The Confidence Trick

By Tania Carver

was talking to a writer friend recently, a famous, bestselling writer friend, and the question of confidence came up. ‘I love it when a reader tells me how much they’ve enjoyed my book,’ my friend said, ‘because until I hear that I think they’re all rubbish.’

I know I shouldn’t have been surprised at this but I was. It reminded me of another conversation I’d had with a writer friend – again famous and bestselling – who said after handing their new book in, ‘This is the one. This is the one where I’m going to be found out.’ It wasn’t.  The book was another bestseller.

I don’t know why I was surprised by what they said, really. Because I don’t think it matters what level you’re operating at, sales-wise, as a writer, you’re always prey to the same doubts and fears.  Last week was the publication of J K Rowling’s first novel since her Harry Potter series. Some of you may be aware of this, it didn’t happen without notice. I would say its had mixed reviews but I don’t think that’s the right word.  Polarised would be a more accurate one.  Some people loved it, some hated it.  The ones who hated it did so mainly because Rowling had written the novel she wanted to write and not the one they had expected her to.  Fair enough. There was a fantastically angry review by Jan Moir in the Daily Mail – which I’m not going to link to as I don’t believe in giving that rag any more publicity – which slated the novel as a socialist tract and left wing propaganda. Considering the Daily Mail is the British newspaper to have supported Hitler and old habits die hard, I would think Rowling would be massively pleased by that. I would be. Some reviews on Amazon complained because characters, just like people in real life, swore.

But other more fair and balanced reviews appeared in other papers. By and large, her book would be judged a success. Despite all the numpties and their negative reviews, others were more positive and sales were, of course, huge.  Well done her.

We were talking about Rowling the other night at home. We’ve been doing that quite a lot recently since she now has the same publisher as the Tania books (In fact the release date for Choked was moved so as not to coincide with hers). Linda is firmly of the opinion that she doesn’t know why Rowling has bothered. ‘If I’d been that successful and made that much money,’ she said, ‘why would I want to open myself up to that kind of scrutiny?  Why would I put my head above the parapet just to have people take a pot shot at me?’ She’s got a good point. But my response was, ‘What else is she going to do? She’s a writer. Why write and not be published?’ Both valid viewpoints but over the last few days I’ve been thinking more about what Linda said. And this reminded me of the two conversations at the start of this piece.

The three of us were all together recently, talking about the same thing.  Confidence in our work. I confessed that I was still waiting for the tap on the shoulder and someone to say, ‘Come on son, you’ve had your fun. But now it’s time to let the real writers in. There’s the door.’ My friends said they felt exactly the same. One of my friends even admitted that they thought they had a double whose place they had taken and who should have been getting all the acclaim. And yet, we still keep doing it.

It’s hard enough to write in the first place. To put your work out there, fearing – and often expecting – the worst, work that you could well have spent at least a year of your life working on, work that’s become precious to you. To let it go and have people hurl whatever they want at it. I’m always amazed when I get a good review. Or rather relieved. I always think about what my friend said earlier: They haven’t found me out yet. Phew. I’ve dodged a bullet this time. But next time . . .

I know, when you examine it, it’s a stupid way to think, behave and conduct a career. But I honestly believe that writers have to do it. You’re driven to write. Compelled to do it. And when you have written you want to be read. You need to be read. Because without a reader a book is just a lump of paper. So you have to do it. And to tell you the truth, if I know any writers who think differently to what I’ve outlined above I doubt I would want to read their books. Feeling that your work is terrible is, I think, a necessary part of the process. It’s what drives you on, keeps you going. Makes you strive to improve, to stretch yourself. To go deeper into that character, further with that situation, make that dialogue better, that description more succinct. You have to. And that’s why I think J K Rowling is no different, despite the slight disparity in earnings with the rest of us. She’s a writer with a writer’s heart and a writer’s drive. And a writer’s willingness to put her work out there and be judged by it when she doesn’t need to. And I love her for that.

So how do we keep the balance? Well, there’s something I always tell creative writing students. It refers to an old interview with Martin Amis when his (some would say last good) novel The Information was about to be published. The book concerns two writers, one who is successful, one who isn’t. The interviewer asked which one he was. ‘Both,’ he said. ‘Usually at the same time.’ When I read that I thought, ‘What a load of pretentious bollocks.’ But the more I thought about that, the more I thought he was right. As a writer when you’re working you have to be both. At the same time. It’s a balancing act, a seesaw, with the brilliantly successful writer at one end and the abject failure at the other. You have to be able to write stuff that you think is absolutely sparkling deathless prose yet at the same time the worst piece of dross ever written and you’ve got to strive to improve on that. It’s an odd way to think but it works. For me, at least. It’s a confidence trick. It keeps me in check while simultaneously making me work harder.

It stops the book I’m currently working on being the one where I’m found out.


4 thoughts on “The Confidence Trick

  1. David Corbett

    Thanks for discussing this, Martyn. You have to have the confidence to dare the empty page, and the humility to go back and make it what it ought to be. You can't do one without the other, and there is indeed a bit of self-puffery needed to get those first words down — that, or a gun to the head.

  2. David Corbett

    Thanks for discussing this, Martyn. You have to have the confidence to dare the empty page, and the humility to go back and make it what it ought to be. You can't do one without the other, and there is indeed a bit of self-puffery needed to get those first words down — that, or a gun to the head.

  3. Jake Nantz

    I'm stealing that last bit for my Creative Writing students. It's so true that it's a little scary. You have to completely believe in your writing to even have the stones to put it out there, yet you have to have those niggling doubts that tell you it's the worst garbage ever spewed on a page, because you have to keep working to make it even passably readable.

  4. PD Martin

    Yes it's definitely a see-saw! And I know what you BOTH mean about JK Rowling
    On one hand it's unlikely shell ever top Potter but if you're a writer you write!

    I guess when you're not JK Rowling you just muddle along 🙂


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