For writers, artists and creative spirits alike, the issue of confidence – or lack thereof is as important as it is complicated. The way in which creatives align their relationship with their own work, and whether they feel confident in it or doubting, can be said in many ways to define any successful creative endeavor.
Reflecting on his poem, friendly advice to a lot of young men, Charles Bukowski explains the issue adroitly:
“The problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt. So the bad writers tend to go on and on writing crap and giving as many readings as possible to sparse audiences. These sparse audiences consist mostly of other bad writers waiting their turn to go on, to get up there and let it out in the next hour, the next week, the next month, the next sometime. The feeling at these readings is murderous, airless, anti-life. When failures gather together in an attempt at self-congratulation, it only leads to a deeper and more, abiding failure. The crowd is the gathering place of the weakest; true creation is a solitary act.”
In a way, then, self-doubt offers an antidote to the arrogance that produces most mediocre art. And this is perhaps a good thing, too, since self-doubt is likely a familiar state to many who attempt to create artistic representations of their inner lives into the outside world.
Of course, to be aware of the propensity to feel doubting in ones work is relatively healthy, as it requires a level of self-awareness and consciousness necessary to keep oneself grounded in that unique space between reality and creativity. Though of course, to be too keenly aware of it, or feel too great a sense of self-doubt, can paralyse any artistic work, as the late, great, David Foster Wallace explains:
“There’s good self-consciousness, and then there’s toxic, paralyzing, raped-by-psychic-Bedouins self-consciousness.”
The inherent problems with self-doubt means it isn’t something we readily or heartily embrace. Instead, we often run from it; we judge it, and we hedge against it using a range of coping mechanisms, many of which backfire into self-loathing. This is to be avoided: “Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt,” Zadie Smith advised in her ten rules for writing.
Few people have captured this exasperating dance with self-doubt better than Virgina Woolf. In Orlando: A Biography, Woolf captures the anguishing self-doubt with which all artists tussle along the creative process:
“Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”
How many of us have similarly spent entire nights awake at keyboards or notebooks, frantically writing word after word in what seems such an intense creative burst that everything that is put to the page must be worth something, only to look at it once the ink has dried, and we have slept a touch, to find ourselves left cold by the words on the page, and feeling a strange sense of disappointment that even in the most intense creative moments we create something that feels lacking in substance or truth?
We doubt ourselves because it is natural to do so; yet while awareness of an artist’s tendency to doubt themselves is healthy, it must always be balanced with a dose of self-esteem.
This is not to encourage over confidence in one’s ability, or to suggest it valuable to ignore feelings of self-doubt in one’s work. Nobody should seek to become one of the boring, over confident writers reading to each other in lonely bookstores as Bukowski warned. Yet Self-esteem for creative people is important because it helps you organise yourself and others around an idea, so that you can take it from just that – an ephemeral thought – into something real and actualised. Human beings have more ideas than we often know what to do with; to make them real takes consistent, persistent application of energy toward that idea. Self-esteem is the foundation from which this persistent application, this driving force, can emerge.
In the constant battle between writing – and re-writing (which requires an ability to revisit work you may find lacking and empty) – the crucial antidote, then, is determination. Just as the long-distance runner must repeat the same process of exercise again and again, we must bring the same commitment to writing; turning up day in, day out, regardless of weather, or whether we feel “inspired” enough; and sitting down at our desks and putting word after word and sentence after sentence, just as we place one foot in front of the other out on the road.
The writer and artist Anna Deavere Smith captures the importance of determination exquisitely in a section of her fantastic Letters to a Young Artist – a compendium of counsel addressed to all of us seeking to engage with the world through art and creativity. On the subject of creative endeavour vs self-doubt, and the importance of determination built on solid foundations of self-esteem, she writes:
“Confidence is a static state. Determination is active. Determination allows for doubt and for humility — both of which are critical in the world today. There is so much that we don’t know, and so much that we know we don’t know. To be overly confident or without doubt seems silly to me.
Determination, on the other hand, is a commitment to win, a commitment to fight the good fight.”