This post is part of Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writer's Support Group blogfest thing. Click the link for more information.
High school is a time for two kinds of people: those with superiority complexes (the jocks and cheerleaders) and those with inferiority complexes (pretty much everyone else). There's not a lot of middle ground there. Go watch pretty much any of the 80s high school movies by John Hughes to get a good look at what it's like. At least, what it was like in the 80s. Or Better Off Dead (which is not by Hughes but still gives a good look at the chasm between the superior and the inferior).
However, the general consensus in psychology is that the superiority complex is just an act. Basically, at the root of both inferiority and superiority complexes, we find vast insecurities. Questions of worth. Belief in inadequacies. It's a hard thing to deal with. And, really, as much as we'd like to think we do, writers do not corner the market on any of those things.
Dealing with one's insecurities is a tremendous task, and it's a task that we are more and more sabotaging in this current day and age. That, also, is not just something that writers do, but I think it can be clearly seen amongst the blogging community of writers.
But let's back up a moment. What is the answer to feelings of insecurity? What do you do to make those pesky things go away?
Yeah, that's easier said than done, right?
I mean, what is confidence? I'm gonna keep it simple, so we'll just say that (self)confidence is a belief in one's own abilities.
Insecurity undermines confidence, and the thing that makes insecurity so common these days is the lack of reliable feedback from, well, everywhere. We live in a positive feedback society, and it makes it impossible to know if you're really doing well or not. [All of this ties into what I said here and all of the related stuff I've been saying since then. And before then.] If everyone is busy saying "you're doing great!", how do you know if you really are?
There are two responses:
1. the traditional: I must really suck, and no one wants to hurt my feelings.
2. the new-fangled: I'm awesome! (if you read yesterday's post, you'll have heard that this response is on the rise in the good ole USofA, right now (as in, it's becoming an issue in the American workforce)).
Both of these come out of an inability to judge our own performance because of a lack of reliable information due to faulty feedback.
You know, I get it. It feels so much better to surround yourself with people that say "oh, you're so great! you're so awesome! I love it and I love you!" It makes you feel better, and it makes them feel better, too, because they don't have to deal with any fallout from saying something negative. But, really, it's just like a diet of constant sugar. Sure, it tastes good, but, ultimately, it's gonna kill you. And, on the way to killing you, it will make everything else taste just godawful bad (see this post for more on how sugar ruins taste (or, actually, how much taste you will discover without sugar)). You will never develop confidence, actual confidence, surrounded by people who only say how great you are.
I mean, face it, how many people do you know that are actually made of AWESOME? Now, how many people do you know that think they are? Or, at least, espouse to that belief.
The thing is, confidence comes from within. It comes from knowing, I mean actually knowing, that you're good at something. Knowing it objectively, not feeling like you're good at it. All that feeling like you're good at something doesn't mean a thing if you actually suck. The problem is coming to an objective knowledge, and you can never come to an objective knowledge of something if you surround yourself with people who only ever tell you good things about it.
So I'm hearing some of you out there right about now protesting that there are no objective measures in something so subjective as writing, but that's where you'd be wrong, because there are objective measures (which I discussed, in part, here), and that's why we get books that a vast majority of people can agree are good and some that people will agree are bad. Sure, it's hard to pinpoint the specific things within a work of art that make it objectively better than some other work of art (do any kind of research on the popularity of Star Wars to see this), but that doesn't mean that those objective things don't exist. When a vast majority of people can agree that something is better than everything else, you can bet there is something objective behind it even if you can't measure what that objective thing is.
We all want to feel confident. We all want to have some ability to judge ourselves. Unfortunately, this starts with having people around us that are willing to tell us where and how we are screwing up. After that, it comes from repeated reliable feedback. Sometimes, as with an athlete, this comes from actual objective, indisputable data: "you ran this race in x seconds, the stop watch says so." Sometimes, this comes from people that are skilled in a particular area and can just tell you where you're falling short: "you're not bending your knees enough." Whatever the source, we need it. We need that thing that is willing to be honest with us about how we are doing if we want to get better.
I actually think that some of us don't want to get better. It's too hard. We'd rather just have people around us telling us how great we're doing and keep right on being sub-par for, well, forever as long as we can keep people around us to tell us we're great and awesome. I guess what you have to decide is whether you do want to get better, and, if you do, find those people that will help you to get there.
And just to give you some personal insight (that I don't think I've previously shared (although I could be wrong)):
For me, all of this started back in college. Well, really, in high school. Or before that. Anyway... I've known, on some level, that I was a good writer since elementary school. It was in high school that I figured that writing would always be a part of my life. It was in college that I decided, somewhat pretentiously, that real writers are poets. I spent my personal writing time (meaning non-assignment related) working on said poetry. I was in this writing group (not just any writing group, but a school group that you couldn't join without first... well, let's just say it was prestigious to be accepted into the group), and I was really pumping out the poetry for it, because, as I said, real writers are poets. The writing group was presided over by the English faculty, so it wasn't just a bunch of students patting each other on the back. We had people with experience in there. Anyway, one day I had this piece that I was particularly proud of that I'd read to an adequate response, meaning what usually happens with poetry, the ones that didn't "get" it said it was good, because they didn't want to be seen as not "getting" it, and the ones that did get it said it was pretty good. Well, except for one professor (the one that all the students feared and dreaded having, but who was the best English prof around). He didn't say anything specific during the meeting, but he did ask me a lot of pressing questions about the piece, questions about why I'd done particular things in my writing, etc, and it wasn't very comfortable, because, at 20, I didn't always have good answers for those things. After the meeting, he pulled me aside and said something to me that caused me to re-evaluate everything about my writing. He said, "This is great prose, but it's horrible poetry." I was too shocked to even be mad or upset about it. I'd never had anyone say anything like that to me before. He went on to tell me that that was often his response to my poetry, that it would be so great if it wasn't poetry. He suggested that I go back and re-write it as prose.
See, the thing is, he was right. I did go back to my room and read that piece again. And again. And again. Later, I wrote it out in paragraph form and read it again. I tweaked bits and parts and filled it out to make the language work, and it was great. When I took it back to the next meeting as a paragraph of writing and read it that way, no one had issues with understanding it, and everyone loved it. It was because he was honest with me, though. What's more, he allowed me to look at my own work from a more objective viewpoint because he had been honest with me about it. As much as I'd like to be, I am not gifted in poetry. I still work with it sometimes and, occasionally, come up with some things that are decent, but it's not my strength. I only work with it as a writing exercise that makes all of my writing stronger.
The point, though, is that we all need someone who can speak to us like that. Someone that will say, without fear, "this is horrible." Someone that we trust to be saying that out of a desire to help rather than put us down or just to make us feel bad. Yeah, that person can be tough to find, but we all need at least one of those.
The path to confidence requires courage. The courage to be honest and accept honest feedback. I hope you all find the strength to walk that path.