning

Listening to Copernicus

Litlove's comment about self-belief in The Muse, if you like has sent me back to wondering about where self-belief in writers actually comes from. All the writing gurus, and all the other gurus too, keep up a chant about believing in yourself: whole careers have been founded on such 'inspirational' talk (talking of which, what ever happened to 'inspiring' as a perfectly good word for exactly the same thing?). But believing in anything - from God, to your being about to swim your personal best time - is by definition something you can't choose to happen: so either you believe in yourself, or you don't. Some people believe very odd things in the teeth of all the evidence: that the world is flat; that blondes have more fun (I was born a lot blonder than I am these days, but I'm having much more fun now); that they're a terrible writer though garlanded with prizes and selling by the pallet-load.

But there's a clue in what's going on with the would-be writers who have yet to learn to be bad, and those who never never do, but persist in thinking their work's publishable or even prizeworthy. Their self-belief is a product of their ignorance of what good writing actually is, and learning that can, if painfully, alter their belief, just as Copernicus and Galileo and Columbus and moon landings have pretty much persuaded the human population to believe that the world is round, even though many of us have never actually studied the evidence. Not all would-be writers have that erroneous self-belief: some, by the time they start writing, already have an experienced and perceptive inner reader in place.

But if any would-be writer (let's call her Emma) is going to keep at it rather than giving up in despair, what needs to happen is that in discovering or being shown all the things she's doing wrong, Emma also discovers what (however little) she's doing right. The combination of a tiny belief in her capacity to get a tiny bit right, plus constructive thinking about what's wrong and why, breeds a different sort of self-belief: that she will get more things more right in the future; that she can learn, and get better. It's not (mostly) magic, it's craft, and all the time her inner reader is learning its craft too, in reading both her work and others, so it's a virtuous spiral. And given good teaching or other feedback from trusted readers, perhaps a competition win or a few things published in small magazines, that real self-belief can gradually build up.

So, given at least some small evidence that what you do is something other people, whose judgement you trust, like reading, why do you go on feeling that what you do is no good? Why do you hear small criticisms so much more clearly than loud praise? Even more insidious, why do you start wondering if those trusted readers are really to be trusted? Maybe they're lying. Maybe they're not good judges... I'm not talking about a reasonable realisation that you've written something badly: that Chapter Three really doesn't work, that the last stanza of the poem clunks like a cracked bowl, that you don't know how to handle shifting points-of-view. Those you can do something about, even if it takes a while before you know what. I'm talking about the three-in-the-morning horrors; the agony that kicks in as the submissions drop into the postbox (too late to get them back!); the conviction that the blogger who says, 'I loved every page - the most wonderful book I've ever read' is doesn't know a bad book when they see one, while the one who says, 'I've never felt a week so wasted as the one I spent reading this' is all too right.

This irrational belief, in the teeth of at least some evidence, runs along some much more fundamental circuits than nice comments from a writing tutor can easily re-wire. The conviction that what you do is no good is so fundamental that anyone who challenges it must be stupid, or deluded, or lying. This, if you like, is cognitive dissonance: if two things you believe are incompatible (that you're bad at writing; that they know good writing when they see it), the human instinct is to change one, or the other. Chances are that it's easier to believe others are wrong, than change your much more hard-wired conviction that you're bad at what you do. (The same goes for the truly terrible writers who, rather than being ignorant of good writing, cannot cope with the possibility that they're bad, and refuse to believe screeds of authoritative evidence that they are.)

Since this wiring is set up in childhood and adolescence, deep psychotherapy might be able to re-wire it, but I've never felt that staring into the mirror in the morning and chanting how wonderful you are (or whatever the self-belief gurus prescribe) will. Except that maybe it does. What I'm beginning to suspect is that it may open your ears to the small voices that say that you can do it, at least sometimes, at least writing, so that you hear them at least as loudly as you do Ann Lamott's chattering mice who say you can't. (If you can put the mice in the jar and screw the lid down tight, so much the better.) Someone published your letter to the local paper; someone (not your mother!) said your story made them cry, or laugh; someone (a real writer!) chose your poem to put in Mslexia. Once you're actually hearing those voices, they become evidence, and self-belief rooted in evidence is something you can build a writing life on.

Comments